Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Business booms throughout holiday season

Valley proprietors thank abundant snow

Express Staff Writer

Crowds gather on the Sun Valley Lodge patio for the Christmas Eve celebration. Photo by Willy Cook

The consensus of local businesses is that this holiday season is one to celebrate.

"It was about the best holiday season we've had in five years," said Jim Funk, owner of Ketchum restaurant Despo's, adding that he experienced a 5 percent increase in business over the 2009 holiday season.

"The early snow builds enthusiasm," he said, asserting from experience that the success of Bald Mountain's season opener on Thanksgiving usually determines the crowds for the holidays a month later.

Andy Munter, owner of Backwoods Mountain Sports in Ketchum, agreed.

"It's a reminder that even though we need to work on flights, marketing and et cetera, snow is what really matters," he said.

The valley's snowfall this winter is 56 percent above the 30-year average, according to the National Weather Service. About 50 inches more snow has fallen compared to last year at this time.

Munter said business usually spikes Dec. 22, with the surge lasting through New Year's Day. But Backwoods experienced an uptick in business throughout December, causing a double-digit percentage increase over December 2009.

"Locals drove an awful lot of business," he said, adding that they only buy out of necessity.

And when the snow falls, they want to get out there. Erin Zelo, operator of Nordic skiing center Galena Lodge, about 20 miles north of Ketchum, said people were "fired up" about the snow and less pessimistic about the economy.

"They're tired of being bummed," she said.

Galena Lodge and Backwoods rely on snowfall. However, Munter claimed, the snow benefits just about every valley business.

"No one in the valley operates in a vacuum," he said.

The snow does, however, create a Catch-22.

Friedman Memorial Airport reported shutting down six times during December due to snow. Each closure was on a different day and for a few hours. The monthly report covers Dec. 1-27. Horizon started flying into Hailey twice a day on Dec. 18, but was forced to cancel six flights and divert three others to Twin Falls, meaning one out of three affected flights never made it here. SkyWest offered eight flights a day and diverted 34 flights during December, meaning more than one flight a day was diverted.

Jack Sibbach, spokesman for Sun Valley Resort, said some guests weren't able to arrive as planned or leave because of the weather, but "not a large amount." He said the benefits of heavy snowfall far outweighed the complications, and December brought more guests than 2009. The resort doesn't release occupancy or skier numbers, but Sibbach said the company is "very satisfied."

Anita Northwood, manager of High Country Resort Properties, said the company's holiday-season rentals exceeded 2009 by 25 percent.

"We were very, very busy," she said, adding that people feel "safer" about spending than they did last winter.

Despite these positive lodging reports, the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau reported that 55 percent of Sun Valley and Ketchum's available hotel rooms were occupied during the holiday season, down from 65 percent in 2009. About 31 percent of Hailey hotels were filled, compared to 35 percent in 2009.

Some Hailey businesses surged this season, apparently from local shoppers.

"We are expanding," said Vintage Gypsy owner Kim Garvin, who plans to knock out a wall to make room for more merchandise.

Hailey Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Heather LaMonica Deckard began a survey of Hailey holiday business activity but it won't be completed until later this month. She said three out of four retailers said business was better or the same as last year.

"It's an encouraging start for the New Year," Deckard said.

Tony Evans and Jason Lynch contributed to this story.

Trevon Milliard:

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