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Weak U.S. dollar boosts Aspen business

From left, Simone Gately, Archie Kennedy and Dennis Gately, all from Australia, ride the Exhibition Chairlift at Highlands last week. Kennedy has been coming to Aspen to ski for 10 years, and plans on returning again next year. (Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times)
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ASPEN ” Aspen’s cosmopolitan appeal is working overtime this season.

If all goes as planned, more than one in five skier visits logged by the Aspen Skiing Co. this winter will be travelers from outside the United States.

International business accounted for about 18 percent of the Skico’s 1.44 million skier and rider visits last season. Skico officials hope to boost their international market business by another 3 to 5 percent this year, pushing it beyond 20 percent, said Kristin Rust, Skico’s international public relations director.

Assuming the Skico racks up 1.44 million skier visits again this winter, that means international travelers will account for at least 288,000 visits.

“We definitely expect an increase in international visitors,” Rust said.

The weak dollar is helping the Skico achieve its goal.

“It certainly makes a big difference to us booking a holiday here,” said Janet Brooks, a Brit who lives near Liverpool and was on a ski vacation in Aspen last week.

She said she and her traveling partner might not have come to Aspen without the favorable exchange rate. As a retired teacher, Brooks watches expenses.

They booked their trip in June, spurred by the favorable rate of exchange. Brooks said she converted her pounds to dollars and saved them for the trip. They were staying at the Tyrolean, one of the last affordable old ski lodges remaining in Aspen. Her airfare was about $980, with a direct flight from London to Chicago, then on to Aspen.

The U.K. is the Skico’s second biggest international market, trailing only Australia. Rounding out the top five are Brazil, Germany, and Mexico and Canada.

Ian Purchas recently organized a conference that attracted 115 accountants and lawyers from Australia to Aspen. With friends and family members of attendees, the group totaled about 250 people.

Purchas, reached by e-mail, said the weak U.S. dollar influenced his ability to hold the conference in Aspen. In the bigger picture, he thinks that’s luring more skiers stateside from his country.

“When our dollar dropped dramatically in 2001, a lot more Australian skiers started going to Canada,” Purchas wrote. “There has been a migration back to the States because of our dollar now being stronger.”

The weak U.S. dollar alone isn’t enough to automatically draw overseas business to Aspen. It is after all, still Aspen ” playground of the rich and famous, and priced accordingly.

The Skico markets aggressively overseas and offers discounts to groups. Purchas said his Australian group’s trip was more affordable because of discounts offered by the Skico and The Gant, the property where they stayed. The efforts by the Skico and Gant benefited the town as a whole by securing a group of 250 people.

“Each of those visitors will spend a reasonable amount of money during their stay, which adds bottom line dollars to the organizations’ figures and helps stimulate the economy of the town,” Purchas wrote.

Skico has aggressively marketed overseas for 25 seasons, Rust said. Company representatives attend ski shows, primarily targeting tour operators. Even during tough economic times ” when other resorts temporarily gave up on the international market ” the Skico kept marketing overseas.

“We didn’t back off after 9/11. We forged ahead,” Rust said.

Aspen also continues to host World Cup ski races, in part, for the exposure in Europe. Between 35 and 55 million viewers watch the women’s races that Aspen hosts, Skico officials have said.

“It keep us in the forefront of the Euro’s minds as well as ” assuming there is good snow ” it gives us the best early season snow messaging we can get out there.”

The emphasis on international marketing appears to be paying off. Aspen and Snowmass are among the most popular resorts among foreign travelers. Skico’s share of international business runs well ahead of the U.S. industry average. About 5.6 percent of the 55 million skier and rider visits at ski resorts across the country came from foreign travelers last season, according to the National Ski Areas Association. The weak dollar and excellent snow conditions across the country will “probably tip the scale” in favor of a record year for international business for U.S. resorts, said NSAA president Michael Berry.

Genevieve Lawson, a Brit in Aspen on a working holiday, said the promise of good snow conditions is nearly as important as the weak U.S. dollar in attracting Brits to the U.S. rather than Europe.

“Last year it was a disaster in Europe,” she said.

Lawson works as a volunteer for the Ski Club of Great Britain, the largest of its kind in the country. She was enlisted to come to Aspen for three weeks. She hits the slopes by day, trying to hook up with fellow Brits and convince them to join the ski club. At night, she sets up shop at the Hotel Jerome bar between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. to answer questions from anyone checking out the club. Lawson constantly sends reports about snow conditions and skiing to media outlets back in the U.K.

She isn’t paid for her efforts, but many of her expenses are covered by the ski club. The Skico hosts Lawson, lining up accommodations and providing lift tickets during her stay. In return, the Skico hopes the ski club steers business to Aspen.

After hooking up with Brits for the last week, Lawson said it’s clear the weak dollar is helping draw people.

“It makes a holiday a good value for a change,” she said.

Many middle class Brits don’t have a lot of disposable income right now, so the better value is an important factor in their decision to take a trip. For some well-heeled Brits, the money doesn’t make a difference. They are well off and have the ability to come to Aspen regardless of the exchange rate, both Lawson and Rust noted.

The Skico prides itself on a high rate of return business. It’s no different with the international market. “Once we’ve got ’em, we’ve got ’em,” Rust said.

Lawson agreed. The town is beautiful and has lots of character, she said. The skiing is “amazing” and the people are nice.

“How can you come here and not want to come back?” Lawson asked.

Many lodges in Aspen and Snowmass Village piggyback on the Skico’s overseas marketing effort. The Gant and Silvertree Properties are two lodges that belong to the International Alliance, a marketing partnership organized by Skico. Representatives of participating lodges are invited to attend overseas tour operator shows.

The international market emerged as an important one within the last decade for the Snowmass Village’s Silvertree Hotel, Wildwood Hotel and Village Property Management, according to John Quigley, senior vice president of Silvertree Properties. This winter, international business is up 30 percent for the company. Quigley has no doubt why.

“Probably for the same reason I’m not going to Italy ” the exchange rate,” he said.

Travel patterns sparked the lodging industry’s interest in the international market. Quigley and Eric Peck, director of sales and marketing for The Gant, said international guests tend to stay about twice as long as domestic guests. International travelers typically stay up to 10 nights.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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