Rocky Mountain High For Colorado Ski Industry

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While many Americans won't be mourning the end of this winter season, most businesses in Colorado's High Country are hoping the cold and snow will hang on for several more months, at least.

Last season, many ski resorts and tour operators across the state were quietly lowering their rates and offering creative discounts, as the economic downturn threatened to keep many vacationers, skiers and snowboarders at home or on abbreviated vacations. According to a recent Colorado Travel Year Report by Longwoods International , travel spending by overnight visitors to Colorado in 2008 totaled $9.6 billion. Of that, $1.7 billion -- or 18% -- was related to skiing. Those dollars are not just generated on the slopes, but by the hotels, rental shops, restaurants and other businesses dependent on cold-weather vacationers.

But now, even though a mediocre snowfall produced a dip in tourism after the New Year's holiday, winter enthusiasts are back in Colorado's mountains.

Despite Economy, Skiers Are Optimists

"Our business has been great," says Jeff Citron, president and owner of Rocky Mountain Getaways in Breckenridge, which offers full-package ski tours. Citron recently ran his numbers and discovered a 29% improvement from last year. "And as a smaller, mid-sized ski tour operator," he says, "most of my competitors are having a decent year as well."

Jennifer Rudolph, communications director for Colorado Ski Country USA, (CSCUSA) says she's seeing a lot of pent-up skiing energy being released this season, even as the economy remains uncertain. "Skiers and snow boarders tend to be optimists by nature," she says, "and those of us that work in the industry tend to be optimists... we'll find a way to get out there on the slopes, whether it means packing our lunches instead of buying at the resorts, or skiing closer to home rather than taking that grand, out-of state-vacation."

Rudolph says local skiers from "regional markets, drive-by markets, coming in for the weekend" are also helping to make up the difference this year, accounting for about 60% of business at CSCUSA's 22 member resorts. At the same time, her research shows a growing number of out-of-state vacationers are working to get the most out of their vacation dollars by spending more time on-line, searching out deals and discount packages before booking their ski trips.

Revenues Rising at Nation's Ski Resorts

Ski areas everywhere are hostage to the weather, but Colorado has one of the longest ski seasons in the nation. "Opening Day" is usually in early October and some resorts may not close down until the Memorial Day weekend, or even later. March and April are also some of the snowiest months in Colorado. "And given that it's also an El Nino year, which brings the snow later in the season, we're kind of waiting for the other boot to drop," says Rudolph. "There's still some great skiing out there."

In fact, despite the economic challenges, revenues at the nation's ski resorts have been rising steadily over the past five years. Data recently released by the research firm IbisWorld, says U.S. ski industry revenue is expected grow by nearly 6% this season, to $2.72 billion.

Jeff Citron, meanwhile, is cautiously optimistic. "Every year brings something new. Last year was definitely a shocker for everybody, " says Citron. But we were able to bounce back this year and we're hoping that things continue on an upward trend."
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