Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Sun Valley's winter bookings surge

Resort hopes for strong rebound to 'fair' 2004-2005 season


By GREGORY FOLEY
Express Staff Writer

The golden leaves of aspens glisten in the sun Saturday at the Sun Valley Resort shopping mall. Resort officials are reporting that business has been strong but efforts to boost Sun Valley's position in the competitive travel market will continue.

Sun Valley Resort is reporting a surge in advance hotel-room sales for the upcoming 2005-2006 ski season, following a trend of strong bookings at ski areas across the West.

The early indicators of a strong ski season not only have resort officials hopeful that a turnaround from a post-9/11 lull is complete, but also that Sun Valley is on a long-term path to strengthening its overall position in the destination-skier market.

Jack Sibbach, Sun Valley marketing and public relations director, said early-October sales forecasts indicate that advance bookings for the resort's lodging facilities are ahead of last season's numbers by 15 percent for December, 25 percent for January and 9 percent for February.

Projected numbers for March are currently down from last year, largely because two conventions that came to Sun Valley last March are not returning this year. However, there is still plenty of time to see the March numbers improve, Sibbach said.

"The thing that will help March is snow. If we have snow at Christmas and people go home and talk about it, we'll do better," he said. "And having snow in the rest of the Northwest is important. Last season, they were playing golf in Seattle, and that hurt us."

During the 2004-2005 season, Sun Valley recorded 386,908 skier days, approximately 2,000 more than the previous year. A pair of major snowstorms in the middle of the season helped establish good skiing conditions but unusually warm weather that followed is believed to have kept many skiers away. Sibbach has characterized last season's numbers as "fair."

But this year appears to be different, at least so far. Not only are lodging reservations up, the first week of Sun Valley ski-pass sales also tallied slightly higher numbers.

The solid sales forecast for winter follows a very good summer for Sun Valley, Sibbach said, especially for business generated by groups and conventions.

"Our group business this summer was up to our pre-9/11 numbers," he said. "And our numbers for weekend traffic for individuals were also up."

In fact, tourism activity was up across Idaho last summer, despite high gasoline prices. Ron Gardner, spokesman for the Idaho Tourism Division, said Idaho lodging establishments brought in approximately $124 million over the summer months, up 10.5 percent over 2004 and 34 percent over the summer of 2001.

That follows changes in leisure-travel patterns after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Sun Valley and other ski resorts were generally logging fewer advance reservations and working diligently to attract out-of-state "destination" travelers.

In 2005, it appears that trend is slowly fading, in Sun Valley and other parts of the Rocky Mountain West.

Molly Cuffe, communications director for Colorado Ski Country USA, a Denver-based trade association, said pre-season in bookings in Colorado "are positive," and recent snowfall in the mountains there could bring more reservation activity.

"All indications are pointing to a fairly positive season," Cuffe said.

The Wall Street Journal newspaper reported last week that advance bookings were also up considerably at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, in western Wyoming, Deer Valley Resort, in Utah, and several other well-known ski destinations.

Sibbach said he believes a strong overall market is "good for the ski business," including at Sun Valley.

Although snow conditions tend to dictate resort skier numbers more than hotel-room sales, he said, Sun Valley places a high emphasis on filling its hotel rooms and condominiums first. Snow reports, marketing efforts and word-of-mouth communiqués hopefully round out the skier count as the season progresses.

"Our most important goal is the occupancy, getting people here," Sibbach said.

That said, Sun Valley has two big goals for the coming years, Sibbach said. The resort wants to solidify its position as a destination for long-distance travelers while at the same time increasing skier numbers at a controlled pace.

It is widely agreed that Sun Valley's ski mountains can handle significantly more people than what they have in recent years. The busiest season on record is the 1981-1982 season, when nearly 476,000 skier-days were logged.

Growth must come without sacrificing Sun Valley's high standards of service or its need to operate as a viable business, Sibbach said.

"We don't want or need a million skier-days at Sun Valley," he said. "Saying that, we still want to grow the numbers."

The challenge of accomplishing that is not only getting people to somewhat remote Central Idaho, but also battling broader changes in the ski industry, Sibbach said. Destination ski trips—during which families might spend a full week at a resort—seem to be on the decline. And, many ski-oriented travelers have bought into the booming mountain-town real estate market, often committing themselves to one resort in the process.

While 25 years ago Sun Valley had hundreds upon hundreds of destination skiers coming and going on a weekly basis, today the resort is relying more heavily on the ever-expanding second-home owner market.

Yet, the resort wants to preserve a balance, Sibbach said.

"We want to keep that destination skier. We want to be a tourist economy and not just rely on second-home owners."




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