Part of nationwide trend
Snow may be falling in the Rocky Mountains in May, but it’s little consolation for a ski industry that took a major hit during the 2011-2012 ski season. Resorts across the country are reporting major drops in annual skier visits, and Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR) is no exception.
CBMR recorded 305,290 skier visits this past ski season. According to public relations and communications manager Erica Reiter, the resort saw a 15.7 percent decline in overall skier visits and a 10 percent drop in season pass visits. The resort was also more than 15 percent down in destination visits.
The total snowfall is also disheartening, coming in at 144.5 inches. The resort saw as little as 193 inches as recently as the 2009-2010 ski season, but Reiter had to go back to the winter of 1993-1994 to find a total snowfall anywhere near this past season’s; CBMR then logged 168 inches.
CBMR is attributing the drop in attendance to the weather, of course, but Reiter says that the decline in airline seats into the valley also played a role. There were about 11 percent fewer seats flying into the Gunnison Crested Butte Airport compared to the 2010-2011 ski season, and that has an economic impact.
“Destination visitors are the people who bring the most money to the valley, staying in lodging, going out to eat and shopping,” Reiter said.
CBMR is not the only ski resort to see a decline in skier visits. Across the region, Vail Resorts is reporting a 12.6 percent decline in skier visits at its Colorado and California resorts combined, which represents an 8.9 percent decrease for its Colorado resorts and 24.2 percent for its California properties (excluding recent acquisition, Kirkwood Ski Resort).
Vail Resorts’ cumulative snowfall was down more than 50 percent over the previous year.
It’s a trend showing up across the nation, making it the worst ski season in 20 years. Jason Blevins of the Denver Post recently reported that national skier visits plunged from a record high of 60.5 million skier visits during the 2010-2011 ski season to 51 million this past season. That represents a 20 percent decline in New England, a 26 percent drop in California and 7 percent across the Rocky Mountains.
The industry as a whole can only hope that next ski season brings more snow. But in the meantime, Reiter says the resort will adjust its marketing strategy. Because the number of inbound seats in the 2012-2013 air program will roughly match the 2011-2012 program, the resort can’t rely solely on destination skiers to fill the slopes.
“Because we aren’t going to see growth on inbound air seats, we’re going to focus our marketing efforts regionally,” Reiter said.
In doing so, CBMR plans to leverage the expertise of Scott Clarkson, vice-president of marketing. Clarkson has extensive experience with regional marketing for the Muellers’ east coast ski resort, Okemo, and came to CBMR last November. Clarkson has already been instrumental in implementing late-season, short-term sales passes to attract more regional skiers. He also helped CBMR partner with the Gunnison Valley Tourism Association to secure $200,000 in incremental valley-wide marketing from the Local Marketing District this year.
Yet even as CBMR looks ahead to next year, the rumor mill is churning in response to the downturn in skier visits and snowfall. Facebook and town streets are abuzz with talk of a resort sale, but Reiter says those rumors are false.
“There are no conversations about any sale at all,” Reiter said.
The resort is moving full steam ahead into the summer season. Work crews have been out on the mountain bike trails, and the resort is on track to open the trails, the Red Lady Lift, the zip line and mini golf in time for Ride the Rockies, which hits town the weekend of June 9 and 10. The resort will then reopen for the summer on June 16.
And CNL Lifestyles, which owns 16 ski resort properties and seven ski-area villages including CBMR, remains optimistic about the future of the ski industry. Managing director Steve Rice was quoted in a Denver Post article as eternally optimistic and certain things will improve: “I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that this year’s silver lining is that it demonstrates a worst-case scenario. We know what the bottom looks like,” he said.