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Posted: May 01, 2013

Ski-area expansions and the bottom line

Resort developments yield mixed reactions

Eric Peterson

While the goal is to maintain an “uncrowded” feel, the results of expanding terrain would have the effect of luring more customers. “We’d instantly grow skier visits,” Ralph says. “We’d have more terrain and more skiers.” The resort’s forecast calls for an immediate post-expansion bump to about 200,000 skier-days a year.

Thus Monarch doubled the size of the base lodge for 2012-13 and pushed the Forest Service to approve a larger parking lot. A huge snowstorm in late February maxed out the parking lot at 9:30 a.m., says Ralph, forcing a shuttle bus into service to ferry skiers from a lot several miles away. “It’s not the experience we want to provide,” Ralph says.

“The number-one thing we hear every year: They’d like to see more terrain,” says John Sale, director of planning and sustainability at Crested Butte Mountain Resort. Crested Butte features 638 developed acres and another 550 acres of extreme in-bounds terrain that’s a mismatch for “the average skier from Oklahoma or Texas,” Sale says. “Two to three days on our mountain and people are looking for more.”

After the Forest Service denied the resort’s controversial proposed expansion onto Snodgrass Mountain in 2009, the resort’s management pivoted to a new vision of expanding into 400 acres of the Teocalli Drainage.

“It’ll be totally different from the front side,” Sale says. He describes the master plan’s vision of “an in-bounds, pseudo-backcountry experience” with very thoughtfully gladed runs. “In the old days, they would just get a bulldozer and glade the runs. This is going to be much different.”

Sale is also pursuing a new Snodgrass plan that includes no lifts, just routes for Alpine tour (AT) skiers to skin uphill. “We think there’s an opportunity for human-powered use,” says Sale. “It’s the fastest growing trend in the industry. We could really have something that’s unique.”

Sale says expansions at Breckenridge and larger resorts serve a much different strategic purpose. “They’re looking to disperse people from the lift lines. We’re trying to add more terrain so people can have an enjoyable experience for four to five days of skiing. It’s more about our customer than anything else.”

Numbers don’t typically lie. Crested Butte’s skier-days have plunged after peaking at about 250,000 in 1997-98. “Last year, we were at 122,000,” says Sale. “That’s a drop of 53 percent.”

A reduction in the number of flights into nearby Gunnison has also factored into this decline, as have cancellation of free and discounted lift-ticket deals and a number of other factors. The community is working to bring in more flights, but ultimately “it’s really about how do we bring more people here?” Sale says.

It’s not about fighting for a bigger chunk of a stagnant pie, he adds. “Compared to the golf industry, the ski industry was seeing positive growth” – nationally, skier-days peaked at 60 million in 2010-11, but dropped to 51 million when the bone-dry winter of 2011-12 hit.

Sale says the resort could see a return on an expansion investment in the near term, but that it needed to attract more airlines to do so. “The overall return is based on access to Crested Butte,” he says. “It’s not just terrain.”

Nonetheless, Sale points out that Crested Butte’s prime competitors – Steamboat and Telluride – have considerably more space. “We’re under no pretenses that we compete with Vail,” he says, pointing to Telluride’s Prospect and Revelation Bowls as models for the type of expansion he’d like to oversee. “We could have something new for every season for the next 10 years.”

Prospect Bowl opened at Telluride in 2002, followed by Revelation in 2008. “The timing was great, because it happened as the recession began,” says resort spokesman Watkinson. “It was on everybody’s radar and it still is on everybody’s radar.” Prospect was the big one, adding nearly 700 acres and nearly doubling Telluride’s skiable terrain.

Telluride does not disclose its skier-day data, so it’s hard to gauge ROI. “We’ve been steadily increasing our skier visits,” says Watkinson, citing modest growth even in 2011-12 when the industry was down nearly 20 percent nationwide because of skimpy snowpack.

Watkinson attributes it more to runs for beginners than those for experts. “There’s terrain for everybody,” he says. “You can take beginners up to the top of the mountain. You just don’t get that anywhere.”

But the expansions cost the resort a pretty penny and were not without critics. Was it worth it, or more importantly, will it be in the long term? Answers Watkinson: “Yep – definitely.”

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Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at Eptcb126@msn.com

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