Colorado's $1.7 billion ski industry is facing an unprecedented meltdown if skiers stay home this winter. Fear of flying, economic uncertainty and a lack of early-season snow is threatening to derail the 2001-- 2002 ski season and push many mom and pop--owned ski shops out of business.
Ski industry fat cats have responded to a 25-percent drop in hotel reservations following Sept. 11 by freezing wages, postponing hiring tens of thousands of seasonal ski bums and declaring open season on skiers from nearby states with cut-rate deals.
That marketing focus on the regional skier could also create even more intense traffic gridlock along Interstate 70 -- which has already been the source of headaches and traffic jams for Front Range travelers heading to the mountains and back.
In these uncertainties, ski industry officials see a ray of light. Call it the Field of Dreams marketing plan: If it snows, they will come.
Perfect for cycling
It's unseasonably balmy in mid-November and at Vail ski resort things are typical of what's happening throughout Colorado's trendy ski towns. Just one week before the traditional launch of the ski season, there's barely a dusting of snow on Vail Mountain and many of the tony, high-end shops and restaurants in the heart of Vail Village are shuttered. Cyclists -- not skiers -- have America's largest ski resort all to themselves.
"Everybody is doing their snow-dance, holding their breath and laying people off," said Kay Ferry, who owns a coffee shop in the heart of Vail Village. "It's not a pretty picture right now."
In a normal year, there's a palpable buzz among ski bums in the Aspens and Vails of Colorado just before the traditional November ski season opener.
But this is anything but a normal year. The terrorist attacks occurred at the beginning of the prime booking season for hotels and ski area operators, sending Colorado's ski industry to its knees.
Phones stopped ringing, nervous travelers cancelled or postponed vacation plans and dramatic airline cutbacks have reduced seasonal direct flights to mountain airports. Breckenridge ski area opted to delay its opening by a week until Nov. 16 to save money. Aspen's largest hotel, the 257-room St. Regis, laid off and cut back hours on dozens of maids, bellboys and other service workers.
Colorado's major ski area operators have shifted their marketing plans, targeting regional skiers with tempting offers to convince them to drive to Colorado in part by unleashing a new price war for "buddy passes" -- heavily discounted passes that can be used for an entire ski season.
Phones are starting to ring again, but many expect the lucrative international skier clientele from Europe and Latin America -- which generally account for 10 percent or more of the market for favorites such as Vail and Aspen -- to skip this year's travel headaches.
Public enemy No. 1 in Ski Town USA is not Osama bin Laden, but a dearth of snow. And, unseasonably warm weather throughout Colorado's central Rockies is spreading fear and uneasiness far more than any terrorist threat.
This year, instead of cold days and early season snowfall, Colorado ski towns have been handed the kind of mild sunny weather that's great for golfers but horrible for shredders. One big storm can make a huge difference, but it hasn't come -- yet. And, if this proves to be a drought year, as one Vail newspaper editor put it, "It will be cataclysmic."
So far it's been so balmy that even snowmaking efforts are fruitless. The stuff just melts or it simply hasn't been cold enough to turn on the machines.
A lack of natural snow forced Vail to delay its planned Nov. 16 opening until a snowstorm hits or nights become cold enough to blow artificial snow. Aspen is scheduled to hold World Cup ski races Nov. 22-26, but weather has been so mild that snowmaking crews have only been able to blow artificial snow once before Nov. 8. The races may have to be cancelled.
"Everyone's waiting for snow," said Kenny Freedman, who owns Kenny's Double Diamond, one of Vail's largest ski shops. "Most of us are optimistic if we get snow, we'll be fine. We won't be setting any records, but it won't be a disaster."
Best of times, worst of times
The anxiety comes on the heels of a nearly decade-long run of stagnation at Colorado's booming ski towns. The sport enjoyed solid growth throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but wilted in the 1990s. Baby boomers had aged and there weren't enough "tweeners" to fill the void and the ski industry couldn't get the American public to strap on their boards despite trying every marketing trick it could think of.
That is until last year, when the U.S. ski industry enjoyed its best year ever. Nearly 400 ski resorts around the country posted more than 57 million skier visits. Baby boomers brought their kids, dubbed the "echo boom," a demographer's wet dream of 72 million young people between ages 7 and 26.
East Coast resorts reported their best winter in years. California resorts harvested the fruits of their labor after years of nurturing the growing snowboard scene. Colorado resorts posted near-record numbers after two sub-par snowfall seasons. Skier visits to Colorado's 24 resorts rose to 11.5 million -- up nearly 6 percent from the 1999 -- 2000 season -- but still shy of the 11.9 million record set in 1997-- 1998.
In May, leaders of America's ski industry gathered in Palm Desert, California, to toast their collective good luck at its annual season-end convention. Tan, healthy and smiling, resort officials from the most famous names in skiing -- Aspen, Vail, Jackson Hole and Lake Tahoe -- hobnobbed with their friends and colleagues to gloat in their success.
