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The Aussies are back in Aspen

ASPEN – If you’re hitting the slopes of Aspen-Snowmass this week, it might help to speak Australian.

Yes, the Aussies are back in force. A year after international business dipped because of the recession, Aspen Skiing Co. officials have high hopes for a rebound.

“The weak U.S. dollar is helping us,” said Skico Senior Vice President David Perry.

Overseas skiers accounted last season for about 21.5 percent of the Skico’s destination business, or the number of lift tickets purchased by customers from out of town. That was down from 23 percent in 2007-08.

When this season got under way, Perry said the Skico would look for a 5 percent increase in international business over last season. He recently said that projection remains reasonable because the currency exchange rate is favorable for residents of Aspen’s major overseas markets.

Ian Purchas, a Sydney resident who organizes an annual conference for Australian accountants and lawyers, said the condition of the economy and the strength of the Aussie dollar is bringing people back to the slopes. His conference has visited North American ski resorts for 11 years, including the past three in Aspen.

The recession whittled attendance of the annual conference down to 60 last year. This year it bounced back to 95, Purchas said. Family and friends boosted total attendance to 215 from 140.

“People feel more confident about the economy,” Purchas said.

It helped that the Aussie dollar gained strength right when people had to decide whether to attend this year’s conference, he said.

Purchas and his wife, Jane Flemming, a former Australian Olympian in the track and field heptathlon, said the buying power for Aussies visiting the U.S. jumped about 25 percent in the last year. The Aussie dollar was worth 68 cents to the U.S. dollar last year, compared to 95 cents this year.

That favorable exchange rate makes Aspen even more attractive. Aussies who haven’t visited the resort before want to come, and former guests want to return. “I think Aspen has so much cachet,” Flemming said.

The attendees in this year’s conference were asked if they want to try a different resort next season after visiting Aspen three straight years. “It was a resounding ‘no,'” she said.

Early January is such a popular time for Aussies to travel because schools are on a six-week break. In addition, many businesses and most of the courts also shut down for a short period to start the new year.

The timing works perfectly because Aussies are filling beds and chairlifts at a time when domestic travel to U.S. resorts is light. For Aspen-Snowmass, the influx of Aussies right now is an important bridge between the holidays and the Winter X Games in late January.

“From what we hear, Americans don’t like to ski in January because it’s so cold,” Flemming said. Australians are so starved for the slopes that they will ski any conditions, she said.

There are signs everywhere that Aspen’s optimism for increased international business is well founded. If Sunday at Snowmass was an indication, you can expect to ride a chairlift with at least one Aussie about half the time this week. In a casual conversation on the Elk Camp Gondola, an Aussie traveling with his family of four said they vacationed in Canada last winter because the exchange rate was more favorable. Once the U.S. dollar weakened, they jumped at the opportunity to return to Aspen.

Some tourist accommodations this year are noticing a higher concentration of travelers from Down Under.

“I’m completely full, and I’d say 85 percent of my customers are Aussies,” Joe Raczak, manager of the North of Nell Condominiums, said Tuesday. “I think our town would be hurting without international” visitors.

Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen-Snowmass, a central reservations business, said just about every major international market for the resorts is up this year compared to last year. Business from Australia is probably growing the most, but it was also down significantly last season, he said.

The bookings from Aspen’s second biggest market, the United Kingdom, are also up despite an unfavorable exchange rate for the British pound. While reservations via Stay Aspen-Snowmass are up, revenues from British travelers aren’t expected to grow.

“Those [who] are traveling are being very frugal with where they are staying,” Tomcich said.

Reservations from Germany are also up while revenues are down, Tomcich said. The number of travelers from Mexico and Canada are also expected to increase this season.

The reservations booked through Stay Aspen-Snowmass by residents of Brazil and Spain are down this season, but Tomcich said a greater number of travelers from those countries are making reservations directly with the properties where they are staying.

“It looks like international business is on a comeback,” Tomcich said.

It will be impossible to know until the season ends if international business accounts for a greater percentage of Skico’s destination business in 2009-10. Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle said it probably won’t bounce back to the 2007-08 level, but the Skico keeps marketing heavily in overseas markets.

“We keep the pedal down,” he said. “It’s all about the long-term commitment and the long-term return.”

scondon@aspentimes.com


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