Friday, April 26, 2013

Skier count remains flat for a decade

Jackson Hole, Whitefish boast record winters

Express Staff Writer

Sun Valley Co. lift attendant Bob Knoebel scans a skier’s lift ticket at the Warm Springs base of Bald Mountain in early April. This season, the resort counted 386,782 skiers and snowboarders. Ten years ago, in 2002-03, the resort counted 365,267. Its target has remained at 400,000 since then, the same as Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s was at the time. This winter, Jackson Hole and Whitefish Mountain Resort boasted record numbers, 502,222 and 323,000, respectively. Sun Valley’s record is just over 475,000 in 1981-82.
Express photo by Roland Lane

One fabled grasshopper didn’t prepare for winter and was forced to beg from ants, who worked together all summer long to secure their future.
    Some Wood River Valley elected officials and business owners have complained that over the past decade, the Sun Valley area’s community has not shown a unified effort to prepare for winter, to solidify and promote the area’s brand or to increase access—particularly air access—to the outer world. Meanwhile, some of Sun Valley’s competitors have. While skier counts have stagnated in Sun Valley, some competing winter resorts have achieved steady, upward trends and this season boasted record numbers.
    “That’s great news for them and that’s bad news for us,” said Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall, referring to record 2012-13 winter season skier counts for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming and Whitefish Mountain Resort in northwestern Montana. “The more customers of ours they steal, the more businesses go out of business in Ketchum. It’s quite simple.”
    Skier counts represent one person skiing or snowboarding at a resort for any part of a day.
    Sun Valley Co. spokesman Jack Sibbach said the resort’s skier count for 2012-13 was 386,782, a slight increase compared to the 382,128 in 2011-12. The count for 2010-11 was a bit higher, with 407,537. However, 10 years ago in 2002-03, the count was 365,267. The resort’s record year was in 1981-82 with just over 475,000.
    Jackson Hole boasted 502,222 skier days this season, according to a news release from that resort. Sun Valley Co. officials said earlier in the year that their goal this year was to surpass 400,000. About 10 years ago, both Sun Valley and Jackson Hole listed targets of 400,000.
    “Our numbers are static,” said Sun Valley Mayor Dewayne Briscoe, who also called Jackson Hole’s numbers “startling.”
    Whitefish reported 323,000 skier days this season. Spokeswoman Riley Polumbus said the resort used to range from 220,000 to 270,000 about 10 years ago, but has seen a steady rise since.
    “Now we range from 290,000 to 322,000,” she said.
    Jerry Seiffert, Ketchum mayor from 1975-88 (and now an advertising representative at the Idaho Mountain Express), said the Sun Valley area could handle 500,000 skier days without feeling over-crowded. He said area residents would notice only how many “credit cards they’re harvesting.” He said a healthy number for the community would be to get back to the 475,000 record and that the whole community should “step up” to make that happen.
    “It’s really imperative that we increase the skier-day count,” he said. “Sun Valley Co. can’t do it alone—none of the resorts do.”
    Both Briscoe and Seiffert said Sun Valley’s numbers have flattened despite continued investment by the resort in the area’s facilities.
     “We have superior winter recreation facilities, but winter sports enthusiasts may not be aware of Sun Valley and have problems in transportation to get here,” Briscoe said.
    Sun Valley consistently places in the top 10 ski resorts in North America as voted by the readers of Ski magazine. This year, it ranked seventh, while Jackson Hole ranked sixth and Whitefish 11th—another record for Whitefish. However, the “access” category is always at least one Achilles’ heel for Sun Valley’s score. Sun Valley also struggles with brand awareness. The Sun Valley Marketing Alliance’s 2012-13 strategic plan states that Sun Valley came to the “top of mind” of only 1 percent of destination skiers in California, according to a recent study by the organization.
    “You can see the impact over the past 10 years,” said Marketing Alliance President Arlene Schieven. “[Jackson Hole’s] been adding flights. We’ve been losing capacity. It’s definitely put us at a disadvantage. I think also a consistent presence in the marketplace, appealing to a broad range in the demographic, is also where we need to be.”
    The Jackson Hole news release cites a “unified” community that works together as one reason for its recent success. That teamwork includes securing this past winter three new nonstop flights into Jackson, including  one from San Francisco.
    “That San Francisco flight to Jackson Hole should have been our flight,” Hall said. “These numbers just underpin the necessity to improve our access and our marketing to get our customers back. That’s why it’s really important that this community pass the 1 percent for air and work on increasing our marketing budget, not decreasing it.”
    Hall was referring to a measure on Hailey’s, Ketchum’s and Sun Valley’s ballots last November that would have increased the local-option tax in those cities by an additional 1 percent to subsidize more air service into Friedman Memorial Airport. The air tax failed in Hailey and Ketchum, but passed in Sun Valley. Hailey and Ketchum are expected to reintroduce the measure this November. Sun Valley is waiting for the other cities to pass the tax before collecting it with them. Jackson Hole’s subsidy program is publicly and privately funded.
    “There’s a reason air service development is important, and that’s because it works,” said Carol Waller, executive director of Fly Sun Valley Alliance.
    The marketing effort for the area has also not been consistent. In 2010, the cities of Ketchum and Sun Valley cut their funding of the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau in favor of supporting an organization that would focus on marketing the valley externally, now known as the Marketing Alliance. Last summer, the Sun Valley City Council voted to reduce funding to the Marketing Alliance—Briscoe vetoed that decision, but the council overrode his veto—while the Ketchum City Council increased its funding. The resort gave $25,000 to the Marketing Alliance to help defray some of Sun Valley’s reduction.
    “I think as a community, if we all get together and move in the right direction, we can solve some of the existing problems,” Sibbach said. “What I mean by the community is all of us, the cities, businesses and resort.”

Brennan Rego:

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