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White Christmas saves ski resorts - for now



TELLURIDE -- Local ski bums were grumbling here last weekend because -- stop the presses -- there were lift lines.

After a slow start to the 2001--2002 ski season, glad is an understatement for ski resort operators who are seeing skiers returning to Colorado's 23 resorts. Although statewide numbers through the end of December were down 13 percent compared to last year, things could have been much worse in the wake of Sept. 11.

Still, things weren't as bad as they could have been. Ample December snow helped draw skiers for the Christmas holidays and statewide numbers were actually up 12 percent compared to the pre-Y2K jitters in 1999.

Some resorts even posted December records, including Winter Park, up 2 percent over its record in 1993. The resort's reservations, down by 25 percent in late September, are now up 4 percent from last year.

"What we're seeing is the triumph of vacation over fear," said Joan Christensen, spokeswoman for Winter Park. "[But] we're not out of the winter yet. Although we had a great December, things can change very quickly in this industry."

Most resorts had to settle for severely limited terrain for Thanksgiving, but things rebounded as more than 100 inches of snow fell by Christmas.

"I think America just wanted to celebrate and they got on the planes just before Christmas to come ski," said Johnnie Stevens, Telluride's chief operating officer. Telluride enjoyed its busiest day ever during Christmas when 6,000 skiers poured onto the mountain to explore its new 733-acre Prospect Bowl expansion.

A white Christmas saved many Colorado ski resorts, but one good week does not a ski season make.

Many resort operators are still nervous. Only about 25 percent of all revenue is generated before Christmas and resorts see most of their business between Presidents' weekend and Easter.

"The anticipated doom and gloom by some didn't really materialize," said Stephen Connolly, president of the Vail Chamber and Business Association, which represents most of Vail's top-end retailers and hotels.

"We had a less-than-great October and a bad November to make up for," said Connolly. "We're not out of the woods yet."

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