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Ski Industry in Colorado is Bracing for a Chilly Financial Season

By Dave Philipps, The Gazette, Colorado Springs, Colo.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Oct. 24, 2008 - Turns out a downward slide is good for some ski areas.

The ski industry in Colorado is bracing for a chilly financial season with some resorts forecasting losses and many expecting an above-average number of empty hotel rooms. But Colorado's smallest ski areas say hard times have spurred a modest boom.

Monarch Mountain, which has no snow making, no high speed lifts and not a single hotel room, is on par to tie last year's record sales. Pint-sized Echo Mountain and Eldora, the two areas closest to the Front Range, sold more new season passes this fall than ever.

At the same time, the big resorts, which rely on out-of-state and international skiers, are struggling.

Vail Resorts' four local mountains, which account for about 40 percent of Colorado ski visits, reported in late September that season pass sales were down 8.4 percent and room reservations were down almost 18 percent. That was before the Dow Jones industrial average took a 2,500-point plunge. Vail's next financial report, in December, could be worse.

"The change that we're going to see ... is going to be tough," Rob Katz, Vail chief executive, told a standing room crowd in Vail on Tuesday, according to the Vail Daily.

"There will be less people coming, and even those coming will spend less, even on the higher end."

The ski industry is one of Colorado's biggest economic engines, generating $2.6 billion annually from more than 12 million skier visits. One in five ski tickets sold in the United States is sold by Colorado's 26 resorts. But ski areas that rely on skiers flying in to ski for several days are seeing falling sales.

Aspen Skiing Co.'s four mountains are seeing weak sales. While season pass sales are up thanks to locals' memories of an epic season last year, sales of discount packages on the Front Range and advanced out-of-state bookings are down.

Aspen spokesman Jeff Hanle compared the uncertainty to the season after 9/11. That year, Aspen's sales were down 6 percent.

"With the economy and the election, people are putting off their decision to book a trip.

We don't know what will happen," Hanle said. "If we can remain even, that's great news."

A report released Wednesday by the Mountain Travel Research Program notes hotel bookings for all mountain resorts are down about 20 percent through February, and with uncertainty in the stock market and government economic recovery plans, numbers are unlikely to improve soon.

"Skiers and riders are likely to be staying closer to home, which will benefit resorts closer to population centers at the expense of more remote destinations," analyst Ralf Garrison said.

Those close to home seem to be attracting bargain hunters.

Monarch has seen no dip in sales. Though it does attract out-of-state skiers, most are nearby middle class vacationers attracted by inexpensive lift tickets.

"Almost all of our customers drive here," Monarch marketing director Greg Ralph said.

"We've been considered affordable for a while, so we have not seen much of a downturn."

Other small ski area operators are in the same sweet spot.

Eldora, just west of Boulder, has sold more new season passes this year than ever, even at $399 per pass -- nearly the same price as a Vail Resorts pass.

"With gas so expensive and traffic so bad, people just don't want to drive. We're closer, you don't need to stay overnight," Eldora marketing director Rob Linde said.

Echo Mountain, just west of Denver, sold its early season passes for $129.

It has positioned itself to have the best year yet by catering to kids and young families from the Front Range without a lot of spare cash.

"The No. 1 reason (for our success) is price," general manager Cindy Dady said. "When a season pass costs hundreds, it comes down to the economics. People have to make choices. We are very affordable."

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Contact the writer: 636-0223 or dave.philipps@gazette.com

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Gazette, Colorado Springs, Colo.

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