Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Ski industry is holding its own

Numbers down over holidays but positive signs yield optimism

Express Staff Writer

Like other sectors of the U.S. economy, the ski industry is feeling the pinch of the recession.

Skier visits over the holidays were down at Sun Valley and other resorts, but as the winter lingers on some positive signs are emerging.

"It's all about the snow," said Michael Berry, president of the Colorado-based National Ski Areas Association. "I'd rather have good snow in a bad economy than bad snow in a good economy."

And, Berry said, snow conditions range from good to excellent across the Rockies and the rest of the country.

But that's not to say the economy isn't a factor.

Berry said destination ski areas in somewhat remote areas—like Sun Valley, Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Aspen, Colo.—tended to fare less well over the crucial holiday weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year's Day, partly because they are often more costly to reach. Ski areas with strong markets within driving distance are doing noticeably better, he said.

Indeed, when compared to last year, skier visits at Sun Valley were down this season on all but two days from Dec. 24 through Jan. 1.

"For the year, we're probably down about 20 percent," said Sun Valley spokesman Jack Sibbach. "But that's what we anticipated."

Reservations for lodging at the resort are down, Sibbach said. And some groups that return every year for conventions—which often serve to keep business steady during lulls in family travel—have scaled back.

Likewise, Aspen Skiing Co. reported earlier this month that skier visits were down 8 percent during the two weeks that covered Christmas and New Year's Day, compared with last year.

Sibbach said the economy is the overriding negative factor—but not the only one.

"Going into the (season), we lost more than 30 percent of our seat capacity going into the local airport. And we also lost seat capacity going into Boise."

The result, he said, is fewer guests from distant markets.

"I'm very concerned about the rest of the year, and even the summer," Sibbach said.

But reasons for hope are coming forth.

Over the three-day weekend including Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 17-19, skier numbers at Sun Valley were up all three days compared to figures posted last year.

Berry said he believes more snow could entice many skiers who are staying close to home to venture deeper into the Rockies. And, he noted, drops in prices for airline tickets could also prompt a rebound for the destination resorts.

The 2008-09 season will not likely bring a new record number of skier visits nationwide—like the 60.5 million last winter—but should hold strong, tallying perhaps as many as 58 million, Berry said.

Sibbach is also hopeful.

"We know it will turn around eventually."

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