Tough ski season ahead? | SkyHiNews.com

Tough ski season ahead?

Bob Berwyn
summit county correspondent
Keystone, Colorado

KEYSTONE” Despite some notes of optimism, many travel professionals gathered at Keystone this week for their annual trade pow-wow are looking ahead at the next several months with considerable trepidation.

According to most analysts, there are no real signs that the economy is going to bounce back quickly. At best, there could be some signs of recovery toward the end of this year, leaving resorts to face at least one more challenging ski season.

So along with the woes of short-term reservation trends, which have consistently dropped from month to month for the past year, there’s a more fundamental question for the mountain resort industry, said travel expert Ralf Garrison, who will moderate a panel of industry leaders today at the Mountain Travel Symposium. “Will this industry retain credibility for investors,” Garrison said. “Is the mountain resort industry still viable as viewed by the investment community?” he asked.

The answer is critical in communities like Summit County, where publicly traded companies are big economic drivers

“The answer is yes, but how do we get there,” said Garrison, who tracks reservations and other travel-related data for mountain resorts. He suggested that speakers like Vail Resorts chief executive officer Rob Katz will be able to provide some insight.

“He’s a pace-setter, because of the critical mass of his company,” Garrison said.

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Garrison described the symposium as taking place on the solstice of the season, intended to look both back at the past season and forward to the next. It’s important to try and determine whether some of the patterns from this season are trends or just short-term fads, he said.

Some resorts rode out the economic storm this winter by relying on a backfill of locally and regionally driven short-stay business. Good snow across some key ski resort regions also helped the industry stay afloat.

“But now that we’re in March, the magic dust isn’t there anymore,” Garrison said.

By some projections, overall skier visits may drop by about 5 percent nationwide, putting the final tally at about 57 million, give or take. That’s off the record pace of last season, but still ahead of the final numbers from just to years ago, Garrison pointed out.

“Less bad is the new good,” he said. “We’re forewarned, but what are we going to do about it,” he said, looking ahead toward next season. The head-in-the-sand approach definitely won’t work, he said.

For businesses in resort towns, this is the time to take the initiative.

“It’s never ben more important to have your best offer out there for the market that’s most likely to buy,” Garrison said.

“All the things you said you were going to do with marketing, whether it’s video, or social networking, or if you’ve been afraid of Web 2.0 … Now’s the time,” said Carl Ribaudo, who works with Garrison in the Lake Tahoe area.

Several tech vendors at the Keystone symposium agreed with Garrison. Using the internet to get a message to consumers is more important than ever, according to web designers with Resort Technology Partners.

“It’s about building a beautiful web site, driving people to it, and counting the results,” said Kent Schnepp. “There’s no more measurable form of marketing than online marketing,” he said, explaining that the technology enables business to precisely calculate their return on investment, a critical measurement when you’re counting every penny in a down economy.

A big focus these days is on micro-sites, like the recently created http://www.beavercreekextreme.com, as well as on social utility tools like Facebook, that create an electronic version of word-of-mouth advertising. The RTP tech wizards have figured out ways to determine which keyword searches are driving people to certain web sites. That’s one key factor enabling companies measure the success of their online campaigns, Schnepp said.

Edwards-based Travelscream, which has experienced rapid growth even during the recent recession, has a similar goal. The company specializes in combining multiple elements of networking technology, from RSS feeds to online guestbooks, message boards and interactive maps, to drive up site visits and optimize search-engine results, said Stephanie Coombs.

Combined, those web site functions help get the message out about special offers and gives consumers the chance to act on the promotions immediately, Coombs said. The customization means that family oriented promotions end up next to family oriented content, or that offers specific to a certain geographic market end up next to content that focuses on that market.

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