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Posted: November 07, 2013

Three keys to the ski economy:

Snow, snow, snow

Jeff Rundles

This legislation broadens the lease language beyond alpine and Nordic skiing to include such summertime activities on the mountains as zip lines, mountain bike terrain parks and trails, Frisbee golf courses and ropes courses. It specifically prohibits, however, tennis courts, water slides and water parks, swimming pools, golf courses, and amusement parks, but nevertheless is expected to annually sustain up to 600 extra jobs and bring in an additional $40 million to local communities in direct spending nationwide.

In response, Vail Resorts is pumping $20 million into each of three resorts – Vail and Breckenridge in Colorado – to create the Epic Discovery, which will include summertime activities coupled with environmental educational opportunities.

“We see this as a great opportunity to tap into new destination business for summer activities,” says Vail’s Carrig. “The door has opened to a much larger view of what summer could be, and our company is taking the lead on that with a real commitment.”

Expect to see similar developments at nearly all of the state’s resorts. “We’re now authorized to provide things we couldn’t do before, and it will provide employment year round and act as a hedge when we don’t have snow by Thanksgiving,” says Ski Country’s Mills.

“I think most resorts will find their biggest opportunity in developing their summer business,” adds Al White, executive director of the Colorado Office of Tourism and a prime marketer of everything Colorado.   

But some are jumping on board the summertime bus more eagerly than others. The Beaver Creek Property Owners Association and the Greystone Condominium Association recently filed a lawsuit against Vail Resorts to prevent the construction of a park complex planned for the mountain facing Beaver Creek Village and in close proximity to the residences.

Largely the disagreement stems from conflicting definitions of what Beaver Creek homeowners consider an amusement park. Vail Resorts is calling the proposed ride the “Forest Flyer,” or raised alpine slide.

Another big effort is in marketing. At the Colorado Office of Tourism, with its annual $15 million budget, the marketing spend breaks down approximately to 60 percent for summer tourism, 8 percent for the autumn color season and 32 percent for skiing – the relative proportions each season contributes to the state’s tourism economy. 

“We try and kick it up a notch in years like 2011/12, when the weather struggles, and we try and respond when there are significant opportunities, like ‘It’s snowing in Colorado!’” says White.

The push for the tourism office, White says, is away from the typical “steep and deep” marketing, showing off daredevils on tough runs in heavy powder – referred to in the industry as “Ski Porn” – and more toward portraying family skiing, “because it appeals to a broader audience.” The office targets spot markets where it feels the industry can receive an incremental lift from its efforts. For several years it has targeted Chicago, Minneapolis and Dallas.

At Ski Country USA marketing is also aimed at the destination skier because Colorado visitors are hit heavily from the resorts themselves, says Mills. “We’re looking to get people to Colorado for skiing instead of competitor states and countries.” The international ski marketing efforts here tend to focus on the United Kingdom (the No. 1 international draw for years), Mexico, Brazil, New Zealand, Japan and Korea.

“In the last five years Australia has moved into the No. 1 international location,” says Mills. “Australians love to come here in January.”

And while family-friendly marketing is in the mix, Mills doesn’t dismiss the hotdogs.

“We (Colorado) are an incredible family destination; we’ve got great children’s programs and ski schools all over the state,” she says. “But we also get the people who want to ski their brains out, and everything in between. Other states don’t have that.” 

There are many other challenges and opportunities in Colorado’s ski industry and everyone involved is highly dedicated to find solutions. Traffic on I-70 is another example. Ski industry leaders are deeply involved in pushing for the incremental improvements to lessen the “aggravation” of the commute. Many baby boomers, that large generation that drove the industry over the last 60 years, are hanging up their skis, so there is a push to entice kids and young adults; the latter group has lately been either falling or flat-lining in participation.

But perhaps the biggest effort by the industry and areas themselves is the overall improvement of their ski mountains and facilities.

“Our company has been most aggressive in capital expenditures – $130 million in 2013 alone, a record for us – with a primary focus around the basic elements of skiing,” says Carrig. These improvements, he notes, include new lifts, restaurants, better grooming and more snow-making.

“Meeting and exceeding the consumers’ expectation in quality is a big focus,” Carrig adds. “Our resorts have a very high-end clientele from a wealth perspective. They are willing to spend money and they have high expectations.”  

According to Mills, Colorado owns about 20 percent of the market. “We have to do our part to keep that steady or growing. We all have the opportunity to remind people what an experience a day in the mountains provides.”

So it seems that the industry and the individual players are poised to take advantage of the “America’s Best Skiing” reputation year round and worldwide. But a massive Rocky Mountain snow storm – one that hits television and gets the Internet buzzing – couldn’t hurt.

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Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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