By Allen Best
Skier numbers surge
ASPEN, Colo. – Reports from the Aspen Skiing Co. and Vail Resorts suggest a very, very good winter so far for destination resorts in the West.
Aspen has logged a 7 percent increase through December at its four ski areas in the Aspen-Snowmass Village area.
The snowpack in Aspen is above average. In addition, the company attributed the increase to boosted service levels and “value-added marketing.”
Vail Resorts, meanwhile, reported a 10 percent increase through early January at its four ski areas in Colorado and two ski areas in the Lake Tahoe Basin of California and Nevada. The company said revenue for lift tickets, ski rentals and lodging was up at all resorts.
Sheet note: Mammoth’s skier visits, by comparison, are up approximately 9%.
These statistics mirror a new report this week from the Mountain Travel Research Program. After studying hotel occupancies at participating properties in more than a dozen major resorts of the West, MTRiP reports an increase of nearly 9 percent during December compared to the prior year. MTRiP’s Ralf Garrison also reported advance bookings for January through June increasing 7.6 percent as compared to last year’s rate.
Sales of snow-related sporting goods have also been robust. SnowSports Industries America reported a 22 percent increase in dollar volume of goods for equipment through November. That figure went to 30 percent in the West.
Visitation index: “flush” factor
WHISTLER, B.C. – Just how do you figure out how many people have been in town – and, from purely a mercenary point of view, how much money they have left?
A very rough measure is how much sewage is treated, a barometer used at Vail and Avon – an area sometimes called the Vail Valley – for decades. It’s sometimes called the flush factor. A broadly used formula is used to calculate how many people were in town.
The flush factor, however, has a margin of uncertainty. How, for example, do you account for the number of people in town for the day – but not for the night?
At Whistler, Pique Newsmagazine took a swipe at an even rougher estimate: how much toilet paper is getting dispensed to hotels. By that measure, Christmas week was quite a successful time. That estimate was backed up by tourism officials’ estimate that lodges were filled to 90 percent occupancy at Christmas. Last-minute visits were up, apparently in response to favorable weather and last-minute lodging deals. The widened Sea to Sky Highway also allows easier travel from Vancouver.
Telluride lodges in limbo
MOUNTAIN VILLAGE, Colo. – Telluride area lodging properties the Capella Telluride and the Inn at Lost Creek are said to be ready to close on Jan. 31 unless both receive infusions of cash.
Both had entered the foreclosure process in October. A court-appointed receiver in November had assured the public that the properties would remain in operation through ski season. But, he now says, the revenues just don’t justify continued operations. The lodges employ 120 people.
The Capella, in particular, has been described as a high-end property with extraordinary service levels, and it was expected to allow Telluride to compete with the highest-end resorts of the West. A condo-hotel, it opened at virtually the worst time imaginable, February 2009.
John Volponi, general manager of both properties, told The Telluride Watch that the Capella financial model’s dependence upon sale of the condominiums to prepay the construction debt was the fatal flaw. “The program was to sell all the original hotel rooms, condominiums and retail space,” he said. “None of that has been sold by the developer.”
The primary lender had been Lehman Brothers, but when it went bankrupt at the start of the Great Recession, a Scandinavian bank called Swedbank decided to invest $6 million to finish construction. It later invested another $5.9 million to keep the Capella operational. But faced with an estimated $2 million shortfall this year, it apparently has had had enough.
Some in Telluride think this is the worst economic news since the last big mine closed in 1978, and the best thing to come out of the depressed economy could be a smaller carbon footprint.
Bankers mixed on foreclosures
OURAY, Colo. – Foreclosures in resort communities of Colorado continued to rise last year, in many cases eclipsing records set during the real-estate bust of the mid-1980s.
The Denver Post notes that resort-dominated counties may well lead Colorado’s 63 counties in foreclosures, the flip of what usually happens.
Eagle County broke the foreclosure record set in 1987, but also has about twice as many residents as it had then.
In southwest Colorado, bankers are mixed on whether the worst is over. Andrew Karow, regional president of Alpine Bank in the Telluride-Ouray-Montrose area, sees cause to believe the worst is over. But Tricia Maxon, Community Banks of Colorado Regional President, sees no improvement, opining that many borrowers have exhausted their options and are throwing in the towel.
Ouray County has a base of middle-income retirees with modest nest eggs and little debt.
Tech should be last safety net
KETCHUM, Idaho – The manufacturer’s recall of the Avalung, a device that can deliver air to somebody buried in an avalanche, caused some philosophizing in Ketchum.
“I have no problem with all of this technology. I think it’s great,” said Chris Lundry, director of the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center. “But that should be the last safety net.”
Lundy told the Idaho Mountain Express that the problem with the Avalung is that it can be difficult to use when being swept up in a slide.
“You have to get this tube in your mouth and hold it,” he said. “You’re not going to ski with it in your mouth, so it’s a tricky thing to do under the gun of an avalanche,” he said. And once buried, the user may not be able to move enough to grab the tube, he added.
Lund explains that the problem with relying upon technology is that it lulls a person into assuming a greater risk. That’s been demonstrated with studded snow tires, which result in people driving faster on snowy and icy roads.
“One little check that people can do in the backcountry is say, ‘Would I do this without a beacon?’ It just gets you thinking.”
But even if both the beacon and the Avalung are functioning properly, somebody swept in an avalanche might not survive. “Airbags, beacons and Avalungs aren’t going to do a thing if you smack a tree,” Lundy said.
Still, he recommends everyone in avalanche terrain carry a beacon, preferably the newest three-antennae models such as the Tracker 2, which offer an improved mechanism for pinpointing a victim’s location under the snow.