Tuesday, July 23, 2019
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RTA board of directors to help subsidize winter airline tickets in 2018

January visits always a problem

By Aimee Eaton

The Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) will put $150,000, with an additional $50,000, toward dropping the price of airline tickets for flights between Denver into the Gunnison-Crested Butte airport this winter.

This buy-down should help lower the cost of tickets that are purchased as part of a lodging and lift ticket package by about $100 apiece.

The decision was made at an August 4 special meeting of the RTA, where board member Janet Farmer came out hard against the buy-down, repeatedly saying that it was a “slippery slope,” one on which the RTA could become trapped into paying to bring people into the valley for years to come.

“If we pay people to come here once, then they look to come again and it’s more expensive, they’re going to be asking what happened,” said Farmer, who was the lone vote against the buy-down. “We’re supposed to be getting the flights here, not necessarily the butts in the seats.”

Board member and Crested Butte mayor Glenn Michel seemed to lead the discussion for the members in support of the buy-down.

“One of the things we’ve talked a lot about in the Gunnison Valley and with the One Valley Prosperity project is the necessity to have year-round air service. How we achieve that is still being determined,” Michel said. “Right now there are three ways to get airlines here: voluntarily, with buy-downs, and with guarantees. We have to remember that the larger long-term goal is to have a viable year-round air service, which we’ve all agreed we want.”

Gunnison County commissioner John Messner weighed in on his concerns regarding the buy-downs, before ultimately voting in favor of the plan.

“This buy-down is particularly tied to a ski and lodging package,” he said.

“If we’re actually having to pay people to get here, that’s a problem, but if we’re taking $200 off the top, that’s an interesting concept. Having the discounted ticket tied into a Crested Butte Mountain Resort package is a different beast. In the summers we’re having people tell us to shut the doors, we’re full up, but in the winter we’re willing to pay people to get here. I’d be interested to hear where CBMR stands on this and what they’re offering.”

Crested Butte Mountain Resort vice president Erica Mueller entered the debate to tell the board that the resort was making every effort to encourage new visitors, market to new audiences and provide the best product throughout the winter season.

“What we’ve heard in our surveys is the area where we are most limited—and that has an impact on our visits—is our lack of intermediate terrain,” said Mueller. “The development of the Teo bowl is a step toward addressing that. We’re also doing our own buy-downs for lodging, and creating packages to promote winter travel and visits.”

Gunnison-Crested Butte’s relationship with winter air travel has long been complicated with airline carriers refusing to come to the small airport, expensive seats on flights that will come, and often near-empty planes.

Last January, a high percentage of flights coming into the Gunnison-Crested Butte airport included empty seats. This January, due to changes in flights and carriers, including two flights a day coming in from Denver, the number of seats available each day will jump by a minimum of 50 seats.

CBMR’s vice president of marketing and sales, Scott Clarkson, described the problem.

“January was a problem in 1967 and it’s going to be a problem in 2067. It’s after the holidays when pocketbooks are tight, it’s often the coldest month of the year, and the terrain can still be limited. The quick fix for increasing visitors in January is to discount.”

He continued, “The ski area is moving forward with a buy-down for lodging. We will be doing what we can to get more terrain open. We can’t do much about snow, but for the last 25 years January has been one of the top months for snow. Snow is not the problem. “

Crested Butte’s Michel said the town will also work to improve its offerings to visitors during January.

“We’re working to expand the market,” he said. “We’re updating the Nordic Center and working with the Fat Bike World Championships. We know we need to diversify and contribute to new winter markets. The fact is, we could end up with a whole lot of airplanes landing in Gunnison with a lot of empty seats in January.”

Airline consultant Kent Meyers suggested the board keep the increase in seats in perspective.

“Starting after the seventh of January there are no weekend flights on American or United coming out of Houston or Dallas,” Meyers said. “The only additional flight is this daily flight coming out of Denver from January 8 to February 15. The sheer numbers are pretty small because it’s 50 more seats a day. The percentage is pretty big because we have a low base. For 35 days we have 50 extra seats a day.”

“What about looking toward Western?” said Gunnison’s Messner. “There are 1,500 students over at the university. Can we get 200 of them to fly home or back over the holidays? Can we broaden this to capture other markets?”

RTA board chair Roland Mason said that was a possibility but he was worried it would dilute the targeted market of new visitors.

Meyers said targeting a specific market was not his concern.

“If we don’t increase the total number of people flying in January it will dilute all of the flights. We need to find 50 more people, I don’t care who those people are as long as they are flying on an airplane,” Meyers said.

Farmer then reiterated that she saw the buy-down as a slippery slope and did not believe it was something upon which RTA tax dollars should be sent, especially if it was not also going to bolster local economies.

“I don’t want local people using those outbound seats,” she said.

Michel then called the vote for a proposal that would give the Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Association $150,000 to use toward buy-downs associated with winter ski tourism packages and anther $50,000 for buy-downs aimed at broadening the winter market.

In addition, CBMR’s Mueller agreed to lead a valley-wide task force that would look at expanding marketing efforts to new audiences throughout the entire Gunnison Valley so that all the municipalities would see the benefit of increased winter visitors.

The proposal passed 6-1. Farmer was the dissenting vote.

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