As the ski industry saw less visitors throughout this winter versus the 2010-11 season, Aspen and Snowmass business has improved and bucked the downward trend.
“We are going to out-perform all of our competitors this winter,” Aspen Skiing Co. Vice President David Perry reported to the Aspen Chamber Resort Association (ACRA) last week.
Industry experts and local resort officials credited Aspen’s relative success this year to its status as a destination resort, meaning it is not dependent on weekend car travel or last-minute domestic bookings.
A below-average snow year and negative national press appear to have contributed to keeping skiers away from most resorts, experts said. But Aspen’s increasingly international clientele books trips far in advance and books them for week-plus-long stays, giving Aspen and Snowmass an advantage over most resorts.
Perry credited international business — along with on-mountain operations that kept ski conditions passable throughout this winter’s drought — with keeping Aspen above the rest.
“Growth in international business has been huge. ... Having that diversification is important,” he said.
Tom Foley, operations director for Denver-based Mountain Travel Research Program, LLC (MTRiP), said that Aspen hasn’t been the only resort to buck the industry’s downward trend this year.
Foley and MTRiP track resort trends, based on data from 15 mountain destinations and 24,000 rooms in Colorado, Utah, California and Oregon.
Other “pure destination” resorts, including Vail and Beaver Creek, have been similarly buoyed, he said.
“These pure destinations are performing well,” Foley said. “Most of it is good marketing and that they can lock and load those guests for long stays early on.”
Skier visits for the season at Aspen were up 2.1 percent over the 2010-2011 season through February, the SkiCo has reported. Vail Resorts, meanwhile, reported a 7 percent drop at its four Colorado mountains.
Through the beginning of March, Aspen occupancy was up 8.4 percent over the 2010-11 ski season, and Snowmass showed a 12.5 percent increase. Colorado resorts were down 7.8 percent overall over the same period, according to Colorado Ski Country USA.
In January the industry reported room occupancy dropped 3.7 percent over the previous winter.
“Below average snowfall remained the story across most western MTRiP destinations, with occupancy and booking momentum lagging behind last year,” MTRiP director Ralf Garrison said at the time.
Yet Aspen charted more than 4 percent ahead, in January occupancy, against 2011 and Snowmass was up nearly 9 percent.
The trend continued in February, as industry-wide occupancy went down 2 percent over 2011, while Aspen stayed flat and Snowmass went up 16 percent.
Bill Tomcich, president of the central reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass, credited the winter success to international travel, and to new flights to Aspen from Los Angeles that offer an easy connection for Australians and other intercontinental guests.
“That international business is largely snowproof,” he said.
Sales tax data evidenced the same trend, as retail sales in January in Aspen jumped more than 10 percent over 2011 and “luxury goods” sales spiked more than 45 percent over the previous year. The amount of spending on lodging jumped more than 8 percent. Restaurant sales saw a slight increase at 2 percent over last winter.
Foley, of MTRiP, said that day-trip resorts, like those along the Front Range, have seen sectors like retail and restaurants drop along with their occupancy numbers and skier visits.
Again, he said, that’s a result of the type of guest Aspen attracts.
“A traveler coming up for a day is typically coming to ski,” he said. “A destination traveler is coming to ski, but also doing retail, sampling some of the finer restaurants, and doing that for a long period of time.”
March business data, which wasn’t available at press time, is expected to show occupancy down between 3 and 4 percent industry-wide. Tomcich said Aspen bookings are likely to drop to that level for the month.
Last Friday, March 30, marked the peak of hotel occupancy for the rest of the season in Aspen, at 57 percent. Some have speculated that late season bookings will be lower than usual, due to cancellations and concern about terrain closures on the local ski hills.
If Aspen and Snowmass’ business falls to the drooping levels the rest of the industry has experienced all ski season, Tomcich said it was likely due to a lack of international travel in March. The month typically doesn’t see a large volume of intercontinental vacationers at ski resorts, which market the month largely for domestic Spring Break travel.
Foley said that the still-recovering national economy and sub-par snow year have intensified the distinction between pure destination resorts and others around the west.
Perry, the SkiCo executive, said the season’s relative success should be a feather in the resort’s cap.
“The cards we have been dealt have been incredibly difficult,” he said, adding that March snowfall was 25 percent of normal in Aspen. “It’s really about how we deal with the cards that we’ve been dealt.”