Skico starts fresh after tough season |

Skico starts fresh after tough season

The Aspen Skiing Co. hopes to erase the memory of a lackluster performance last winter with the start of a new ski season this long holiday weekend.

The Skico is trying to bounce back from an 8.2 percent drop in skier and snowboard rider visits during 1998-99.

The company logged about 1.43 million skier visits last season at Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass, compared to 1.56 million the season before.

The entire ski industry took a hit last season. In Colorado, visits were down about 5 percent. Nationwide, resorts logged about 2 million fewer skier and rider visits.

Skico President and CEO Pat O’Donnell wouldn’t disclose how big an increase his company is seeking this season. Typically, the Skico shoots for annual growth of between 2 and 4 percent. This season, the goal is greater because last season was so bad.

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“I can’t go to my ownership group and basically say we’re going to add three or four percent on top of a horribly bad year,” said O’Donnell. Discounted ticket popular The Skico expects to boost business with its discounted multiday lift tickets. The best deal – the six-day ticket – reduces the price to $39 per day.

Sales of that ticket have been picking up steam throughout November as the Dec. 1 purchase deadline looms, according to Skico Chief Operating Officer John Norton.

“Between the foot of fresh snow we’ve received, the snowy Broncos game on national television and the impending December 1 deadline, we are probably handling more people than a big mall,” said Norton.

He previously predicted that the Skico would have a good feel for how the season will go by the time sales of the discounted tickets conclude at the end of the day Dec. 1.

“My guess right now is we’ll call that program a success, but … we’ll know more in April,” he said.

O’Donnell said the discounted ticket is particularly popular among return visitors. However, many of those visitors are people who haven’t taken a winter trip here for the last three seasons or more, he said. Snow: The `X’ factor One unknown factor, as it is every season, is snowfall. Although lifts opened early to start the 1998-99 season, the skies cleared until the around New Year’s Day.

The Skico, and much of the ski industry, never recovered from customers’ perceptions of poor snow conditions.

“Last year’s Christmas traveler came home and said, `there’s not very good snow,'” Norton said. “We were never able to shake that.”

This season also got off to an inauspicious start when the Skico had to postpone the Nov. 20 scheduled openings at Snowmass and Aspen Mountain. They opened Thanksgiving Day instead, thanks to a foot of new snow that fell Sunday and Monday.

In hindsight, an armchair quarterback could ask why the Skico scheduled the opening so early in light of last season’s experience. But Norton isn’t second-guessing himself.

Half the time there’s good early-season snow, so it’s worth the risk of a postponement to a later date, he said.

But O’Donnell said the ski industry has put itself in a difficult position by building customers’ expectations for the early season. The weather we’ve experienced so far this season is typical, so “we’ve kind of done this to ourselves,” he said.

“We keep putting the expectations earlier and earlier and earlier,” said O’Donnell. “It used to be if you got through Christmas it was a win-win situation where the consumer was happy and we were happy and it was a great start to the season.

“By gosh we’re all the way back to the twentieth of November now and people are disappointed. Granted it is a bit of a warm wave going on,” he conceded.

In reality, O’Donnell said, to get open by Thanksgiving with some natural and man-made snow “is pretty good” when typical weather patterns are considered.

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