October 27, 2008
Resorts test out snow-saving blanketThe people in Utah's ski industry are fretting, naturally, about what the economic maelstrom will do to business this winter.
But there is an underlying confidence that if any place in the country is positioned to weather the onslaught, it is Utah.
The main reasons - location and snow.
More than ever, the ease of getting from Salt Lake City International Airport to numerous Wasatch Front resorts is expected to be inviting to visitors more likely to shorten their stays than to cancel their beloved ski vacation altogether.
Having a big metropolitan area within a short drive of these ski areas also provides access to lodging of every price range, a luxury not shared by many resort towns courting thriftier-than-usual visitors. "You can't stay at the Motel 6 Aspen," quipped Ski Utah President Nathan Rafferty.
When it comes to snow, no ski region in the country can match the dependable consistency of Wasatch Mountain accumulations. A 700-inch season may be a rarity, but it's a snow total Utah ski marketers can cite legitimately wherever they go. And among the diehard ski community, it's well known that the leanest winter in Utah would be the best year some places have ever had.
"Our ski product is eminently saleable," said Rafferty, whose organization serves as the marketing arm of the state's 13 resorts and their extended $1 billion-a-year industry.
"The ski industry is going to have a tough time. Nobody knows how hard it will be, and I don't think anyone is immune," he acknowledged. "But we have options that other destinations don't have."
Rafferty is not alone in his restrained, somewhat hopeful, confidence.
Joni Dykstra, who handles marketing for the venerable Alta Lodge, said bookings actually are ahead of last year at this time (and it turned out to be a good year). "We have a great brand and a rich tradition and loyal guests," she said.
Bookings have been slower than usual at Utah Vacation Homes, which has economical-through-luxury lodgings around Salt Lake City and Park City. But assistant general manager Robyn Orme said her company expected that, given all the losses on Wall Street. The decline isn't a major reason for concern yet, she added, especially because ski people increasingly book late, waiting until snow conditions dictate when to travel.
"Past years have shown that snow trumps all," Orme said.
Her competitor over at Wasatch Front Ski Accommodations, Gayleen Johanson, sees things similarly. "I would have expected some kind of slowdown, but I haven't seen it," she said. "I'm seeing that people want fewer days. But if people are avid skiers, they're going to find the money to come out and ski."
Like most Utah resorts, Snowbird depends extensively on locals to make ends meet. So even before the bottom fell out of the stock market, resort officials determined that the deteriorating economy warranted more discount deals to entice Utahns to take up the slack from destination visitor losses.
The price of a young adult pass was cut from $1,000 to $625. A package for a family of four went from $2,500 to $2,000. Some early season lodging rates were lowered to $99 per night. That approach has helped to soften the blow, said Snowbird spokesman Jared Ishkanian.
"Bookings are slightly down, and Snowbird is certainly feeling a small effect of the bigger conditions on Wall Street," he said. "The good thing is that season pass sales are up. . . .We have a strong local pool of skiers. We're just trying to respond to difficult economic times, trying to make it as affordable as we can."
Other Utah resorts also are offering plenty of deals.
Resorts will need every edge they can get in what promises to be a highly competitive environment, the likes of which "none of us has ever seen before," said Ralf Garrison, organizer of last week's Mountain Travel Symposium for the hospitality industry.
"The storm clouds are a'coming," he said, noting that advance reservations in the Rocky Mountain states are 9 percent off last year's pace. In addition, "the [nightly] rate is down 2 percent, for the first time in recent memory."
Garrison's featured speaker was Peter Yesawich, chairman and CEO of Ypartnership, a marketing, advertising and public relations agency serving travel, leisure, hospitality and entertainment clients.
Addressing an online audience on a day in which the Dow Jones index plummeted 733 points, Yesawich said he was "deeply concerned about the short-term impact of what's happening in the markets now."
To survive the immediate crunch, he advised resorts to develop inducements for potential clients whose tightening finances leave them strapped for time and actively seeking the best deals they can get.
"Even more-affluent travelers will be far more value sensitive in the year ahead," he said. "They don't want to overpay. And people are now armed with the most important technology in commerce, the Internet, to make sure they don't overpay."
Yesawich's message also reinforced the importance of the accessibility issue highlighted throughout Utah's ski promotions.
"As we become more time impoverished, the radius of marketing efficiency is contracting. The maximum travel time is four to six hours, driving or flying," he said. "If people only have four days, and it takes a day to get there and a day to get back, that destination goes off the list."
Brian Head Resort is emphasizing proximity in its promotional campaign in Las Vegas, its primary source of visitors. The drive to the southwestern Utah resort is much shorter than it is to anywhere in California, said Brian Head spokesman Bob Whitelaw.
"As long as we can get that good snow, especially early in the season, and get people excited that we have everything open, people will come," he predicted.
Mindful of the time and money constrictions facing its target audience, the Utah Office of Tourism and its private-sector partners are poised to unleash their advertising campaigns on Nov. 5, the day after the presidential election.
In ads on national cable channels and in the all-important Los Angeles market, Utah's main theme will be, "You don't waste any time getting on the slopes," said Tourism Office managing director Leigh von der Esch.
Just as importantly, the campaign will emphasize "more value per mile," she added. "No doubt the economy is on everyone's minds. That's why it behooves us to show that you can get the family vacation you expect, and the value, in Utah."
Mike Gorrell [The Salt Lake Tribune]