Sept. 11 changed that sunny outlook.
"The phone didn't even ring for three or four days," said Joan Christensen, director of marketing at Winter Park Resort, northwest of Denver. "We're catching up but we're still running slightly behind where we should be."
Nearly every resort relates the same story. In Aspen, reservations were off by one-third, and the phone rarely rang for two weeks at Crested Butte.
"It's clearly unprecedented what the ski industry is facing," said Bill Tomcich, president of Aspen-Snowmass central reservations. "There are a lot of unknown factors."
Yet Colorado ski industry gurus are quietly optimistic that the season won't be a total wash. David Perry, president of Colorado Ski Country USA, a trade group that represents Colorado's resorts, defines a really bad year as being less than 10 million skier visits, a 17 to 18 percent decline from last year. And, he said, resorts are "certainly" bracing for a downturn, but the worst-case scenario will not happen.
"It's not going to go there," he said. "I'm absolutely confident of that."
At a summit on tourism organized in October by Gov. Bill Owens, state officials estimated Colorado could lose $700 million in tourism spending and $55 million in state and local tax revenue if Colorado's $7 billion tourism industry falls by 10 percent. Colorado's ski industry pumps nearly $2 billion into the regional economy.
"The best we can hope for is a flat year at best," said Gina Kroft, communications manager at Crested Butte, a funky ski town known for its extreme skiing competitions and laid-back attitude. The resort, whose bookings are down by as much as 25 percent, has already suffered through three straight bad-snow years.
"It's going to be tough. If Mother Nature doesn't cooperate, it could be real tough," Kroft said. "We need a good snow year."
The traffic jam
But even if the snow flies this year, the traffic jam up Interstate 70 -- and even Highway 24 west from Colorado Springs -- could prove to be a massive headache.
Nearly half of Colorado's resorts are accessed directly from I-70, the major east-west corridor through the heart of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. In recent years, weekend traffic can be mind-numbingly slow, with the two-hour trip from Vail to Denver turning into a four-hour test of patience. During the past two decades, interstate traffic has steadily increased by 3 to 5 percent per year.
After reaching Denver, Colorado Springs skiers then face another hour or two making the final leg home, facing even more highway construction and delays.
This year, already intense competition between rival resorts got even hotter in the wake of uncertainty. Vail Resorts Inc., the largest and most powerful ski company in Colorado, which owns three of the four busiest resorts in Colorado -- Vail, Keystone and Breckenridge -- clamped down on expenses. It pushed back opening day at Breckenridge, froze wages and end-of-season bonuses for managers.
It also redirected its $30 million marketing campaign, offering cut-rate vacation packages aimed at driving skiers. The decision to regionally target was made after a poll, conducted by Colorado Ski Country, revealed that 25 percent of potential ski customers were taking a wait-and-see attitude.
Colorado ski resorts are competing with Las Vegas, the Disney resorts, Mexico and warm-weather destinations such as Mexico and the Caribbean, all resort niches equally reeling as a result of global uncertainties. Officials are hopeful skiers will choose Colorado, which is perceived as a safer destination than overseas.
One of the first things ski industry insiders flagged was fear of flying.
"The place is the drive market," said NSAA's Berry. "Skiers and snowboarders won't be house-bound. Are they going to hop on a plane when it's less convenient to do that and there are fewer choices? The drive market is very important."
Suddenly, the church groups, ski clubs and families from Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Oklahoma have become the focus.
"We've become even more aggressive in those markets," said Kelly Ladyga, director of corporate communications for Vail Resorts. "We've focused all our energy and resources to attracting out-of-state skiers, whether they fly or drive."
Here's a pass, buddy
The centerpiece of this battle are the so-called "buddy passes," deeply discounted season passes that sell between $200 to $300 that Winter Park and Copper Mountain began promoting during the 1998--1999 ski season. Vail Resorts quickly jumped on board and sold 102,000 discounted passes last year. The popular Colorado Card allows for unlimited skiing at Keystone and Breckenridge with 10 days at Vail or Beaver Creek for $299.
While a huge success with the major players, Colorado's smaller resorts can't match the fire-sale prices and have suffered because of buddy passes. Berthoud Pass ski area, a small operation high above Winter Park, will not operate its chairlifts this winter and instead offer only snowcat tours because it can't match what the owner called "predatory pricing" from larger resorts.
This year, after strong early sales, resorts pushed back the deadline to buy buddy passes into mid-November. Vail Resorts started marketing the discounted passes in Kansas and Nebraska, the first time any ski area has sold them directly to customers outside Colorado.
