It seems like everyone’s after the Brits. The United Kingdom, which last winter became Whistler’s largest overseas skier market, has been targeted by Colorado ski areas. Last month the U.S. government awarded the first direct flights between London’s Gatwick Airport and Denver to British Airways. Colorado ski areas are putting together vacation packages to take advantage of the direct route. According to the Ski Trade News, Great Britain is already the largest international skier market for Colorado. With the new direct flight, Colorado Ski Country USA expects to double the number of British skiers in Colorado to 100,000 annually. In 1996-97, British skiers accounted for 8.3 million skier/snowboarder visits world-wide, ranking third behind the U.S. and Canada. It's estimated that 250,000 to 300,000 skiers visited U.S. resorts from foreign lands last winter, though only about 50,000 of those were from Great Britain. Ski Trade News predicts the new flights to Denver will provide direct competition for the American Skiing Company, which owns 11 U.S. resorts, but none in Colorado. Last fall ASC distributed 750,000 copies of a six-page brochure featuring ASC resorts through British newspapers and magazines. Meanwhile, Vail Resorts appears to be taking a page from Intrawest’s book in getting heavily into the retail business. Last month Vail Resorts agreed to merge its operations with Denver-based Specialty Sports to create a joint business called Specialty Sports Venture. Vail Resorts will now control 65 specialty stores in Colorado with sales totalling $70 million. Vail Resorts will own 52 percent of the joint venture, while Specialty Sports will control the remaining 48 percent. Prior to the deal, Specialty Sports acquired nine Aspen Sports stores and eight Base Mountain Sports in Aspen, Vail and Breckenridge. The move should also bolster Vail Resorts' retail operations and buying power. "The merger of these two companies offers Vail Resorts a unique opportunity to further diversify its revenue base," Adam Aron, chairman and CEO of Vail Resorts, said in a release.