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Posted: May 01, 2008

State of the State: Travel

Eagle County could become home to Colorado International Airport

Allen Best

Gypsum airport is the state’s third busiest, thanks to tourists bound for ski resorts
You know of DIA, of course, but have you heard of CIA — as in Colorado International Airport?

That’s the name proposed by a consultant who was asked how the airport that is currently the state's third busiest could be better branded. It’s located at Gypsum, 37 miles west of Vail. The official title is Eagle County Regional Airport.

The name may sound pretentious, even outlandish. The airport last year recorded only 232,000 commercial passengers, mostly during winter. That’s about one-fifth of the traffic at Colorado Springs, the state’s second busiest air portal, and less than 1 percent of commercial traffic at Denver International. That does not count private aircraft, which account for 75 percent of planes that use the airport.

About 80 percent of the passengers who use Eagle County Regional are headed to the Vail and Beaver Creek areas, with most of the remaining 20 per cent headed to Aspen and Snowmass. Average fares are significantly higher than at DIA. This is a funnel for Colorado’s two best-known and highest-cost resorts.

Those two resort areas have also always done well among international skiers, which represent 10 percent of skier days at Vail and Beaver Creek and 20 percent or more at Aspen and Snowmass. The international crowd spends big at both resorts. When those visitors take the time to travel, they usually stick around for a week, often longer. They don’t clutter up Interstate 70, and often not even local roads. They usually stay at expensive slope-side lodging, buy ski lessons and eat expensive meals.

That the U.S. dollar has weakened against most foreign currencies makes these expensive vacations significantly less expensive to people from Great Britain, Australia, Mexico and Brazil. Numbers are scarce, but anecdotal reports suggest international visitors were a large part of the Colorado ski industry’s success this past winter.

Vail Resorts, the operator of Vail and Beaver Creek plus two other ski areas in Summit County, clearly sees potential for carving out more international business, which increased 23 percent for the most recent quarter over last year. The company initiated the $90,000 branding study done by Denver-based marketing consultant Genesis Inc., splitting the cost with Eagle County’s government. Key to the choice was partner Graham Button, who had previously worked on branding for Beaver Creek while employed by another firm. He comes from London but has worked in Hong Kong, Toronto and New York.

This consideration of foreign skiers is also evident in the new season ski pass offered by Vail, called the Epic. The pass costs only $579, allowing unrestricted access to all five of Vail’s ski areas, which also include Breckenridge and Keystone in Colorado and Heavenly in California.

"In designing the Epic Season Pass, we removed the key limitations and restrictions and are offering it for sale online, better tailoring it for all of our guests from around the world," said Rob Katz, Vail Resorts chief executive officer.

In other words, Vail doesn’t intend to let the price of skiing get in the way of making money from this well-heeled crowd.

Whether the airport at Gypsum indeed becomes "international" is another matter. It also has limited capacity for international flights, but mostly of smaller, private jets. The most immediate gain would be to accommodate elites from Mexico, although Chris Anderson, the terminal manager at the airport, says there’s a possibility of a nonstop from London after the runway extension to 9,000 feet is completed this summer.

Yet to be weighed is the cost of truly offering "international" capabilities. Anderson says that operational costs have been estimated at $800,000 to $1 million annually: "It would take a real strong partnership between the airport and the airlines to cover."

Like Aspen, its older sibling, Vail from its opening in 1962 has sought the international limelight. The resort hosted World Cup ski races, and after the rejection of the Olympics by Colorado voters in 1974, finally triumphed by hosting the 1989 World Alpine Ski Championships, a feat repeated in 1999.

Now, with perhaps $2 billion in redevelopment under way or completed in base-area lodging in Vail, the resort has gussied itself up to become what some have called a world-class resort city. Seen in the light of that huge investment, Colorado International Airport isn’t such a silly idea.

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