In addition, resorts are offering hotel and ski packages unseen in years. Four-night, three-day ski/hotel packages are being offered in prime season in February at Aspen for $411; Steamboat Springs has a deal that includes roundtrip airfare, hotel and skiing for four nights starting at $600 per person; Vail is offering 20-percent mid-winter lodging discounts; and Keystone is offering two-bedroom condos for $65 a person.
"It's clear as day that people are shopping around even more," said Tomcich, with Aspen reservations. "We have special offers that have never been seen before and people seem to be shopping very aggressively."
"It's a race," agrees Colorado Ski Country's Perry. "People are shopping for deals right now."
It's the snow, stupid
Ski industry officials are quietly hopeful if there is a silver lining to this year's troubles it will all come down to one word: snow.
Almost 11 years ago, the United States and its coalition forces declared war and unleashed a massive air attack against Iraq -- the only comparison to today's world climate. With people riveted to their television sets and fears of biological and chemical warfare mounting, many industry analysts expected tourists to stay away, especially since the war began in mid-January, the heart of the ski season. But that year, it snowed.
The next year, it snowed again. The 1990 and 1991 winters boasted near-record snowfall, bringing near-record numbers of skiers to Colorado.
It's too early, some say, for hand-wringing.
"Snow is always the linchpin," said Winter Park's Christensen. "People are always less political when the snow is good."
And, despite delayed openings, the sluggish start to this year's season came well before most ski resorts had hired their peak winter ski season crews, and haven't had to engage in layoffs. Ski resorts typically hire thousands of seasonal workers, but this year they are hiring less and bringing them on later.
In early November, however, Vail's Kay Ferry isn't very happy with what she sees. Instead of snow-guns blasting snow on Pepi's Face, a black-diamond ski run steps away from her coffee shop, Ferry watches as a local strolls by in short pants and a T-shirt. Tough times, she expects, are ahead.
"May was our worst May ever, and that was long before any planes hit anything," said Ferry, of a sluggish spring season. And for Ferry, who makes most of her income during the five-month ski season and again during July and August, business this fall has also been dismal.
"All we can do is just sit here and wait for the lifts to run and hope there's snow for them to come," she said.
If not, many local businesses will shut their doors.
"No one knows what to expect, hoping for the best and preparing for the worst," she said. "The landlord will still want a check. We've had a lot of casualties the last couple of years. This could be the icing on the cake for a lot of businesses."
The Back Door Route
Buckin the Interstate 70 traffic jam
For years, local skiers have bemoaned a relative lack of access to the central Rockies, and have had to make the hour and a half haul north to Denver before even hooking up with Interstate 70, the gateway to the state's major ski areas.
But traffic along the I-70 corridor has become so congested over the past several years that skiing out of the Springs lately doesn't seem so bad after all. More and more local snow riders are taking the back door to the Rockies, heading up US 50 or US 24 to hit the local favorites of Monarch Pass, Breckenridge and Crested Butte.
With record sales this fall of "buddy passes" along the Front Range and the traffic hassles that come with increasing traffic, the back-door route out of the Springs seems more logical than optional.
"We anticipate I-70 to be a joy, so we're telling people to come check us out," said Monarch's marketing director Carrie Hudson -- the "joy" being thoroughly tongue in cheek. "We're telling people to avoid the I-70 traffic and come get acquainted with our ski area."
Monarch has long been the Springs' "local" ski area, a moniker the homespun, family-oriented ski area appreciates. But any powderhound worth their weight in snow knows that Monarch, especially after a mid-week blizzard, delivers some of the best freshies -- fresh powder -- in the state.
"We have 100-percent natural snow, so it's a different skiing experience," said Hudson. "We're not a mega-resort. You come here because you want to ski or ride the freshies."
Monarch notches about 147,000 skier visits a year, numbers that mega-resorts like Vail can pull in during a busy week. Monarch is relatively small -- 670 skiable acres with 54 trails served by five chairs on 1,170 vertical feet. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in attitude and snow conditions.
Local ski bums in Salida and Buena Vista have known for years that Monarch is one of the best mountains on a powder day. Mid-week freshies can last for days.
Monarch's snowcat tours open up an additional 900 acres of some of the best north-facing backcountry skiing going. All-day snowcat trips cost $180 per person for up to 12 people.
Compared with Colorado's glitzy resorts, Monarch is also comparatively cheap, with $22 early-season lift tickets until Dec. 14. Regular season adult tickets are $36, $25 for seniors and $16 for juniors. Kids under 6 and seniors over 70 ski free. Sales of discounted season passes at $199 end Nov. 16. It's $399 after that.
In addition, Monarch will be offering a "dual ticket" with nearby Crested Butte this winter for $23 per day. Tickets must be purchased before Dec. 21 and can be used at Monarch one day and Crested Butte the next.
