Skiers return en masse to Colo. snow slopes

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Vail Mountain set a record for cumulative year-to-date snowfall with 141.25 inches as of Monday. The total surpassed the 1985-1986 season record of 140 inches.

The slopes will be crowded this season – at least at Colorado’s destination ski resorts, where advance reservations have increased each month since August.
According to the Mountain Travel Research Program, a resource information business that gathers and analyzes data at the nation’s ski resorts, Colorado resorts saw an increase of 15 percent in advance reservations in August. The number fell to 4 percent above last year’s after the hurricanes in September, and October’s report also was 4 percent above last year’s figures.
“We’re seeing a reversal of all the things that happened in the nation since 2000 – Sept. 11, reversals in wealth. People weren’t traveling,” said Ralf Garrison, director of MTRiP. “People weren’t vacationing. What we’re seeing now is a long-term recovery of that. The vacationing market is proving to be more resilient, particularly after the hurricanes this summer and a rise in gas prices.”
Most of the advance reservations for the winter Colorado tourism season come from international travelers. With poor snowfall last winter in some of Canada’s most popular resorts, Colorado is positioned to see huge gains in travel as people seek the best places to ski, Garrison said.
“We’ve had very strong early snowfall,” he said. “And ask any resort, if they want snow early or late, and they’ll always say early. It creates a buzz that the good snow is in the Colorado Rockies.”
International travelers nearly disappeared from Colorado ski resorts in the wake of Sept. 11, Garrison said. But now, they are returning.
“The dollar has been weak against other currencies,” he said. “That leads more people to visit here. Combine that with poor snowfalls other places; wet weather on snow makes for ice – and the Colorado Rockies become a major destination.”
The international travelers book far ahead, in order to get the best airfare and room rates. Much of the 15 percent increase in August in overall bookings was due to advance bookings from people in other countries, he said.
American tourists are currently making their vacation plans, he said, as memories of hurricanes Rita and Katrina fade. Skiers usually book their yearly vacations, regardless of the economic circumstances, he said.
“The American consumer has a short memory,” he said. “And as gas prices drop, they are booking winter trips. There are two types of ski tourists – baby boomers, who are generally insulated economically from the kind of problems we had this summer; and Generation Y, the echo boomers, who will do whatever it takes to get to the ski slopes. They don’t care if they have to eat mac-and-cheese for a month, they’re going to ski.”
Vail resorts are among those seeing a boost in tourism travel. According to the Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Board, reservations for overnight stays at Vail’s hotels and resorts were up by 45 percent compared to last year – just for the month of November alone.
“This is significant,” said spokesman Ian Anderson. “November typically is not a great month for us. We contribute the increase to improved national economy and lower gas prices. The early snow that we’re seeing – particularly in the last week of November – has also driven traffic.”
Vail also has improved tourist destinations, Anderson said.
“We have some new products, some new hotels and renovations,” he said. “That might be generating some interest. But, mostly, we have snow early in the season. People know the skiing here is good, so they come here instead of other resorts.”
Early snow is always a benefit, Garrison said. Another reason for the increase in Colorado ski tourism is that the mountains are higher in Colorado.
“They were skiing in rain at Whistler last year,” he said. “And once you’ve done that, you realize that the skiing is better where the altitude is there. Whistler’s highest point is actually lower – by thousands of feet – than almost all the base areas of ski resorts in Colorado. People are savvy about that; they are paying attention to the altitude now, and realizing that the best snow is up higher.”
Does all the increased traffic affect Colorado Springs tourism? Not much, say media planning experts.
“We don’t plan much winter advertising for Colorado Springs,” said Brent Richey at PRACO Public Relations Advertising Co., the advertising company for Experience Colorado Springs at Pike’s Peak, formerly the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. “We don’t have the air traffic necessary to bring people through here; we do have some drivers from Texas, but there’s no way to ensure they stop here.”
Colorado Springs does much of its marketing for spring and summer tourism, recently adding a fall tourism push because marketing studies showed it as a “shoulder season” destination for older travelers. The city has become a new spot for heritage tourists, people who visit a destination because of its historical significance.
Dianne Perea, marketing manager for Experience Colorado Springs, said the avid skier was not a visitor avidly pursued by the bureau.
“We could be a hub for the skier to go out to the resorts from here,” she said. “We offer room rates that are slightly more affordable. But it isn’t a market we aggressively go after. But, Colorado Springs is becoming a year round destination – we just focus more on the convention and meetings business in the winter months. And, in January and February, we have sporting events that draw quite a few people into the city.”
Garrison said that day travelers from Colorado Springs will feel the effects of the increased numbers of overnight visitors to the state’s resorts. Deals for ski passes and one-day ski trips will be scarce, he said.
“The people who drive in for the day are going to find themselves locked out of most of the deals,” he said. “The resorts are really going to be focused on these overnight visitors. They come and leave a lot of money behind for lodging and meals. It’s going to mean more than just longer lift lines – they are going to see a lack of any sort of a deal on skiing, now that the season has started.”
Amy.Gillentine@csbj.com