Indicators encouraging for Colorado ski industry

Workers install the lower terminal of the Flat Top Flyer, a new high-speed quad chair lift under construction at Powderhorn Mountain Resort east of Grand Junction. 
The new lift is part of $5 million in capital improvements at the resort that also include expanded snowmaking capacity. (Photo courtesy Powderhorn Mountain Resort)

Workers install the lower terminal of the Flat Top Flyer, a new high-speed quad chair lift under construction at Powderhorn Mountain Resort east of Grand Junction. 
The new lift is part of $5 million in capital improvements at the resort that also include expanded snowmaking capacity. (Photo courtesy Powderhorn Mountain Resort)

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Snow — and plenty of it — remains the determining factor in the ultimate success of Colorado ski resorts. But a number of other factors signal what representatives from the resorts see as encouraging indicators.

Resorts are replacing lifts, adding and remodeling restaurants and renovating other facilities. Commercial air service will expand during the upcoming season to bring more skiers and snowboarders to the state. Even when the snow doesn’t fly, resorts are growing their businesses by offering more services and amenities to summer clientele.

It all bodes well for an industry that plays an important role in the Colorado economy, said Patrick Byrne, public affairs manager for Colorado Ski Country USA, a trade association of 21 member resorts.

Byrne and representatives from four ski resorts discussed their outlook for the upcoming season in particular and the industry in general during a wide-ranging interview in Grand Junction with the Business Times.

The Colorado ski industry is coming off what Byrne said was a good, but not quite record-breaking, season.

The 21 resorts in the association reported a total of 7.1 million skier visits during the 2014-2015 season. That’s just a half of a percent shy of the record-breaking total for the previous season, but still 6.5 percent more than the latest five-year average. A skier visit represents one person participating in skiing or snowboarding for any part of one day.

Colorado resorts captured more than 20 percent of the national skier market, the largest portion for any one state, Byrne said.

As for the upcoming season, there’s hope the Pacific weather pattern known as El Nino will bring heavier snows to Colorado, Byrne said.

Regardless of what the weather holds, ski resorts have invested in new chairlifts, dining facilities and other improvements.

At Powderhorn Mountain Resort east of Grand Junction, construction is nearing completion on the Flat Top Flyer. The new high-speed quad chairlift will replace the nearly 30-year-old Take Four lift and carry people up the slopes twice as fast in halving the typical riding time from 13 minutes to 6 minutes.

Dusti Reimer, sales and marketing coordinator for Powderhorn, said the new lift is part of $5 million in capital improvements at the resort. Those improvements also include new and expanded snowmaking equipment that will almost double coverage to 42 acres. Still other improvements include changes to the layout of the rental shop, Reimer said.

Aspen Skiing Co. is replacing and realigning its High Alpine lift at Snowmass Ski Resort with a new high speed quad chair. The $8 million project will nearly halve the ride time from 11 minutes to just under 6 minutes. Meanwhile, a $1.1 million renovation also is under way at the Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro at Aspen Highlands, said Meaghan Lynch, public relations assistant manager.

Crested Butte is building a new culinary outlet at its Ten Peaks area that will be walled in by glass and covered by a 35-foot retractable umbrella and walled by glass. The $1 million project is the largest for the resort since 2009, said Megan Collins, marketing and communications manager.

Arapahoe Basin is remodeling its ticket office into a guest services center. A new stage and music venue will accommodate expanded entertainment offerings, said Adrienne Saia Issac, marketing and communications manager.

Meanwhile, added commercial flights and new routes will bring more skiers and snowboarders to the state, Byrne said.

Powderhorn benefits from direct flights into the Grand Junction Regional Airport from Dallas, Denver, Houston, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Phoenix.

At the Montrose Airport, winter service has increased with 14 direct flights from 11 major domestic hub airports. New flights will offer service from New York on United, Chicago and Los Angeles on American and Las Vegas on Allegiant. American also offers services from Dallas and Phoenix.

American Airlines will offer daily flights from Chicago to the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport as well as third daily flight from Dallas for the holidays. American also offers flights from Los Angeles. United Airlines has added additional flights from Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco while offering up to 10 flights daily from Denver. Delta Airlines offers service to Aspen from Atlanta and Minneapolis.

The Eagle County Airport near Eagle will see increased daily service from Dallas and Miami as well as weekly flights from Chicago.

At the Gunnison/Crested Butte Regional Airport, American and United offer direct flights from Chicago, Denver, Dallas and Houston.

But even as Colorado ski resorts gear up for winter, they’re offering more during the summer to further increase business, Byrne said. In fact, summer business is the fastest growing segment for ski resorts.

Lynch put it this way: “It’s a good way to weather-proof your business.”

Resorts are offering more amenties and services to cater to summer guests.

At Powderhorn, capital improvements that have included a new chairlift and  snowmaking equipment also have included the construction of 3,000 feet of new mountain biking trails, Reimer said. The resort plans to have 12 miles to 15 miles of trails reader for the summer of 2016. The new chairlift is fitted to accommodate mountain bikers, she said.

Crested Butte has set up an archery course on its slopes, Collins said.

Byrne can’t yet offer specific numbers quantifying the economic effects of the ski industry in Colorado. The results of a study commissioned by Colorado Ski Country USA and Vail Resorts, soon will be released.

But Byrne said those effects are substantial and widespread. Those effects include not only the revenue and jobs created at resorts, but the communities in which they’re located. Moreover, resorts add to the amenities that lure not only skiers and tourists, but also new businesses, to Colorado. “We have all the pieces to be a very attractive place for employers to come.”

Phil Castle is editor of the Grand Valley Business Times, a twice-monthly business journal published in Grand Junction. Castle brings to his duties nearly 30 years of experience in editorial management positions with Western Colorado newspapers. In addition, his free-lance work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Washington Post. He holds a bachelor's degree in technical journalism from Colorado State University.
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