Early snowfall, resort upgrades stoking ski industry optimism

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Ski resorts across the state are beginning to open for the season, and early snowfall in the mountains has those in the winter sports industry poised for a better-than-average year.

Last year, despite a sputtering economy, the ski industry nationwide posted its second-best year on record, with 59.8 million skier and snowboarder visits.

Colorado was no exception, and Troy Hawks, spokesman for the National Ski Areas Association, said those in the industry are optimistic the trend will continue.

“Coming off one of the best seasons on record gives the industry a sense of momentum,” he said. “We’re in good shape at the resorts, based on what I’m hearing. There’s quite a bit of news coverage on recent snowfall in Colorado, which is certainly positive.”

Early snowfall was expected thanks to a La Nina weather pattern this winter, said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center at the National Weather Service. Halpert said the weather pattern historically means wetter weather in the north and drier conditions to the south, with Colorado “somewhere in the middle.”

Already, sales of season passes are slightly better than last year at this time, according to Craig Bannister, spokesman for Colorado Ski Country USA.

“We don’t get actual numbers from resorts, just anecdotal feedback, but right now (resorts) are trending on par or slightly above where they were last year,” he said.

At Loveland Ski Area, Marketing Director John Sellers said early snowfall remained the primary factor in attracting visits from Front Range residents.

“We had a great first week with three feet of snow, which got people excited,” Sellers said, adding that Loveland was the first resort to open in Colorado for the second consecutive year.

Dan Sherman, spokesman for Ski.com, said lodging and reservation patterns have changed significantly since the recession, and that predicting how this season will turn out isn’t easy.

“Normally by mid-November we have a good indication of what’s to come, but I don’t think that’s the case this year,” he said. “It’s hard to figure out the state of the industry because the way we determine that is changing,” as a result of more people waiting until the last moment to make reservations.

Ralf Garrison, founder and director of the Mountain Travel Research Project, said advanced reservation projections for the next six months in Colorado show a modest increase of 3 percent in occupancy over the previous year.

“We have a slight boost in occupancy from November to April, but we’re also showing rate increases are flat,” he said. “Given the overall market conditions, we coined the phrase, ‘Less bad is the new good,’ and expect a challenging season where resorts will have to earn their business.”

Elsewhere, reports on retail shop sales won’t be out for another week, but early indications are positive, said David Ingemie, president of SnowSports Industries America.

“For a while, people seemed scared to buy anything, but now we’re seeing pent-up demand from people eager to purchase,” he said.

Hiring trends are mostly unchanged from previous years, as resorts generally fill the same number of seasonal positions, adjusting employee hours based on demand, said Colleen True, director of human resources at Loveland.

Hoping to drive up their numbers, several Colorado resorts are boasting enhancements this season, from faster lifts to better snowmaking and additional parking.

Nate Fristoe, director at RRC Associates, a research firm specializing in the ski industry, said snowfall will always remain a variable, and that such improvements make it less of a factor.

Vail Resorts, for example, is rolling out its Epic Mix, an online and mobile application that uses a computer chip embedded in its ski pass to track the on-hill experience.

“You go about your ski day as always, and it will track vertical feet and runs, and you can earn digital ski pins (rewards) doing anything from skiing on a powder day to having a certain number of lifts in a row,” said Kathleen Lessman, spokeswoman for Vail Resorts

Skiing and snowboarding generate an estimated $2.6 billion annually for the state, making it the second largest industry in Colorado.