Trying to get Vail’s attention to remain competitive
By Katherine Nettles
The Gunnison Valley’s main marketing powerhouse wants to get Vail Resorts’ attention, and quickly. Using an “it takes money to make money” approach, the Gunnison County Tourism and Prosperity Partnership (TAPP) is asking Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR) to invest more in the ski area experience to keep tourism dollars flowing and keep up with other resorts that have invested heavily in their product. These hoped-for investments could come in the form of terrain expansion, new chairlifts and other infrastructure upgrades, but this week TAPP’s executive director John Norton is making that ask.
TAPP is facing its own limitations on tourism marketing as the Local Marketing District (LMD) revenues have dipped over the past year and up to 40% of the LMD’s already reduced revenue will be allocated to other uses such as workforce housing and childcare starting in 2024. TAPP is preparing budget cuts across the organization for 2024 and dipping into some reserves.
On Tuesday, September 19, during the Gunnison County commissioners’ work session, Norton said he was scheduled to speak with CBMR vice president and general manager Tara Schoedinger this week about stepping up the resort’s game in a competitive market.
And the bottom line is, he is nervous about winter.
Norton described a two-part conundrum for Crested Butte’s winter tourism outlook. First, inflation and other economic factors have put a pinch on tourism in general, with numbers down almost 10% from 2022. Second, CBMR has, according to Norton, neglected to keep pace with competitors in similar markets who are making massive infrastructure upgrades.
Norton referred to “record capital spending at other resorts,” like Steamboat’s new 10-person gondola, Alterra’s massive terrain expansion at Deer Valley and many other terrain expansions and lifts elsewhere. Monarch is also in the approval process for expanding terrain and adding a new lift to serve the additional acreage.
“We’ve had nothing significant here since 1991,” when the resort installed the High Lift, he said.
“So, 550,000 skier days was the peak and CBMR started a 30-year slide. I think Vail has arrested that slide, thanks to the Epic Pass, but we’ve seen no capital.
We’ve seen an intent to return from visitors that is lower than it should be,” said Norton.
He reported that the two major lift companies have so much business in the industry right now that they are charging 30% more than they were two years ago. “There’s this competitor frenzy going on around us and we dropped 10% in lodging revenues last winter. And we can’t blame it on the snow, right?
“We’re trying to find some way to get Vail’s attention and show that the capital would be well spent,” continued Norton.
The Crested Butte News reached out for more details on Norton’s specific capital improvement request, and how he views the recent Teocalli Lift and Peachtree Lift replacements serving green and blue terrain near the base area. Norton was also marketing vice president of CBMR in the 1990s and later CEO of CBMR in the early 2000s.
“When your roof leaks and you patch it, that doesn’t really count as a home improvement. That’s how I feel about Teocalli and Peachtree, although the alignment of each is better than before. I’ve heard plenty of skiers complain that Teocalli isn’t a high-speed lift but the scope of the Teocalli terrain really doesn’t justify that extraordinary expense,” responded Norton.
He said what he really hopes to see is the Teo 2 expansion and related upgrades to access some of the more remote extremes.
“The Teo 2 proposal, approved by the U.S. Forest Service, would be a game-changer for the mountain. I’ve skied the terrain all the way down to a bench above Veltri’s (ranch above Brush Creek) and it’s a wonderful experience. A fit intermediate skier could handle the terrain, and, like Third Bowl and some other places on the mountain, a skier would feel really out there. The approval includes a new North Face lift that begins at the intersection of Daisy and Treasury and makes accessing Spellbound and Phoenix easier than today. That would also end the mixing of intermediate and expert skiers in Paradise Bowl above the current North Face Lift, to everyone’s benefit.”
Beyond that, some upgrades to the base area would be welcome, Norton explained.
“After Teo 2, we’re done. There’s really nothing else that I can think of that would really make a meaningful difference in the ski experience. On mountain and base area amenities are, of course, a different subject!”
Norton said this need to play catch-up applies to more than winter, as places like Sun Valley, Park City and Telluride are adding new miles of biking trails every month throughout the similar to what TAPP has been doing for years. Places like Bentonville, Arkansas have also focused on biking amentities to draw southern and mid-western visitors.
Norton noted that June LMD revenue was slow, and although July picked up and he is less concerned about summer than winter, summer competition is vigorous as well. “People have noticed what’s happened here in the summer and they’re interested in making that a part of their prospects,” he said.
Norton said the word for the moment is collaboration. That would apply to the county, the municipalities of Gunnison, Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte, the state, the resort and others like Western State University and the RTA working together to make things happen for the ski resort and surrounding areas. He said it’s important to keep building the Denver market wherever possible, because some people will travel to a place they want to be, but many others will stay close for convenience.
“If we sharpen our product enough,” he said, it is possible to retain more skier visits and maintain the strong biking-based tourism established in the valley.