NEWS

Ski areas focus on guest experience as real estate boom slows down

Date: Sep. 17th, 2009
Contact: Bob Berwyn Summit Daily

Colorado ski resorts are gearing up for the season, with the start of snowmaking only a couple of weeks away at areas like Loveland and Copper Mountain. In a pre-season announcement, the state's ski area trade group, Colorado Ski Country USA, highlighted some upcoming improvements around the High Country.

The news is mostly not about flashy new lifts and terrain expansions this year. Those large-scale projects were at least partly financed by profits from resort real estate sales, and those days are gone, according to long-time industry observers like Eagle County-based Jerry Jones.

Along with executive stints at Keystone and a few other areas, Jones has had a hand in Colorado mountain real estate for many years, and he's wondering how the large ski companies will ride out the economic tides. Even with signs of improvement in consumer confidence, Jones reckons it could take quite a while for the resort real estate market to bounce back.

Jones is not alone in his assessment. Last spring, during the Mountain Travel Symposium at Keystone, Vail chief Rob Katz famously said, “The fat years are over.”

And Intrawest leader Bill Jensen, a mountain operations guy from way back — including stints at Breckenridge and Vail — said at a business conference in Canada last year that the real estate market has “disappeared.”

Jensen said ski area operators should focus on doing what they do best — providing an unmatched outdoor experience.

Similarly, Jones said resorts need to increase their revenue from day-to-day operations in the coming seasons, and some of the improvements announced by Colorado Ski Country may signify that trend. Improvements are aimed at improving ease, comfort and quality for guests — even if they aren't buying condos.

Responding a drop in revenue from food sales and ski school last season, some of the local resorts have designed special promotions to boost revenues in areas where they flagged last year. Even areas that posted strong skier visit numbers saw ski school and food sales drop.

So Keystone, for example, will offer a $225 season-long lesson pass, good for unlimited class sessions. Vail Resorts also emphasized better, healthier food in the company's many on-mountain restaurants.

Around the state

Arapahoe Basin is taking a break from major projects this year after a string of upgrades, including last year's parking expansion and construction of a pedestrian highway underpass. The new parking amenities have helped ease shortages of spots during busy weekends.

The Aspen Skiing Company has recently invested about $8 million in on-mountain improvements, including hands-free lift access with electronic tickets. The famed Little Nell is completing the first phase of an $18 million renovation and the new LEED-certified Viceroy Snowmass will anchor the new $1 billion base village at Snowmass.

Breckenridge is getting fired up for the early season appearance of the Dew Tour in December, a major stop on the competition circuit this year.

Crested Butte is now owned by CNL Lifestyle Properties, the same company that owns the commercial real estate at Copper Mountain. Changes include a remodel of the popular Ice Bar. The transformation will double the size of the existing restaurant, increasing capacity while maintaining the simple, intimate setting.

A new play area at the base of the mountain includes a synthetic ice rink. The rink, made from “Super-Glide” synthetic ice, is the first synthetic ice-skating facility in Colorado. It was recycled from the American Museum of Natural History in New York where it was part of a display on climate change.

Copper Mountain is focusing on the recently completed Woodward at Copper adventure sports training hall with a slew of programs for skiing and snowboarding. Resort execs said recently they are just weeks away from getting final approval for a parking expansion that will reduce congestion along resort-area roads.

Echo Mountain Resort guests can choose from several new multi-week programs for kids ages 4-14 and their parents. Kids' morning and afternoon classes are offered in three-week sessions, and a parent one-hour lesson and lift ticket can be added at a discounted rate. One of the few resorts that offers night skiing, Echo Mountain is introducing night series programs this season geared toward specific skier types, for example, women specific skiing and riding.

Keystone has completed construction of a new skier bridge leading back to the base of the River Run gondola, and will offer a $225 pass valid for unlimited group lessons during the upcoming season.

Loveland added a Magic Carpet surface lift to Loveland Valley for children's ski school programs. This new addition makes lessons easier and more enjoyable for children. Loveland has also spent more than $500,000 on base area enhancements at both Loveland Basin and Loveland Valley.

Monarch Mountain added a snowcat to a fleet already serving 75,000 acres of prime pow country and doubled the size of a terrain park.

Purgatory is one of the few areas adding new terrain, expanding its expert offering by 30 percent. The new, steep, tree-skiing terrain is accessible from the Legends lift (Chair 8). This expansion to the west of the previous ski area boundary will increase Purgatory's skiable acreage by more than 10 percent.

Ski Cooper is offering specific season passes for military personnel and their families. The small area near Leadville also added a new snowcat to its fleet this year to provide better access to nearly 25,000 acres of terrain.

Telluride will also add new steeps with the Gold Hill Chutes 2-5. Chutes 2-5 offer wide-open, above treeline couloirs and chutes dropping 1,600 vertical feet. The resort added two WWII-era howitzers last season to facilitate avalanche control of this terrain, which will open as conditions allow.

Winter Park is putting the finishing touches on the major expansion and redevelopment of The Village at Winter Park Resort. When the project is completed, it will total an estimated investment of $30 million for on-mountain construction and feature 20,000 square feet of new retail, rental, restaurant and living space.

Wolf Creek will open the $1.5 million Raven's Nest day lodge, located mid-mountain on top of the Raven chairlift. This lodge and dining facility was freshly completed in the spring of 2009. The Raven's Nest will offer a food and beverage service as well as a warming area for Wolf Creek skiers and riders. Additionally, some ski school classes will meet at this mid-mountain location, providing a seamless start to lessons for guests.