September 10, 2009
SALT LAKE CITY – A struggling economy is turning out to be good news for skiers and snowboarders who live close enough to mountains that they can hit the slopes every weekend.
Many ski resorts are slashing prices on season passes and offering locals-only discounts in an effort to boost revenues from nearby metropolitan areas at a time many U.S. travelers are choosing to vacation closer to home.
In few places is this trend more evident than in Utah, where snow lovers can drive from downtown Salt Lake City and be in a lift line in roughly 30 minutes.
"It's a no brainer," said Nick Como, Solitude Mountain Resort's marketing director. "There's so many people down there that don't ski. There's a great market that's just untapped."
Labor Day is the traditional kickoff to preseason winter deals, with discount offers generally expiring every few weeks until the season starts.
Solitude, like many other resorts around the country, has begun offering new season ticket packages at reduced prices on the heels of a winter in which skier visits nationally dropped 5.5 percent in the 2008-09 season from the record 60.5 million visits the season before, according to the National Ski Areas Association.
The association's annual report said destination resorts fared the worst last winter, with resorts close to major cities weathering the economic downturn the best. Many Utah resorts noticed a dip in room reservations from out-of-state tourists, but an uptick in season passes purchased by Utah residents.
"Salt Lake feels really fortunate to have a large local population near us. A lot of our resorts are reaching out to locals maybe more this season than you've seen in the past," said Jessica Kunzer, spokeswoman for Ski Utah, the ski industry's marketing arm in the state. "A lot of the resorts are saying they've extended their early season offerings and discounts. ... The consumer really wants to make sure they get the best bang for their buck."
In Colorado, the reigning king of skiing in the U.S., a growing number of resorts are offering payment plans for season passes, refusing to raise prices and creating special packages for tourists and locals.
"What we're finding is that people are still willing to find a way to make skiing happen this year," said Colorado Ski Country USA spokeswoman Jennifer Rudolph. "So the planning is happening, yet they're still looking for a deal at the same time. Resorts are trying to answer the call for both groups of skiers."
Rudolph said Echo Mountain, the closest resort to Denver, is offering special deals on night skiing for children in an effort to get local families on the mountain throughout the week.
Early indications are that Colorado's discounts and new packages are working, Rudolph said.
"We took a pulse of our members after the Labor Day weekend to see how pass sales were. The majority of them reported very robust pass sales, if not higher, than last year," she said.
In Vermont, the most skiied-in state on the East Coast, resorts are resisting offering new bargain basement deals. Only about 20 percent of the ski industry's market in that state lives in Vermont, with the rest coming from areas like Boston and New York.
"The deals have always been there, but now people are doing their homework and people are seeking out deals," said Jen Butson, spokeswoman for Ski Vermont.
While Vermont noticed a decline in skier visits last season, Butson said it was on par with the state's five-year skier average.
"Last year and the year before were good snow years. That makes a difference on the people making last-minute decisions and people who live in our drive market," she said. "Snow always trumps a bad economy."
Some winter enthusiasts are looking for snow a little closer to home, though. New York vaulted ahead of Utah to become the fourth-most skied in state last season by depending on the millions of people who can drive a couple of hours for a day of skiing.
Western resorts aren't giving up on out-of-state skiers, though.
Utah tourism officials were meeting Thursday to finalize their winter advertising plan, which in addition to national ad buys includes targeted markets like Los Angeles and New York.
"Certainly, the general feeling is that flat is the new up. We want to hold steady. Last year was the fourth largest skier day year, which despite the economy, was very good for us," said Leigh von der Esch, director of the Utah Office of Tourism. "My counterparts in New England, they love it when the gas prices are low. ... We like it when the air fares are low."
Still, von der Esch recognizes the importance of being a tourist in your own state.
"We're really trying to encourage the folks who live in Utah to think, 'Greatest snow on Earth. Just around the corner,' " she said.
On the Net: Ski Utah http://www.skiutah.com
Ski Vermont http://www.skivermont.com
Colorado Ski Country USA http://www.coloradoski.com
National Ski Areas Association http://www.nsaa.org/nsaa/home/