Ski industry leaders gather to discuss winter plans, drum up ski season excitement
This year’s gathering of Summit County’s ski industry professionals at the annual Ski Area COO Summit felt nearly pre-pandemic, with an in-person event and industry leaders focusing on tourism data, new ski area features and general stoke for the upcoming ski season.
Alan Henceroth, chief operating officer of Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, kicked off the ski area speeches by reiterating that A-Basin’s goal is to focus on quality over quantity.
“About 2 1/2 years ago, we set off on a journey,” Henceroth said. “We had reached a point where we — at least on weekends — we were just busier than we could possibly handle. … We knew we had to change things. We had to figure out a way to focus on the guest, focus on their experience, make it a better place for our employees to work and just not be quite so busy on those peak days.”
Henceroth said that by March 2020, A-Basin was exactly where it wanted to be before the season was disrupted by the pandemic. That month, Henceroth reported that skier visits were down 35% after the ski area ditched the Epic Pass.
Henceroth made it clear he wants A-Basin to be full, but not overfull, and he noted that the ski area had already sold 90% of the passes it intends to sell for the season.
While speaking about the ski area’s decision to require employees to be vaccinated — A-Basin was the first local ski area to make such an announcement — Henceroth said the decision was not made lightly and that he thinks it’s the best way to keep employees and guests safe as well as minimize business disruption.
The all-in-good-fun opening day competition between A-Basin and Keystone Resort kicked off with Henceroth’s closing comments:
“We are going to open as soon as we can. I can’t wait to hear what Chris Sorensen has to say,” Henceroth said about Keystone’s new vice president and general manager.
Sorensen kept the banter going by saying he overheard Henceroth in an earlier interview:
“His last question was, ‘When is the Basin going to open?’ And I knew the answer. So I can promise you Keystone will open two hours earlier than that,” Sorensen said, referencing a surprise early opening by A-Basin in October 2019.
Sorensen said the resort is ready to make snow once it’s cold enough, and he announced what he called Keystone Kickoff, which will feature certain days — Nov. 12, Nov. 19 and Dec. 3 — when passholders can start the ski day an hour early and get free breakfast. He highlighted associated activities, including a Halloween scavenger hunt.
Jody Churich, Breckenridge Ski Resort’s new vice president and chief operating officer, also announced opening events, including the annual Wake Up Breck! tradition and the ribbon cutting on the new South Gondola Parking Structure on Nov. 11 before the resort opens Nov. 12.
Churich noted changes in health protocols at Breckenridge and Keystone compared with last year, including ditching the reservation system and loading lifts and gondolas at full capacities. She said guests would not be required to wear masks in any outdoor areas, including on chairlifts and in gondolas.
Churich added that the deadline for Vail Resorts’ employees to be vaccinated is Nov. 15.
Addressing crowds, Churich said the resort is working to educate guests about the flow of the mountain and where the best place might be for each individual to ski.
“We are inviting everyone to our birthday party, and we’re thinking about that as it relates to moving people around the mountain,” Churich said in reference to Breckenridge’s 60th year in operation. “We want all the beginners and all the people that are looking for that low-angle terrain, to go to Peak 9. If you want a party, come on over to Peak 8. But if you really want that high-Alpine terrain and skiing and the best of the best of the spring, head on out to Peaks 6 and 7.”
Copper Mountain Resort President and General Manager Dustin Lyman said the resort would also ditch its reservation system this year, which in Copper’s case was for parking, and said the goal is “preserving the guest experience.”
Lyman also said Copper is testing its snow guns and plans to start making snow next week. He noted that Phase 2 of Copper’s employee housing project, Sky Chutes Landing, will be available this season.
Lyman also talked about the mountain’s new brand, dubbed The Athlete’s Mountain, and said the resort will host new amateur and pro competitions this year.
Rob Goodell, Loveland Ski Area’s chief operating officer, said the ski area is adding onto its on-hill facility, tripling indoor seating capacity and adding to the ski and ride school with a 14,000-square-foot addition. Also, the Clear Creek County Collaborative Care Center will open up at the resort to provide health care beginning Oct. 11.
While Loveland is not requiring staff members to be vaccinated, masks are required indoors this season and only half-day ski and ride lessons will be available, though Goodell said these precautions will be reevaluated later in the season.
Katie Barnes from Inntopia, a marketing and e-commerce platform, talked about this year’s expected occupancy numbers and other factors influencing tourism this ski season. She pointed out that inflation is up and available rooms in Summit County are down.
According to the company’s lodging data, which is collected from about 3,500 Summit County units, the number of available room nights in Summit County this summer is down 4% compared to the same period in 2019, while availability is expected to be down nearly 10% this winter compared with the 2019-20 season.
“Summit County has seen some record real estate sales. When real estate tends to switch hands, the purpose of that unit may change. It could turn into a long-term unit, it could turn into a second home or primary residence,” Barnes said, acknowledging that homes are likely not turning into long-term rentals given housing shortages in the area. “Basically, it’s less places for customers to sleep.”
Barnes pointed out that with the decline in supply of lodging for tourists comes an increase in price. She said the average daily lodging rate this winter in Summit County is up 16% compared with last season. Occupancy for the 2021-22 winter season compared to the 2019-20 season is flat, while the average daily rate is up 20%.
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