The Butte, about an hour beyond Monarch, also sees a lot of Springs snowriders who stay in the funky ski town for a long weekend. By hitting Hoosier Pass, Springs skiers and snowboarders can hit Breckenridge and avoid the I-70 mess.
-- Andrew Hood
Strapping on the Shoes
Colorado's snowbound mountains have long been the province of skiers, snowmobilers and cross-country skiers. Until recently, most walkers didn't stand a chance.
Thanks to new, lightweight designs, snowshoes have opened up the mountains to hikers and snowshoeing has become one of the fastest growing winter sports. In the late 1980s, runners in Leadville started tinkering with aluminum tubes and kevlar sheeting to create lightweight snowshoes that would allow for year-round running and training.
Since then, dozens of snowshoe companies have brought lightweight, easy-to-use snowshoes onto the market ranging from $50 to just under $300. Many ski shops and outfitters also rent snowshoes. Last year, 4 million people went snowshoeing, up from 1.7 million in 1998, according to SnowSports Industries America. Just about anyone can snowshoe, and the price is right. After renting or buying snowshoes, most trails are free.
There are hikes for all abilities and experience throughout the mountains just west of the Springs. Before heading off, be sure to know avalanche awareness, basic orienteering and survival skills, and bring proper clothing, food and water. Ask your local outfitter for details, or, for more info, call the Avalanche Hotline at 520-0021; U.S. Forest Service at 636-1602; or Mueller State Park at 687-2366
Four snowshoe hikes in the Springs area:
Rampart Range Reservoir -- Tucked high in the granite spires of Rampart Range northwest of the Springs, this 3- to 14-mile trip is perfect for beginners and families. Largely flat, it's about 1.5 miles to the reservoir and an additional 11 miles around the lake. Great views and picnic spots, snow can be spotty until mid-winter. (Directions: Highway 24 to Woodland Park, follow Rampart Reservoir signs on FR 393 north and east to Rampart Range Road, then 2.5 miles south to Rainbow Gulch)
Mueller State Park -- On the western side of Pikes Peak, Mueller State Park serves up some of the best snowshoeing routes close to the Springs. There are several loops to hit, ranging from the easy, 1.7-mile Preachers Hollow loop to the more challenging 2.2-mile Black Bear loop. Good snow but can be crowded on weekends. (Directions: Highway 24 west to Divide, south on Highway 67 about 4 miles to park entrance, then 1 mile west to trailhead)
The Crags -- Access is off forest road 383, which requires four-wheel drive or good snow tires to get to the trailhead 3 miles in. The 3-mile round-trip includes an 800-foot climb to the Crags and spectacular views of Pikes Peak. Watch for avalanche danger. (Directions: Highway 24 west to Divide, south on Highway 67 about 5 miles to FR 383, head east on rough road)
Horsethief Park -- This trail starts steep but quickly levels out and provides great views of the Cripple Creek area. Climb to a high meadow, then follow the 3.2-mile loop at Horsethief Park. Make the excursion longer with sidetrips to Horsethief Falls and Pankcake Rocks. (Directions: Highway 24 west to Divide, 8 miles south on Highway 67 to a tunnel and trailhead parking)
-- Andrew Hood
The Silver Lining
Vail Resorts Inc., the Goliath of the Colorado ski industry, knows firsthand the stakes of terrorism.
On Oct. 19, 1998, the publicly traded ski company was the target of the costliest eco-terrorist attack in American history when seven arson fires were set on Vail Mountain, destroying its Two Elk restaurant, damaging two other structures and four chairlifts. Thought to be the work of extreme environmentalists, the fire caused $12 million in damages and has not been solved.
On Sept. 11, Vail Resorts CEO Adam Aron and other company officials -- the company is controlled by Wall Street player Leon Black and his Apollo Ski Partners -- were in New York City for a board meeting. The meeting was cancelled, but the company has since moved forward with an aggressive plan to not only survive but seize post -- Sept. 11 opportunities.
In a confidential three-page memo sent Sept. 28 to Vail Resort staff from Aron and Vail Resorts president Andy Daly, which was obtained by the Independent, the company outlined its strategy to cut company costs by freezing wages, eliminating end-of-season bonuses and cutting back on travel and other expenses.
The memo -- which thanked its staff for posting the company's best fiscal year ever ending in July -- also outlined what company officials called "once in a lifetime opportunities."
"We know that other companies in the U.S. travel industry are not in as strong a position as Vail Resorts, so acquisition opportunities may present themselves to us now at historically unprecedented and rock-bottom prices," the memo read. "We will not be shy in taking advantage of such opportunities, if in doing so we could strengthen Vail Resorts smartly for the long term as a result."
The following month, on Oct. 17, Vail Resorts announced the acquisition of its latest hotel -- the Ritz-Carlton Rancho Mirage in California for $45 million -- and created a new hotel management company that will operate 11 of its properties.
-- Andrew Hood