|By Mike Gorrell, The Salt Lake
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
February 24, 2008 - Great snow in December might have salvaged the important holiday week for Western ski resorts, but the recession has been taking a toll since then.
New figures from the Denver-based Mountain Travel Research Program reflect the strain that rising unemployment and plunging consumer confidence have had on the ski industry and its partners in the lodging and hospitality sectors.
"Historically considered a recession-proof industry, recent data indicates that adage isn't holding true this year," said Ralf Garrison, author of the monthly report. Describing Jan. 31 as the season's mid-point, he said occupancy levels have fallen 18 percent overall from a year earlier, with nightly rates down 8 percent.
A poor January contributed to the declines.
Last month, occupancy levels in 15 mountain destination communities across Utah, Colorado, California and British Columbia slid to 50 percent from 60 percent a year earlier. The average daily rate for each occupied room dropped 7.8 percent.
Reservations made during January for all future dates plunged 18.9 percent last month from January of 2008.
Consequently, occupancy rates are projected to be down 20 percent in February and 29 percent in March, the report said.
"Last-minute bookings in December (for December arrival) resulted in a significant increase in the number of destination visitors for the holidays," Garrison said. "The short lead booking pattern that saved December's performance was far less evident [in January]."
Corroborating evidence comes from the Rocky Mountain Lodging Report, also based in Denver. Its figures for January peg occupancy at Utah mountain resorts at 59.3 percent, significantly below 75.5 percent a year earlier. In its report, the nightly rate was down from $300 in January of 2008 to $269 last month.
Abundant snowfall the rest of the winter may help resorts rebound some from the downturn, but given the slowdown in advance bookings, Garrison predicted the appeal of quality snow will have a greater impact on locals than on higher-spending out-of-state tourists.
"Good snowfall," he said, "is more likely to boost lift-ticket sales than destination lodging."
But there is a bright side for those who still can afford to take a ski vacation. Resorts and lodging establishments are "providing some of the best ski vacation bargains in nearly a decade," Garrison said.
Without doubt, said Ski Utah spokeswoman Jessica Kunzer.
"Current packages offered by the resorts and other Ski Utah members are absolutely phenomenal. Many lodging properties are offering free lift tickets, meals and other amenities with heavily discounted rates," she said, adding that the lower airline tickets also have been helping.
"A skier vacationing from New York City in the first weekend of March 2008 would have paid $450 for a round-trip flight to Salt Lake City International Airport. In 2009, that same traveler could snag a round-trip non-stop fare as low as $260," Kunzer said.
On Ski Utah's Web site (www.skiutah.com), no fewer than 60 deals are listed on the "Lodging" page. Some offer free lift tickets with a night's stay. Many others provide a free night's stay once a customer has booked two or three nights.
Hotels down in January
Occupancy at hotels statewide dropped to 53 percent last month, down from 62 percent in January of 2008, while nightly bookings at Salt Lake County hotels dropped to 61.9 percent from 69.1 percent a year earlier. Other occupancy rates were (with January 2008 in parentheses):
Ogden -- 56.2 percent (58.1)
Utah County -- 48.2 percent (62.0)
Davis County -- 46.5 percent (58.1)
Logan -- 38.2 percent (52.1)
St. George -- 33.4 percent (40.5)
Cedar City -- 29.2 percent (35.1)
Other Utah -- 35.3 percent (36.1 percent)
Source: Rocky Mountain Lodging Report
Logan added a new motel Monday with the opening of a 115-suite SpringHill Suites by Marriott at 625 S. Riverwoods Parkway. Owned by Wasatch Property and managed by Western States Lodging and Management, the four-story SpringHill Suites Logan has 300,000 square feet of meeting space.
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