A mixed bag for Colorado ski season | SummitDaily.com

A mixed bag for Colorado ski season

Summit Daily/Mark Fox

DENVER – As ski season nears its end, there are hints that smaller Colorado ski areas closer to cities had more to cheer about this season than destination resorts.

Many Colorado resorts are still heading into their final weekend of the season, and the trade group Colorado Ski Country USA typically doesn’t release total skier visits at its 22 member resorts until June. The group has said members’ skier visits through Feb. 28 were down 2 percent from the same time last season.

Vail Resorts, which doesn’t belong to the group, said visits through Jan. 31 were down 1.6 percent from the same period last season at its four Colorado resorts: Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone.

Copper Mountain spokesman David Roth said Copper’s skier visits for the 2009-2010 season are on pace to end up just below last season’s numbers. And the resort is heading for the finish line at a full sprint, hoping for big crowds at this weekend’s 10th annual Sunsation Celebration, featuring bands like Steel Pulse and Los Lonely Boys. The resort is also working to boost its skier visits by offering a $39 single-day Swinger’s Pass to anyone who presents a season pass from another ski area.

Among resorts that have closed for the season, Monarch Mountain, west of Colorado Springs, expected to report a record of around 183,000 skier visits, up from the previous high of 176,000 two seasons ago. It positions itself as a laid-back, more affordable ski area.

“People see us as a place to go and ski without having to worry about the hustle and bustle,” spokesman Eric Ramsey said.

Paul Connelly, owner of The Mountains USA reservations service in Frisco, said he saw some budget-conscious travelers steer toward ski areas with fewer frills and lower lift-ticket prices, like Arapahoe Basin, Loveland and Ski Cooper. But for the most part, he said, visitors tried to pinch pennies through lodging deals – not lift-ticket savings.

In January, Connelly organized vacation plans for a group of seven that squeezed into a two-bedroom condo.

“But then they immediately turned around and spent $3,000 on lift tickets without even flinching,” Connelly said. “People kind of expect that hit. When they come to the area, they’re including the price of a lift ticket as a fixed cost in their vacation. If you want to ski the mountains, you’ve got to pay the money.”

Overall, Connelly said tourism-related business in Summit County is beginning to improve again, and he predicted that next season’s discounts may not be as deep as this season’s have been.

Sunlight Mountain Resort in Glenwood Springs said skier days rose 10 percent from last year, while Ski Cooper reported a 6 percent boost. Officials at Eldora Mountain Resort near Boulder also expected an increase but didn’t discuss exact numbers.

The news is mixed from larger, destination ski areas.

Telluride Ski Resort spokesman Tom Watkinson said numbers there should be up, thanks to southern Colorado storms this winter and new terrain. But he didn’t disclose details.

“Telluride has a great buzz going with what we’ve been opening the last three years,” Watkinson said. “People are intrigued. They want to check it out.”

Aspen Skiing Co., which extended skiing for two more weekends in April at Aspen Mountain, expected skier visits would be up in the low, single-digit percentages at its mountains this season, spokesman Jeff Hanle said.

He credited early-season snow, strong international business in January and February, a rebound in domestic group and tour business, and promotions.

“People are starting to get back on the ski bandwagon,” Hanle said.

The snow wasn’t quite as good in northern Colorado, which affected visits to Steamboat, said Andy Wirth, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp.

Wirth said skier visits should be down slightly from the past season, but guests are spending more once they get there. He wouldn’t divulge exact numbers.

Steamboat raised lift ticket prices roughly 1 percent this season and reined in specials offered in the 2008-2009 season, Wirth said. He said he’s pleased with what customers spent on ski lessons, food and drink, equipment rentals and other retail purchases this year, despite weak consumer confidence and below-average snowfall.

“Last season, it took quite a bit of discounting to get customers to spend on those aspects of their ski vacation,” Wirth said.

Aspen Skiing Co. also saw stronger ski school, food and drink, and rental revenues, Hanle said.

Wirth said “robust” sales of season passes offering access to Winter Park, Copper Mountain and Steamboat helped Steamboat lure Front Range visitors and maintain its market share.

Wirth estimated visits from the destination market was off a couple of percentage points from last year.

– Julie Sutor contributed to this report.

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