Making the drive a pleasant experience
More details about the concept of flying ski season guests into Montrose instead of Gunnison are coming to light. According to Crested Butte Mountain Resort vice president and general manager Ethan Mueller, the idea is to make it easier and cheaper to get to the valley, even though the Montrose airport is an additional hour away from the resort.
“The heart of the issue, or the solution, is to have the access to more direct flights, which can drive more volume to the valley. That benefits everyone, whether it is the ski area or the guy selling hotdogs,” Mueller said. “For example, there was an American flight cancelled this week that was full, and trying to get people re-scheduled is beyond difficult with one flight a day. Ultimately, we are aiming for more consistency and something that visitors can trust more.”
Mueller admits that putting people on a bus for an additional 50 or 60 minutes is not exactly alluring. But he says the change can actually cut down the travel time for a lot of visitors. While the bus ride might be longer, the air travel could be cut significantly.
“If we are bringing in people on more direct flights from all over the country, you eliminate the layovers that they’ve had to deal with in the past. And any layover is at least an hour if not more,” he explained. “Take a skier from Atlanta, for example. To get here now they had to fly into either Dallas or Denver and that entailed a layover. Now they’ll be able to fly directly into Montrose so the door-to-door is probably faster. The same would hold true for a passenger out of the northeast who can catch a direct flight out of Newark or Chicago.”
Taking a bus trip from the Gunnison airport is a different experience than riding from Montrose. Mueller says, “One of our concerns clearly is the ground transportation element. That additional hour or so is something we have to soak up.
“A longer bus ride requires a different experience than is out there now and we’ve talked to Alpine Express about that already,” Mueller continued.
“They do a great job but this is a different animal. Our idea is to make the trip as convenient, efficient and entertaining as possible.”
According to Mueller, the resort would have a person meet each plane in Montrose. Your luggage would be tagged for the property where you were booked. Check-in capability would be available at the airport so that when you arrived at the hotel, the bellhop would hand you your keys and transport your bags to the room as soon as you got off the bus. The goal is to have a seamless guest experience.
“We want the buses to be equipped with free Wi-Fi through satellite so people can use their phones, tablets and I-pads,” Mueller said. “That helps keep the kids entertained. It also allows us to have an adventure service agent on board with a tablet that can round out the guest experience on the bus. He or she will be able to act essentially as a concierge and book dinner reservations or lift tickets or lessons if they want. The last piece of the experience is to partner with local bars and restaurants and have refreshments on board. Maybe we feature Montanya’s rum drinks or Colorado beers featured at the Brick Oven. We haven’t figured out those details but I know as a ski bum that a bus ride with a beer is much easier to take than one without.”
Approximately 22,000 people came through the Gunnison airport last winter season. This year Mueller expects the number to be closer to 20,000. Of those, approximately 7,000 people came through the Denver flights and 13,000 came in on the Houston or Dallas jets.
“Not only do we want to maintain or increase both those numbers, we have to,” emphasized Mueller. “We have to make this work and we’ll be focused on doing so. Twenty thousand is the minimum number of people we can see flying in here.”
When asked about the feasibility of this concept working, Mueller responded, “If we didn’t think we could do it, we wouldn’t even be considering this. There is definitely risk involved but we are confident we can make this work.”
Mueller said since the story broke about possibly using Montrose as a main ski season airport, he has heard good feedback. “We know there will be concerns and we want to hear them and address them,” he said. “We believe that in the long run, this will work better for everyone. The Denver to Gunnison flights will still be coming in and the RTA can focus on that. We can focus on frequency and consistency for the other flights.”
The ski area is also thinking of ways to involve the community more as partners in the air program. Mueller would like to see more local businesses participate in the airline guarantees that keep the winter flights coming in.
“We know small businesses can’t step up to the same level as we can, but those air seats bring in a lot of people who make the majority of the businesses work. Everyone benefits when people fly in here for a vacation,” Mueller said. “The current level of seats pumped in about $26 million for everyone through the valley. That’s spread out to a lot of businesses, not just the resort.”
Mueller understands that owners of small businesses might feel overwhelmed when they hear the guarantees cost more than a million dollars. “Maybe they can think of sponsoring a few seats,” he suggested. “I think a per-seat guarantee is about $120. Maybe a local restaurant or newspaper can sponsor three seats a winter, for example. We like the idea of developing local partnerships. The ultimate goal is to increase the capacity and frequency and control the costs.”
Back to the bus. Mueller said one goal is to reduce the price of a round-trip ticket between Montrose and Mt. Crested Butte. The current price for an adult is $156. Children under 12 cost $98. “We know it needs to be cheaper,” Mueller said. “Volume is one way to bring it down. More competition over there with Telluride Express and rental car companies could impact the price as well. The RTA might want to consider subsidizing the cost of a seat on a bus. It seems that using a bus to get people into the county falls within their charge, so I hope they are considering it. If they can focus on bringing in another flight from Denver and maybe help with the cost of the bus, that would be a great combination. Having two flights a day year-round from Denver into Gunnison would be a great step forward. It would help everyone.”
While Crested Butte and Telluride executives have been in serious talks about partnering in the future to grow both resorts, the goal at the moment is to build the air program together. “Once that is done we will explore deeper partnerships that could include such areas as conferences and groups,” said Mueller. “But that’s a bit further off. We know things have to change to get better.”