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Feature sidebar - Resorts with ‘bigger and better’ grow more rapidly

Summit County, Vail Valley and Telluride lead Colorado in growth

"Nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded," Yogi Berra is purported to have said. That’s the story of ski resorts along the I-70 corridor in Colorado.

While the ski industry in general flattened, Colorado’s ski industry continued to grow, sometimes in spurts, until about 1993. Even in recent years, a few resorts have continued to grow. Beyond Colorado, the only notable area with significant growth was at Whistler-Blackcomb.

In 1993-94 Whistler and Blackcomb did a little more than 1.4 million skier visits. In 1998-99 the local mountains topped 2 million skier visits for the first time, and have been over 2 million skier visits annually ever since.

Yet even within the growth areas, the gains have been uneven. In Colorado, the strongest, most consistent growth has been along the Interstate 70 corridor. The Yogis of the world may disdain those megaresorts, but the masses don’t.

Leading the pack has been Beaver Creek, with nearly 30 per cent increase in skier days during the last decade. That compares with Vail’s 5 per cent. Taken together, the Vail Valley resorts have gained 11.7 per cent in skier days.

In Summit County, paced by Breckenridge and Copper Mountain, the gain in skier numbers has been even greater, nearly 429,000 during the decade, although the proportionate increase of 11.1 per cent is slightly less.

Beyond these two powerhouses, Colorado’s skiing story changes dramatically. The Aspen Skiing Co.’s four resorts in Pitkin County altogether dropped 13 per cent during the decade. Skier numbers at Durango have dropped 14 per cent. Crested Butte’s numbers have dived 35 per cent.

Even Steamboat and Winter Park have remained essentially flat. The only outlying destination resort with a significant gain has been Telluride, with an 18 per cent gain during the decade.

The key in understanding these shifts has been three-fold: proliferating real estate, infrastructure investments and terrain expansion.

Beaver Creek has had all three. It has had a growing number of high-quality hotel and condominium units, what is collectively called a "bed base." That bed base is coupled with a large increase in terrain, particularly the huge Bachelor Gulch expansion, one of the few expansions occurring on private land. As well, there has been continual investment in new lifts.

Copper Mountain, not far behind Beaver Creek in growth of skier days, has made similar changes.

Telluride has also had substantial if uneven growth in skier days. It has more terrain, Prospect Bowl, and a larger bed base, plus the gondola between the old town (Telluride) and the new town (Mountain Village). Its greatest weakness, seen from the perspective of doing more business, is its remoteness.

Terrain expansion and access, however, alone don’t produce larger crowds. Winter Park, the closest major resort to Denver, has had among the state’s largest increases in terrain, but lacked expansion of the bed base. Its numbers have been flat.

Lower-priced season passes have been one reason for the prospering of ski resorts along Colorado’s I-70 corridor. First introduced at Idaho’s Bogus Basin in the 1990s, the idea was adopted by Winter Park in the fall of 1998 with its four-person buddy pass. Immediately, Vail Resorts and Intrawest-owned Copper Mountain responded with deals of their own.

At Copper, a $1,200 pass from the year before was reduced to $800, matching Winter Park’s price. At Keystone and Breckenridge, the two-resort season pass that the previous year had cost $750 tumbled in price – and then dropped some more, now down to under $300, and with 10 days at Beaver Creek and Vail thrown in, as well as unlimited use at Arapahoe Basin. It is, says one ski industry executive, the ski industry’s best mouse trap.

The cheaper passes have kept the destination resorts more thriving as the destination business lagged, but made life more difficult for the more outlying resorts, such as Steamboat and Crested Butte. And far from going away, they seem here to stay.

"When will we drop the word discounted?" asks Bill Jensen, chief operating officer at Vail Mountain. Ski area operators, he says, seem to have figured out the "sweet spot" between price and utilization.

But the major resorts of Colorado are also expecting a growth in overnight visitors, as is witnessed by at least $2 billion in contemplated investments from Breckenridge to Snowmass.

At Snowmass, Intrawest is seeking government approval for 614 new hotel units and condominiums, with 80 per cent of them intended to be "hot" or rentable to the general public. Base Village is pegged at $500 million, to be complemented by a $45 million on-mountain investment by the Aspen Skiing Co.

At Breckenridge, Vail Resorts is getting approval for about 500 hotel rooms, condominiums, and other housing types, many of them intended to be available for rentals. The real question, says Town Manager Tim Gagen, is whether the housing there will get built soon enough for an expected surge in real estate and destination tourism markets.

"They want to be in the ground in the next couple of years," Gagen reports.

But the strongest confidence in a future destination market may be at Vail, where investments of more than $1 billion are planned during the next five years. The projects have collectively been called the Vail Renaissance or, more recently and narrowly to the ski company’s plans, Vail’s New Dawn.

Two new hotels, including a luxury Four Seasons, are planned at the town’s main entrance. Extensive redevelopment is planned in Vail Village. At LionsHead Mall, another hotel is planned, as well as a conference centre and more parking. Altogether, these projects are expected to yield 500 additional beds that will be available for general rental to destination visitors.

"Somebody has to fill those beds in order for all of this redevelopment to be successful," says Suzanne Silverthorn, Vail’s community information officer. "We are banking on a return of the destination market."

What assurances are there of this market? It is, says Silverthorne, a matter of faith.

"We at the Town of Vail haven’t done that sort of trends analysis, and we hope that Vail Resorts has done their homework to make sure that the bed base will be filled."

But questions remain. Andy Daly, who was variously the No. 1 or the No. 2 executive at Vail Resorts for a decade, points to what might be called the church-for-Easter Sunday syndrome. While growth in the destination business has continued during holidays and spring break, there has been too little growth in the non-peak periods. Growth in the destination business during January this year doesn’t entirely alleviate his concerns.

"You need more than a 10-day sprint at Christmas to justify capital investment," he says.

As well, Colorado’s destination resorts face more competition from other areas of North America. A small ski resort opened this winter in Montana, another is expected in Idaho, and several more are being pushed in British Columbia. As well, both California and Vermont resort areas are pushing to regain lost ground.

All this adds up to anything but a sure deal for Colorado’s destination resorts.

"Colorado has taken great strides in re-establishing itself during the last two seasons, but they can’t turn away from the challenge at hand, even for a second," says one knowledgeable source within the industry. "And everybody in Colorado knows that."