Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Lag in winter air bookings has officials wondering why

Epic Pass impact? Buy-downs of fares? Ski safaris?

By Mark Reaman

At this very early point heading into the ski season, airline reservations are down about 1,400 people compared to last year, according to the report at the Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) meeting on Friday, September 27.

Winter air service in the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport (GUC) is focused on direct flights out of Dallas, Houston and Denver. The American Airlines contract for Dallas service is signed, while United is reviewing the contract for service out of Houston. Flights from both cities are loaded and ready for reservations and, while it is early for winter air reservations, the numbers are off significantly.

“Our thought is that lag is because we didn’t do buy-downs of airline tickets this year,” said RTA executive director Scott Truex. “We pushed a buy-down program to reduce the airfare costs pretty early in 2018 and that is probably the main reason.”

In 2018, Crested Butte Mountain Resort supported an early season “buy-down” program that subsidized tickets into GUC and helped spur reservations.

Kent Myers and Bill Tomcich of Airplanners, LLC, the RTA airline consulting firm, said they have noted the lag as well. “The largest challenge is DFW and American right now,” explained Myers. “Some of that is cannibalization from the expanded Houston market that has more frequency this year.”

The Dallas and Denver flight schedules are very similar to last year, with an extra week of service from Dallas at the end of the season. Houston was increased to daily service all winter this year. Last year was daily during the holidays and then weekends during the mid-February to March timeframe. The overall seat count is up about 15 percent.

“The fares into Gunnison are a little bit higher this year as well,” added Tomcich. “Some of the other ski resorts are seeing Delta Airlines come in and add to the competition and thus their airfares are going down. Delta isn’t here in this market so Gunnison isn’t impacted by Delta like other ski markets.”

Tourism and Prosperity Partnership (TAPP, the former TA) executive director John Norton noted that he met several people skiing Crested Butte last year who were taking advantage of their Epic Passes to do a sort of ski safari trip and that could be a factor.

“I rode the lifts with people who flew into Salt Lake City or Denver and then skied several resorts,” Norton explained. “It was cheaper to fly into, say, Denver and then drive to Breckenridge and ski a few days and then drive to Crested Butte and ski and move on to Telluride or Park City. It was a ski road trip, and why not? With an Epic Pass you can hit a number of different resorts and it is included in the pass price. I think that might be one impact of the Epic Pass. I think people may still be intending to come here but using that model where they fly into somewhere else and ski a number of resorts on their trip.”

Myers noted that the University of Denver is offering a class on how Colorado ski areas are changing as a result of multi-resort passes. He said the class will study the impacts of the Epic and Ikon ski passes. The financial, travel pattern and other impacts that come with such multi-resort ski passes are changing how people utilize Colorado ski areas and it is interesting enough for a university to study the ramifications. “It is a fascinating deal,” said Myers. “That ski safari opportunity is having a big impact everywhere.”

Norton said the TAPP met with the air marketing team for Vail Resorts recently and Vail apparently plans to focus its efforts on Dallas, Houston, Austin and Chicago, with the heaviest focus on Dallas since that is where most of the airline seats are. “They are already starting to put out a message in those markets. We are going to be more focused on Houston, as that seems a bigger challenge,” he said. “We will be out marketing there more in November.”

Norton said he and Myers have chatted about how to address the lag and will strategize on how to “figure out the pattern of people making reservations to the valley.”

“I’ll be anxious to see if we get an uptick in reservations with some cooler weather and snow,” concluded Myers.

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