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Tourist visits see big drop

The Aspen Skiing Co. has experienced a double-digit drop in businessso far during the 1998-99 ski season. It might be lucky comparedto the industry overall. Statewide figures will be released today by Colorado Ski CountryUSA, the state trade association. Speculation in the industryhas been that many resorts are taking a beating this season. Colorado resorts logged 12 million skier and rider visits collectivelylast season. That mark will be difficult to match. Nationally, the picture isn’t much prettier, although pocketsof success can be found in California and individual resorts suchas Taos. Industry insiders doubt that national skier and snowboardrider visits will hit the 54.1 million recorded last season. “I’ll never say never, but it’s unlikely,” said National Ski AreasAssociation spokeswoman Stacy Gardner. For the Aspen Skiing Co., the season started slowly and neverrecovered. “Our business, as reported to Ski Country, is 12 percent down,”said Skico Senior Vice President John Norton. “Our tourist numbersare about 14 1/2 percent down.” In other words, when locals’ season-pass use is factored in, theSkico’s numbers aren’t quite so bad. But when only ticket salesto groups or individuals are considered, the drop in businesscompared to last season is more severe.The Skico registered 1.56 million skier and rider visits lastseason at its four ski areas. A decrease of 12 percent at season’send would drop the number to 1.37 million visits.Skico IDs four factors Norton, who takes over April 1 as the Skico’s chief operatingofficer, said he believes there are four major factors for theSkico’s decline in business: below-average snowfall early in theseason; less airline service; fewer tourist accommodations available;and the strength of Whistler, British Columbia, and other Canadianresorts. In addition, weakened economies in Australia and Brazil have been”minor influences” on the Skico’s fate this season, accordingto Norton. Norton and Skico President and CEO Pat O’Donnell have insistedthroughout this season that pricing wasn’t dragging their numbersdown. They have faced some local criticism for having the most expensivesingle-day ticket price in the country. The Skico executives counterthat multiday tickets and other discounts provide good value forthe skiing experience. They also contend that lift ticket prices are only a small partof that experience. Prices in lodging and travel, in particular,have a greater bearing on the overall price of a trip.Uncontrollable factorsNorton said half of the factors responsible for the drop in business- snow and Canadian competition – obviously cannot be controlled.Reservations in Aspen and Snowmass Village were actually aheadof last season’s pace until concerns surfaced about snow conditionsin December. “We didn’t recover from that even though the snow started gettingbetter in mid-January,” Norton said. In this information age, it was assumed that skiers who book theirvacations later would use tools like the Internet to learn aboutconditions. That’s why it is so frustrating that reservationsdidn’t bounce back with snow conditions. “I’m left scratching my head about why the message didn’t getout faster about good snow conditions,” Norton said. “Fortunately, we had better snow conditions that most of the restof the state of Colorado,” he said. “Unfortunately most of thesnow reports come out of Summit County and Vail.” People across the country contact friends on the Front Range forthe inside scoop on snow conditions, Norton speculated. Theircontacts are probably people who are most familiar with resortscloser to home. Even before the season started, Colorado Ski Country executivedirector John Frew said he could predict the outcome of the seasonif someone could tell him how much it would snow. “This is an easy business – if it snows, they’re there,” he said.NSAA’s Gardner noted that more resorts than usual were dealingwith below-average snow conditions this season. “Traditionally one-half of the country seems to have good conditionsand one-half doesn’t,” she said. This year it was more like two-thirdsbattling poor conditions, Gardner noted.Whistler capitalizesWhistler, already a top-ranked and top-drawing resort, benefitedfrom better-than-average early snowfall and the weak Canadiandollar. With the exchange rate making trips to Canada cheaperfor many Americans and Europeans, Aspen undoubtedly lost businessto its neighbor to the north, said Norton. The Skico plans to focus on issues it can influence, like airlineaccess and accommodations. It is doubtful that United Airlines will face substantial competitionin Denver, Norton said, so the key is to seek ways to lure companiesthat can fly directly into Aspen with smaller aircraft. “It hasn’t been this difficult to get to Aspen in years and years,”he said. Norton also sees a need for the company to get involved in lobbyingthe Aspen City Council to stop allowing conversions of small lodgesinto different uses. The Skico’s statistics indicate the rentalbed base has decreased between 8 and 9 percent in recent years.


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