Summit County ski resort bigwigs usher in season at annual breakfast | SummitDaily.com

Summit County ski resort bigwigs usher in season at annual breakfast

Sebastian Foltz
sfoltz@summitdaily.com

Left to right, Alan Henceroth, John Buhler (Keystone), Gary Rodgers (Copper), Pat Campbell (Breckenridge) and Rob Goodell (Loveland) sit down for a panel discussion on ski area issues during the annual Summit County COO Breakfast.

The 2014-15 ski season had its unofficial kickoff Thursday with the Summit County Chamber of Commerce's annual COO Breakfast. Chief operating officers from Loveland Ski Area, Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, Keystone Resort, Breckenridge Ski Resort and Copper Mountain Resort each took to the stage at Copper's conference center to discuss what's new at their ski areas for the coming season and to talk about some of the industry's current issues, trends and concerns.

The COOs participated in a panel discussion that was moderated by Ralf Garrison of Destimetrics, a research company that monitors lodging and tourism industry trends.

The group discussed a wide range of issues including the California drought and its impact locally; expansion plans in Utah; Beaver Creak hosting the 2015 FIS World Championships and the potential local benefits; marijuana legalization; and what can be done to replace baby boomers who may be leaving the sport.

The group collectively expressed concern about the West Coast drought and its effect on the industry as a whole.

"It's been a tough couple of seasons out there," Breckenridge COO Pat Campbell said. And while in the short term that might benefit Colorado with more ski area visits, she added, "Long term it's to all of our benefit to have a vibrant, active, good ski season in California."

Copper's Gary Rodgers echoed the idea. "I don't think it benefits the industry to have a key region like Tahoe or California go through such a tough period," he said. "It just gives the media something to focus on."

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The group expressed a similar concern for the effect of legalizing marijuana. The prevailing thought was that the atmosphere at each respective mountain remains unchanged, but efforts may be necessary to educate the public — specifically destination tourists looking for a family atmosphere.

"We got off to a rough start with it," A-Basin COO Alan Henceroth said. "In the end it settled down very quickly."

FINISHING STRONG

Before introducing each of the COOs, Garrison told the audience that there is a clear connection between a strong finish to the previous season and early-season bookings for the following year. He also said that early-season snowfall can benefit bookings among destination tourists later in the year.

"How you start out has a lot to do with how you end up," he said.

As for the bigger picture, he presented data reinforcing the industry's continued recovery from the economic downturn at the end of the last decade. The trend since 2008-09 has been upward, with annual growth now approaching pre-downturn levels.

He further explained that lodging occupancy rose by 4.6 percent last year alone in Summit County, compared with a decrease of 8.9 percent in ski areas farther west that have seen down years due to drought. Still, the trend nationally has been one of recovery.

Garrison cited an increase in the consumer confidence index and decreased unemployment nationally as part of the reason for the upward trend.

Summit County also saw an impressive 11 percent increase in overall revenue last year, according to his company's research.

IN WITH THE NEW

As for the resorts themselves, there were no earth-shattering announcements or revelations, just a hope to build on last year's success.

Some of the COOs did present noteworthy additions. Chief among them was Breck's Campbell describing the new Colorado Chair at the base of Peak 8. The resort replaced the old lift with a new six-seat chair that will increase rider capacity from 2,800 to 3,600 skiers per hour. The lift is expected to be ready for the resort's Nov. 7 opening.

Keystone COO John Buhler discussed some redesigns in the resort's Outback terrain. The capacity of the Outback lift has been expanded by 20 percent, and the unloading area at the top has been widened and a viewing deck has been added to take in the surrounding scenery. He also emphasized the resort's continued commitment to promoting a family-friendly atmosphere and a variety of learn-to-ski options.

"We've found our niche," he said. "We're all about family."

Henceroth discussed his mountain's commitment to growing the sport through a new kids' snowsports facility, a stand-alone building that's expected to be completed by spring break of next year.

He also updated the crowd on the progress of the ski area's 430-acre Beavers expansion proposal. Its environmental impact statement is currently under review by the Forest Service. The ski area's officials hope for approval of the plan sometime next year and for construction to begin in 2016.

Copper's Gary Rodgers emphasized his resort's focus on The 12's, the terrain on the three peaks above 12,000 feet. Last year that plan included two new tow lifts above tree line. Rodgers also lauded his team's efforts to attract more than 200 races and events throughout the season, including hosting the U.S. Ski Team's annual Speed Center early-season training facility. He also announced the expansion of the Sherpa program, Sherpa 2.O, a smartphone app designed to assist guests in navigating the mountain.

For his part, Loveland COO Rob Goodell announced with pride that the resort received the most snow in Colorado last season with 474 inches — fifth most in the nation.

Last year's snow allowed the ski area to begin its snowcat operations a full month ahead of schedule. He also entertained the crowd with what apparently has become his annual bathroom update, a running joke among presenters. This year the mountain will add a new warming hut — complete with restroom — and finish renovations of its cafeteria. Loveland is also adding a new magic carpet lift in its learning area.

Each COO also updated the audience on various sustainability initiatives and efforts to reduce waste.

The annual breakfast ended with a discussion panel. Chief among the collective concerns was continuing to adapt to a changing market.

"We can never be complacent," Henceroth said.