Summit County ski area leaders talk industry trends at 21st annual COO Breakfast
Every fall, one Summit County breakfast draws hundreds of people hungry for morsels of ski industry updates.
About 400 ski industry insiders and outsiders — those whose livings or lifestyles or both rely on local ski areas — gathered in Breckenridge on Tuesday, Oct. 6, for the yearly winter pep rally and resort breakdown.
“This time of year for us is like a young child waiting for their birthday,” said Rob Goodell, Loveland Ski Area director of business operations.
The 21st annual COO Breakfast featured presentations from the COOs of Summit County’s four ski areas as well as Loveland, which lies just outside the county’s eastern border.
This year, the breakfast was organized by The Summit Chamber, sponsored by St. Anthony Summit Medical Center and Denver Water and held at Beaver Run Resort and Conference Center. Tickets sold out in six days, and proceeds from the event and its silent auction go toward scholarships for local students.
Ralf Garrison, of the Denver-based resort industry analyst Destimetrics, spoke about market trends and forecasts.
He presented graphs with data from 2007 to 2015 that showed how industry revenues dropped with the recession and climbed slowly over the last six or seven years.
Compared to 2013-14, last winter was up 11 percent in overall lodging revenues across the U.S. mountain resort industry, he said, and the Rocky Mountain region trended higher still.
He touched on national and international factors affecting spending, including unemployment, market volatility, a strong dollar and cheap oil, which have been working overall in the ski industry’s favor. He anticipated positive growth would continue but said his forecast comes with increasing uncertainty.
For the coming winter, data compiled through August for lodging revenue into February shows a 15 percent gain over the 2014-15 season for Summit compared to a 9-percent gain across the industry.
“We’ve made it back,” he said. “Things are good, but we’re on guard.”
For international context, he said, the U.S. recorded 54 million skier visits last season, slightly under those in France and just above those in Austria.
Garrison then estimated Summit County’s skier visits last season at 4.65 million. If the county was a state, its skier visits fell under California’s and just above Utah’s and Vermont’s.
“This is a compelling argument for the annexation of Loveland,” he said. If measured by skier visits, the epicenter of the industry lies 3 miles south of Frisco.
“You are as close to the center of the ski industry as you could possibly be.”
That ranking shows how powerful the county could be if its various industry players united, he said, but “Summit County has a little bit of a Rodney Dangerfield complex.”
Summit ski industry folks think their resorts don’t carry as much clout or respect as resorts in Vail, Aspen and elsewhere, when in reality the Summit ski areas combined are the 900-pound gorilla, he said.
He challenged the Summit ski areas to work together, but he said he doubted collaboration would happen because of corporate competition.
Record-breaking summer business continues to grow, and gains on peak days in 2015 were sometimes 20 to 30 percent higher than 2014 boosted by holidays and special events, he said.
Garrison encouraged the resort players to stabilize their businesses by spreading it out more through the weeks and months of the year.
“You are running out of discretionary beds during high season,” he said, and, if occupied rooms weren’t the problem, it would be full parking lots or traffic jams.
PUSH PEAKS INTO VALLEYS
The five ski area COOs gave individual presentations and showed videos of powder days, mountain scenery and costume contests as well as rankings and stats. Soundtracks featured piano melodies, electric guitar riffs and lots of classic rock.
This year’s event added a text-driven, audience-polling feature to gauge interest in the handful of topics chosen by each COO.
Breckenridge Ski Resort COO John Buhler said his updates weren’t as exciting as in years past.
“We didn’t build. We didn’t add on,” he said “I have no bathrooms to talk about.”
The audience poll showed people wanted to hear most about the resort’s relationship with the town of Breckenridge, and Buhler talked about the parking and transit tax dispute and agreement that town residents will be able to vote on this fall.
The $3.5 million tax guarantee from the resort to the town, if passed, “is absolutely a home run for our community,” he said.
He then moved to Vail Resorts acquisitions, including the development of Park City and the most recent purchase of Perisher, Australia’s largest ski resort. Australians like to ski in Japan and Canada, so the company hopes the acquisition will draw them to Colorado.
Buhler updated the crowd on Breck’s summer activity additions, which should begin construction in 2016, and lift lines became a running joke after he talked about the newest Epic Mix mobile app feature that will allow skiers and riders to view crowd-sourced lift wait times.
“I was kind of confused that we would do this at Breck, weren’t you? If we were to have a line …” he said, pausing for laughter before describing how the app works and calling it another “huge home run” for destination visitors.
Garrison said the larger efforts at Breckenridge are examples of ways to push business peaks into valleys like he suggested.
The other four COOs went over capital improvements, business trends and other developments at their ski areas.
Arapahoe Basin COO Alan Henceroth said the Beavers expansion is not on hold but taking longer than expected after the ski area removed snowmaking and a two-stage zipline from its proposal.
“This process is rolling full-steam ahead,” he said. “We are extremely, extremely excited about this process.”
Goodell said Loveland was open 185 days last season, short of its usual 200-day goal, and the ski area received about 100 fewer inches of snow than average. Still, the season’s business ended in the ski area’s top five.
Keystone Resort COO Mike Goar said he arrived this year after 30 years in Summit County, Utah, and “Summit County, Colorado, is indeed the center of the ski universe.”
Copper Mountain Resort COO Gary Rodgers said last November was the second snowiest on record, and business fared well despite below-average snowfall for the rest of the season.
“We cannot buy better marketing than early snow messaging,” he said.
He and Goar both mentioned the El Niño weather phenomenon that they believe means a higher chance of good snow for skiing this year.
Garrison said, as an analyst, he doesn’t talk much about weather because snow on the ground doesn’t correlate with visitation in a straightforward way. Snow equity, or the perception of good snow based on reports and hype from the previous season, has more of an impact.
ISSUES TO WATCH
No one mentioned recreational marijuana legalization, which was a hot topic in 2014, but some of the COOs got a little political.
Henceroth mentioned the county’s workforce housing crisis and encouraged everyone to learn about and support the tax issue on the ballot this fall that would continue to help fund the county housing authority.
Garrison said, “That phenomenon isn’t going to change without some great pre-meditation.”
Rodgers mentioned the resort’s sustainability efforts and challenged more lodging companies to participate in the National Forest Foundation’s Summit Fund, which helps fill in funding gaps for local Forest Service efforts.
All the ski areas operate on permitted national forest land and must seek U.S. Forest Service analysis and approval for major changes. Meanwhile Forest Service employees say slashed federal funding means they must take on fewer ski area proposals and reduce their public land management efforts.
Goodell and Rodgers both touched on a pending Colorado Supreme Court decision on in-bounds avalanches that ski area operators are watching closely. They said they believe avalanches are an inherent risk of resort skiing, and their teams will be working on the liability issue.
Rodgers challenged ski area operators to think differently about their demographics and said Copper recently created a millennial task force.
The ski industry was built around baby-boomer values, he said, but industry leaders should be changing their communication and marketing to reflect the customers and employees they are trying to attract.
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