Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Did holiday rush make businesses flush?

Ketchum, Sun Valley business operators give mixed reviews

Express Staff Writer

Several Ketchum-area businesses reported being busy over the holidays but generally said it was not a banner season for revenue. Photo by Mountain Express

North valley businesses usually rely on the holiday wave to push them through the stagnant lulls of January. But did the short surge from Christmas to New Year's peak high enough, or was it just a ripple in the water?

The Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau tries to ascertain this every early January by surveying restaurants, retail and lodging establishments in the two towns about business over the two holiday weekends. Replies are anonymous.

Survey results point to restaurants and retail coming out ahead compared to last year, and lodging falling behind.

For both weekends, eight restaurants and three lodging businesses replied, with 10 retail stores responding for Christmas weekend and eight responding for New Year's weekend.

Conclusions drawn by the chamber from the survey point to "lots of foot traffic" bolstering purchases and dining for both weekends, but these same people weren't paying for rooms. The chamber said many visitors stayed with family and friends over the holidays, hurting hotels.

"And (we) also heard that more vacation-home owners were in town using their properties, which were typically rented out but weren't this year," the chamber stated in its survey results. "Also, Sun Valley (Resort) has been doing a lot more marketing in southern Idaho, so daytrippers could be a factor in this too."

Rob Santa, owner of outdoor store Sturtevants in Ketchum, said the mood of the crowd was an improvement from last year.

"(A year ago) everyone thought the sky was falling," he said.

Mark Caraluzzi, owner of Ciro Restaurant and Wine Bar, also remembers the hesitancy of customers in the 2008 holidays, describing it as a "wait-and-see attitude."

"We're definitely ahead of that," Caraluzzi said, commenting that it was a "record-breaking two weeks."

Caraluzzi said Ciro actually had to turn away customers on occasions.

However, Santa said spending isn't back to how it was a few years ago.

"There wasn't yet what I would call any irrational exuberance in terms of spending," he said. "People are very value conscious. There's no disguising that."

Gerard Kelly, manager of The Pioneer Saloon, said New Year's was better than Christmas but both holiday weekends were "at least as good as last year."

But using the 2008 holiday season for comparison doesn't mean much, he said, since it "wasn't so good" for business.

As for lodging, the consensus among the three survey responders is that customers had decreased by a maximum of 30 percent over the two holiday weekends compared to last year.

Sun Valley Resort—the largest hotel in the area with 510 rooms—doesn't give occupancy numbers, but spokesman Jack Sibbach said in an interview that the resort is "not breaking any records" for the holidays. This doesn't bode well for the rest of January.

"January's usually a slow month," he said.

Bald Mountain Lodge manager Dan Ross said he's worried about the expected January break in customers.

"We're not booked up at all," he said. "We're looking at at least 60 to 70 percent off what's normal in January."

Clarion Inn owner Peter Lewis echoed that concern, saying his hotel had a "decent" holiday stretch. But decent doesn't prepare his hotel for the "so-so" month of January.

"You always want more," he said of holiday-time business.

Trevon Milliard:

LOT continues to lag

Local-option taxes are the most-straightforward way of deciphering the health of Ketchum business during a month, but LOT for the holiday season of December won't be out until early February.

"We're cautiously optimistic," said City Administrator Gary Marks, who added that the December figures are being tabulated.

The city has finalized LOT paid from November business. And for the 15th straight month, the city collected less in "tourist taxes" than during the same month of the previous year. The November total was about $72,500, down almost 19 percent from November 2008's total of about $89,300. And this news relates mostly to the tourist industry's performance, since LOT—commonly called the "tourist tax"—comes from a 2 percent sales tax on lodging and by-the-glass liquor sales, and a 1 percent tax on retail sales and building materials.

Condo rentals was the only category to see a positive turnaround compared to last year, coming out 121 percent ahead of November 2008. But this category was the smallest moneymaker, constituting about $1,300, less than 2 percent of the month's total LOT.

Liquor made a turnaround in the opposite direction, increasing by 37 percent from October 2008 to October 2009 and then falling by 17 percent in November compared to November 2008.

The other three LOT categories—other retail, hotel rooms and building materials—were also down compared to last year.

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