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Winter tourism season starts strong and looks to continue momentum

Silver Queen and East River open Saturday

The reports are in, and the winter ski season is off to a banner start. Thanksgiving brought a flurry of activity on the hill and at the Nordic Center, and early season snow is making it possible to open the Silver Queen and East River lifts this Saturday, December 6. Christmas looks like it will be a busy season, too, and the valley’s major recreational players are all seeing increases in reservations.

 


According to Erica Mueller, director of innovations and relations at Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR), Thanksgiving weekend skier visits and room nights were both up over last year. Lift ticket scans for the weekend showed a 17 percent bump, and room nights between opening day and Monday, December 1 were up 26 percent.
Out on the Nordic trails, 80 skiers took part in the annual Thanksgiving Nordic Ski Camp—a decline from last year, according to Crested Butte Nordic Council (CBNC) executive director Keith Bauer, but by no means an indication that the weekend was slow.
“We saw tons of folks showing up from the front range, Boulder, and northern New Mexico just coming to ski,” Bauer said. “Many had come for the camp in previous years, and now they are just coming to ski and enjoy Crested Butte.”
He added that this year’s Nordic pass sales are through the roof. Season pass sales are up 18.6 percent over last year, day passes are up 24.6 percent, and overall pass sales have jumped 21 percent. Year to date yurt bookings have doubled over last year, and total income is up nearly 25 percent.
“All of this is because of early snow and the buzz about Crested Butte,” Bauer said. “What’s impressive is that last year’s numbers were an all-time high.”
Given the great start to the season, Bauer is optimistic that Nordic skier days will increase 15 percent to 20 percent this year, up to 30,000.
The season forecast continues to look good at CBMR as well. Mueller said Christmas lands on a Thursday this year, and that means the resort will be busy pre- and post-Christmas.
“Last year, Christmas was on a Tuesday/Wednesday so we didn’t see as much traffic [before the holiday],” Mueller said. “This year the travel pattern has shifted so they can travel the weekend before and still make it home for Christmas.”
Compared to last year, the resort is up 41 percent in room nights for December, and the rest of winter is looking good, too. According to Mueller, room nights are up 27 percent in January, 47 percent in February and 1 percent in March.
“Overall for winter, November through April, we’re up 29 percent, so that’s significant,” Mueller said. She attributes the increases to a variety of factors, including the early season snow, a general buzz about Crested Butte, and resort promotions designed to get skiers to town during the slower times of year.
“We really incentivized visitors to come in January and February,” Mueller said, noting that the resort offered more significant savings on flights in January and February instead of March. “Last year we didn’t block out March or the Spring Breaks [from the promotions] and in analyzing that, we probably gave away a lot of money we didn’t need to.”
Incoming flights into the Gunnison Crested Butte Regional Airport echo the same trends. Scott Truex, executive director of the Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA), said the RTA is 1,200 seats ahead of sales this time last year, with about 800 of those during the last two weeks of December.
“We are also up in January and February. Right now, March is down 365 seats from where we were last year and we have about 500 more seats available in March than we did last year. We still have time to sell the March seats and we are really happy with sales for the beginning of the season so far,” Truex said.
And if that isn’t enough to get excited about, Irwin has also been experiencing a similar bump in reservations. General manager Tiff Simpson said 95 percent of its cat ski trips are booked, and the company’s guiding business is picking up, too. About one year ago, Irwin purchased Crested Butte Mountain Guides and business at Irwin Guides is booming.
“My booking calendar is far more full this year than it was last year, so we’re anticipating a banner winter,” Simpson said. Three of Irwin Guides’ 21 avalanche courses are full, and many are on their way to being sold out. Guided backcountry skiing, Nordic skiing, snowshoeing and other activities are also filling up. Like everyone else, Simpson agrees the early season snow has helped. But she also wonders if it’s a sign that things are on the up-and-up.
“This past summer was a record summer for us as well, and I wonder if those of us who work in the tourism and outdoor recreation industry are finally seeing the upswing of the economy. People have the income and they are willing to spend it,” Simpson said.

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