Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Business gets big boost over holidays

From Warm Springs to Hailey, retailers and hotels see good numbers

The chairlifts were packed and the lift lines longer than usual at Dollar Mountain in Sun Valley on Friday. Photo by Willy Cook



Express Staff Writers

Never second-guess how the weather can play a part in the business success or failure in a resort area such as the Wood River Valley. Last week's bluebird skies and fresh snow gave Sun Valley visitors and residents plenty of reasons to get out and play.

More than just anecdotal evidence proves that business has been very good over the holidays. It comes down to occupancy in hotels and in rental units, availability of rental skis and snowboards and the amount of room in crowded stores.

"It's been crazy," said Baird Gourlay, co-owner of Paul Kenny's Ski and Sports in Warm Springs Village, in Ketchum. "It's very, very busy. We have three (pair of rental) skis left out of about 500. And retail is solid."

Gourlay said one reason for this mini-boom is that some schools let out for the holidays on Friday, Dec. 15, and some, like the Blaine County schools, on Friday, Dec. 22, which means there was a solid three weeks of vacationers passing through.

"We started getting busy Dec. 16, and most reservations are going to Jan. 2 or 3," he said. "The skier count was (approximately) 7,600 on Thursday, which was probably due to the blue skies and good snow. Last year it snowed so much a lot of people weren't on the slopes. People are waiting for skis. We get them back, tune them right away and turn them back around."

Jim Slanetz, owner of Board Bin in Ketchum, said he was in the store every day until well past 7 p.m.

"But I'm not complaining. Business has been good," he said.

Rental snowboards were almost out, he said, and the shop had hardly any boots or bindings left.

At Sturtevants Mountain Outfitters in Ketchum, where business has been brisk, owner Rob Santa was busily adjusting bindings Friday on a pair of skis headed out the door.

"Every year, the crunch of the holidays can feel like a wild goat rodeo," he said. "But if you have a team that brings humor, energy and perspective to the affair, it can be more like a party.

"Everybody's out there having a good time. We didn't expect it to match last year considering the thin snow at the beginning, but we've matched and improved a bit. As for rentals, we have a lot of depth so we haven't missed anyone yet, though inventory certainly got skinny. The stock market is strong, so that translates to our marketplace."

Retail in stores other than those catering to the mountain sports business also remained strong, even after the Christmas rush.

"It's a been a great season," said Rochelle Runge, who owns the two side-by-side Elle Rose stores in Ketchum. "We're swamped. I've had customers who live here full time and are consistent shoppers, second-home owners and even movie stars, a full combination of everyone."

Ketchum Dry Goods has been selling clothing for more than 30 years in Ketchum. Owner Jay Emmer said this year has been "considerably better than last. Awesome. If the trend continues it could ostensibly be a record holiday season for us."

In restaurants, business also flourished during the holiday period.

"It's been good," said Tom Nickel, who owns both The Sawtooth Club and The Roosevelt Tavern and Grille in Ketchum. "We're up a little bit. In both places we were open for Christmas Eve dinners. I'm really pleased.

"Last year at this time we had more snow, but I've been pleasantly surprised. A little credit for the crowds goes to the Sun Valley Co. and the snowmaking. I was concerned, but we are up a little. Where else would you want to be?"

In Ketchum, the Clarion Inn was booked solid from Dec. 25 to Jan. 1.

"We are always sold out, same as last year. We have repeat customers who make their reservations for the next year while they're here," said Carmen Groca, the inn's front desk manager.

John Wells at Premier Resorts said his company's vacation rentals were up about 6 percent from last year. Location makes a difference, especially in a good ski year, he said. "In the winter, people want first to be in Warm Springs. Then Sun Valley and Ketchum are on par for second choice, and Elkhorn lags a little behind."

Joe Vallance, director of sales and marketing at Premier, said his company rents primarily condominiums, and out of 150 all but a few were occupied during the holiday season.

In Hailey, the new AmericInn opened on Dec. 14, 2006, with 64 rooms. Manager Mike Frith, who formerly worked at Resort Quest said, "We did fairly well over the holidays, about 50 percent, particularly coming into the New Year weekend. We're very happy. It is very close to full Saturday, (Dec. 30)."

Hailey's boom over the holidays owed a lot to the opening of new businesses, said Kim Garvin, owner of Vintage Gypsy.

"The more places to shop in Hailey, the better it is for all of us. There's the new Toy Store, Burnsie's, Bungalow. We have a lot going on. We were up huge over last year. The day after Christmas is usually slow, but we were just booking this year."

Skier numbers may be down slightly from last year, but Sun Valley Co. reports retail and room occupancy totals may actually be up this holiday season. Sun Valley Co. does not add up total receipts until after the flood of tourists subsides. However, several employees are already calling this retail season a success.

"Business is great," said Pat Zeigler, Sun Valley Co. retail office manager. "It's one of the best years ever."

This sentiment was echoed at Pete Lane's Mountain Sports' Dollar Mountain location.

"We are out of almost everything, and we have been this entire week," said Matt Kendrick, the store's ski and sports specialist.

Kendrick said this is one of the busiest years he has seen in recent memory.

"I expect it to stay busy all the way through Jan. 6," the date most visitors begin to meander their way out of the Wood River Valley.

Hotel room occupancy at Sun Valley Co. is also holding steady, in spite of fewer skiers schussing down Bald Mountain's corduroy.

Two factors contributed to fewer skiers so far this year. First, there was a string of overcast days during peak ski days.

"On cloudy days we can usually expect 20 percent fewer skiers," Sun Valley Co. spokesman Jack Sibbach said.

The second factor is less snow and fewer snowmaking days. Unseasonably warm weather this season hindered Sun Valley Co.'s efforts to fully power up its state-of-the-art snowmaking system.

Sibbach said occupancy rates are comparable to last year's figures.

"We may even be a little higher (percentage-wise) this year," Sibbach said.

Last year, hotel occupancy hovered right around 90 percent for the holiday week, and the season itself was the seventh best year in Sun Valley Co.'s 71-year history. That created new bookings for this season, Sibbach said.

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