No business like snow business: Ski season outlook encouraging

The early outlook for the Colorado ski season is encouraging. But snowfall levels ultimately will determine success. (Photo courtesy Powderhorn Mountain Resort)
The early outlook for the Colorado ski season is encouraging. But snowfall levels ultimately will determine success. (Photo courtesy Powderhorn Mountain Resort)

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Early indicators point to a successful ski season in Colorado, among them strong pass sales and lodging reservations as well improving economic and labor conditions.

But another important, and far less predictable, variable goes into determining whether or not ski resorts ultimately will enjoy another record-breaking season — snow.

Case in point: A lack of snow and cold enough temperatures to allow for artificial snowmaking delayed the opening of the Powderhorn Mountain Resort on the Grand Mesa east of Grand Junction.

A group of representatives from Western Slope ski resorts and the Colorado Ski Country USA trade group discussed the outlook for the season and their industry during an interview in Grand Junction with the Business Times.

If nothing else, the Colorado ski industry heads into the season with considerable momentum.

Colorado Ski Country USA, an association of 21 member resorts, reported that total skier visits for the state reached a record 12.6 million during the 2013-2014 season. A skier visit represents one person participating in skiing or snowboarding for any part of one day.

While it wasn’t a record year for snow, early snows enabled resorts to open early. Then timely snows improved conditions for the holidays and late season skiing, said Patrick Byrne, public affairs manager for Colorado Ski Country USA. “When it snows, skiers will come.”

Skier visits last season were up more than 10 percent from the drought-stricken season before and eclipsed the previous record established during the 2006-2007 season by a half a percent.

Moreover, Colorado resorts outperformed the national industry last season in capturing more than 20 percent of the U.S. market share, Byrne said. In other words, one in five people who went skiing or snowboarding did so in Colorado, he said.

This season, a number of Colorado ski resorts opened earlier than usual and attracted large crowds. Season pass sales have been strong, as have lodging reservations, Byrne said.

More generally, improving economic and labor conditions in Colorado and the United States also should help to bolster skier visitation, he said.

Colorado ski resorts enjoy some advantages in competing in a national and even international marketplace.

Their comparatively high elevation generally means they offer better snow and an extended season, said Tucker Vest Burton, assistant manager of public relations for the Aspen Skiing Co.

Pepper Raper, interim public relations and communications manager at Telluride Ski Resort, said  Telluride ranked as the top ski area in the United States for a third year in a row in an annual survey of readers of Condé Nast Traveler Magazine. Telluride ranked first for lifts, lines and runs as well as accommodations, food, restaurants and scenery. Telluride also made the top 10 in lists compiled for Ski Magazine and USA Today, Raper said.

Erica Mueller, public relations and communications manager at Crested Butte, said Colorado offers not only great ski resorts, but also the attractions of the towns in which they’re located. “We have great ski towns,” she said.

Still, the Colorado ski industry also faces some long-time challenges, including an aging baby boom generation that doesn’t participate in snow sports as frequently as it used to.

That makes retaining existing snow sports enthusiasts and recruiting  new ones important, said David Smith, marketing manager at Powderhorn Mountain Resort. “Getting new faces into the industry is a big thing.”

To that end, Colorado ski resorts have improved their ski school and equipment rental facilities and introduced programs designed to bring new skiers and snowboarders to the slopes.

Burton said Aspen recently opened a new ski school, a 7,500-square foot facility that cost $5 million to construct.

At Powderhorn, a learn to ski and ride program has been changed to accommodate a wider variety of ages. For $149, any skier 5 years or older and any snowboarder 7 years old and up may take three full-day lessons — which include a lift ticket and equipment rental — for any three days of the season. Those who complete the program will receive a card offering 50 percent off group lessons, lift tickets and equipment rental for the remainder of the season.

Powderhorn also has rebranded its school instructional program as Powderhorn Adventure Snowsport Training. The program is open to school groups of 10 or more students and includes for $50 each a full-day group ski or snowboard lesson, lift ticket and equipment and helmet rental.

Mueller said Colorado ski resorts must cater to skiers and snowboarders in other ways in providing guest services that make them comfortable and the experience as enjoyable and convenient as possible. That includes everything from parking and equipment rental to accessing the slopes.

Burton said it bodes well for the Colorado ski industry that Denver, a key market, is among the fastest-growing cities in the country and increasingly inhabited by young and active people.

Transportation presents yet another challenge to the Colorado ski industry —in particular congestion on Interstate Highway 70 between Denver and the resorts, Byrne said.

The Colorado Department of Transportation is working to address the issue, he said, in opening highway shoulders for travel during peak times, implementing new snow removal practices and under taking highway expansion and improvement construction projects.

Even as the Colorado resorts have worked to bolster the ski season, they’ve also have expanded on the amenities and activities they offer in the summer, Byrne said.

Burton said that’s been the case in Aspen. “I’ve really seen it grow.”

For now, though, the attention remains fixed on winter and a ski season that offers promise, but still will depend on the weather.

Mueller said there’s a direct correlation between snowfall and skier visits. “It all comes down to snow.”