Snow (and number of skiers) is falling
Frequent snowstorms in January and February haven’t been enoughto salvage the season for the Aspen Skiing Co. The Skico has steadily lost ground in the number of customerscompared to last season, even though snow conditions have improvedsignificantly over the last six weeks. “When the snows did come, the numbers stayed down,” said SkicoCEO and president Pat O’Donnell. “I must admit, I’m puzzled.”Skico officials reported that skier and snowboarder visits weredown about 11 percent after the important Christmas holiday period.They doubted that deficit could be made up, but were hoping tohold their own for the remainder of the season. That hasn’t happened, said O’Donnell. Business continued to dropbetween New Year’s and Presidents Day weekend. “I would say every day we’re off between 5 and 15 percent,” hesaid. And unless something miraculous happens during the last half ofFebruary and March, he doesn’t see the Skico’s numbers improvingdramatically. “If you had to ask me right now, I’d have to say [the loss] isgoing to stay in double digits,” O’Donnell said. Whole state’s hurting O’Donnell said he’s heard that Colorado’s other resorts are sufferinga similar fate. “We’re not any different here than any place acrossthe state.” Colorado Ski Country USA, the state trade association, reportedthat skier and rider visits were down almost 11 percent for itsmembers as of Dec. 31. The statistics won’t be updated until theend of February. “I don’t think anybody’s seeing a stellar season in Colorado thisyear,” said Colorado Ski County spokeswoman Barbara Jennings.American Skiing Co., the ski resort operator in Steamboat Springs,announced recently it was laying off workers due to less businessthan anticipated. Vail merchants have reported their businesswas off during the two weeks of the World Alpine Championships.The buzz around the ski industry is that Front Range residentsare hitting the Summit County resorts hard during weekends, butthat business is down during the week. Resorts such as Breckenridge, Keystone, Winter Park and CopperMountain paid a steep price to try to lure Front Rangers thisseason. They got into a price war that brought pass prices downto $795 for four people – the lowest in 20 years in some cases.Colorado’s loss, California’s gain? O’Donnell said he suspects Colorado’s loss may be California’sgain this season. Resorts out West have been blessed with amplesnowfall from the season’s start, creating their typical triple-digitsnow bases, and soaring numbers of customers. “Where do these skiers come from in a flat skier market? They’vegot to come from somewhere else, right?” O’Donnell said. Member resorts of the California Ski Industry Association arereporting year-to-date increases of between 10 and 15 percentover last season, said executive director Bob Roberts. And lastseason, he noted, was a record season. Roberts said he doesn’t have statistics yet to indicate if Californiaskiers are staying put this season rather than traveling to placeslike Colorado. Typically there is a market segment that will staywithin the state more often when there’s ample snow, he acknowledged.Los Angeles and Southern California comprise one of the threebiggest markets for the Skico. If more skiers from there decideto stay put, it can quickly drag Aspen’s numbers down. Searching for answers O’Donnell said he and other Skico executives have debated at lengthwhy numbers have sagged even though snow conditions improved somuch in January. O’Donnell issued a warning early in the season that negative publicityover lack of snowfall could build a stigma that would be hardto overcome – even after snow started falling. He’s starting to look like Nostradamus. In this information age, it should be easy for prospective customersto get up-to-date information about snow conditions. Therefore,fears about a lack of snow should be alleviated by now, O’Donnellsaid. But, for whatever reason, people are staying away. The Aspen Chamber Resort Association reported that occupancy amongmembers participating in a survey was 72 percent last month, downfrom 78 percent in January 1998. Current bookings for the month of February produce an occupancyof 75 percent, compared to 85 percent for the month last year.O’Donnell insisted that Aspen isn’t pricing people out of themarket. Resorts that charge less than the Skico’s variable rateof between $59 and $63 for a single-day ticket are also sufferingthrough a slump this season, he noted. “I’m convinced you just can’t blame price for [the decline],”he said. Instead, he thinks the decline boils down to snow conditions or,at least, perceptions of snow conditions. “If every year we need snow up to your neck at Thanksgiving, we’rein trouble,” said O’Donnell.
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