Airport study shows visitation lagging behind other ski towns

Potential in Austin, Phoenix, California

[ By Katherine Nettles ]

Despite increases in Local Marketing District funds and a common perception that more visitors have been coming to the Gunnison Valley in recent years, a new study shows that air-based travel has remained relatively flat for the past decade as comparable areas like Sun Valley, Idaho and Jackson Hole, Wyoming have shown sustained growth.

In a “true visitation estimate” study of the Gunnison Crested Butte Regional Airport (GUC) during 2019/2020, an independent research firm has determined flight-based Gunnison County visitation has not kept pace with many other comparable areas, and suggested the county and GUC consider new approaches to capture more of a growing leisure travel market.

Air service consultant Jeffrey Hartz with Mead & Hunt, Inc. presented the findings to Gunnison County commissioners and airport officials in November. The study followed up on a former 2014 study and the changes from the interim six years. Hartz reviewed general pandemic recovery projections within the industry, specific GUC findings and recommended development planning to create a more robust air market.

Industry overlook
Hartz said the airline industry enjoyed what was likely the biggest run in airline history from 2013 to 2019 before the pandemic, and recovery has plateaued since July 2021 with 60 to 70 percent declines in corporate travel remaining. Hartz predicted that airlines may not recover to full capacity until 2023/24, if at all. “Industry experts wonder whether business traffic will ever recover to pre-pandemic levels,” said Hartz. Skyrocketing fuel prices have continued to cripple profit margins, he added.

Hartz also described the recovery as a tale of two worlds in which carriers to many secluded vacation destinations have doubled and tripled capacity while dense urban areas have seen drastic decreases.

The surge of leisure driven travel has been strong, and has been good for places like the Gunnison Valley, he said. But there is room for improvement to capitalize on the market and some lost opportunities of the past decade.

Gunnison visitation: heavy on drivers
According to Mean & Hunt, the visitation estimate uses GPS-based mobile phone tracking data and other travel-related databases to calculate the number of visitors to areas from 50 miles away or more. The technology tracks all forms of travel, excluding residents and visitors who stay less than 2.5 hours to account for travelers passing through.

The study estimated nearly 820,000 visits to the valley in 2019, then a 13 percent drop in 2020 due to COVID and a rebound in the first half of 2021 with visitation up 3 percent.

Echoing what Gunnison County Tourism and Prosperity Partnership representatives have reported, Hartz said that air-based visitors stay longer and spend more money than the drive market. Yet the largest share of visitors to the Valley comes via the drive market, primarily from Denver and Colorado Springs. Colorado visitors (beyond 50 miles) represented 42 percent of total visitation for Gunnison County in 2019, and 44 percent in 2020. Texas accounted for 18 percent of total visitors in 2019 and 21 percent in 2020. Oklahoma, California and Arizona made up the remainder of top five states.

Dallas was far and away the biggest non-Colorado market, 140 percent larger than Houston. Hartz said this reflects the drivability in one (long) day from Dallas, while Houston adds an additional several hours.

“You’ve done a good job of recruiting folks from the wealthy areas of Dallas,” said Hartz, based on visitation by zip codes. Houston showed up as a much stronger summer market than winter market, prompting Hartz to comment that Houston visitors don’t come to ski much, and don’t want to drive in the winter.

The study showed that the top month for visitation was July of course, with 135,000 visits in 2019. April had the least visitation of any month, followed by May, October and November. This reflects Local Marketing District (LMD) and sales tax revenue numbers as well.

GUC market leaks and stagnation
Hartz emphasized the importance of a consistent local air market demand. Overall, GUC gets about 27 percent of local airline traffic, and Denver gets 57 percent—likely because of lower costs, said Hartz. Local airline traffic retention has increased by three percent during the past six years, however.

Hartz pointed to some final results from the air-based data that compared growth in ski markets from other, similar areas to the Gunnison Valley. Ski markets grew 66 percent from 2006 to 2020, with the exceptions of GUC, Steamboat Springs (HDN) and Eagle Vail. He said the stagnation in Eagle Vail and Steamboat reflected that they had already filled out, but that GUC market has been relatively flat for the past 10 years.

Hartz likened the Gunnison Valley to Sun Valley, however, Sun Valley has grown 30 percent in the last decade.

“Frankly, from a holistic perspective, you could come up with some plans to address that,” said Hartz.

He suggested that getting year round Dallas air service, or as close as possible to it, would be a good step. He also pointed to Phoenix: “If you can get the summer to work, maybe in four or five years you try for winter.”

Similarly, Hartz suggested that California might hold more potential in the coming years, and that flights to Austin hold air marketing potential. Hartz recommended considering some new entrant air carriers as well, such as Avelo, Breeze and Aha.

Commissioner Liz Smith said it was both illuminating and exciting to see the potential for improved airline strategies, and noted that despite less visitation, LMD and sales tax revenues have improved in the past couple years.

“A lot more money is being spent on travel, destinations, experiences,” said Hartz. He said now that commuting has dropped off, “There is a certain class of the economy that is doing better than it ever has. If you are middle class and upper class, you’ve never had a better life than it is right now.” Indicators suggest this will not change for a while.

Commissioner Roland Mason asked if Denver air leakage might at some point taper down, to which Hartz said he expects it will when the industry raises prices.

Commissioner chairperson Jonathan Houck commented that there has always been a struggle to increase capacity year round, especially to Denver.

“The data is remarkable,” said county manager Matthew Birnie. “Our decline versus Montrose’s gain, and that of some of our relative competitors—we’ve not been successful,” he said. “I think it is incumbent upon all of us to think strategically about how to be more successful in that competitive environment.”

Steamboat, Sun Valley and Bozeman have already had a big push pre-pandemic, said Hartz. “And that’s something that, for better or worse, we weren’t able to capture. Hopefully we can now,” he concluded.

Houck said he looks forward to seeing the renovation work at GUC finish up next year and other enhancements such as weather radar technology to improve connectivity and getting planes in and out of GUC. “We’ve got to address from a county perspective all those parts of the discussion…especially as the owner and operator of an airport,” he said.

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