Vail Resorts’ (owner of the Breckenridge ski area) economic growth continued in its most recent fiscal year, with strong gains reported across virtually all segments of its operations.
In a Monday morning call with financial analysts, Vail Resorts President and CEO Rob Katz detailed the results for both the fiscal 2016 fourth quarter and the 2016 fiscal year overall (that period is Aug. 1-July 31).
Katz said the company is “extremely pleased” with pass sales in the period, adding that he’s particularly pleased with marketing efforts that have prompted consumers to buy their passes earlier in the year.
Through the end of the fourth quarter — which ended July 31 — pass sales had grown 24 percent in units and 29 percent in revenue. The full effect of earlier pass sales won’t be known for a number of weeks, but those early sales — which include spring and Labor Day promotions — added up to 60 percent of all pass sales in fiscal 2015. Katz said he expects that number to increase in the 2016 fiscal year.
Those pass sales, in addition to favorable, snowy weather last winter in the western United States, drove higher visitation, and those people tended to spend more money.
Vail Resorts Chief Financial Officer Michael Barkin said that visits to the company’s U.S. resorts grew 13 percent in fiscal 2016. And, Barkin said that the company’s total skier-visit number in fiscal 2016 exceeded 10 million for the first time.
While overall visitation was up, international business is a mixed bag. Katz said that Australia remains a growing market — due in large part to Vail Resorts’ purchase of the Perisher ski resort in 2014. But visits from Great Britain and Canada declined in the fiscal year. Visits from Mexico were about even for fiscal 2015, Katz said, adding that the Brazilian market saw “dramatic” declines, not just due to the strong dollar, but that country’s own economic problems.
Moving forward, Katz said the company expects currency exchange rates to stabilize in the 2017 fiscal year.
Which leads to Whistler.
Katz said the deal for Vail Resorts to buy the giant resort in British Columbia — a deal announced in August — has passed muster with the Canadian Competition Bureau and other government agencies, and he expects to finalize the transaction later this year.
The Whistler deal hasn’t had any effect on current pass sales, since Vail Resorts announced in August that its own Epic Passes won’t be accepted at Whistler in the coming season.
Katz said having Whistler in Vail Resorts’ portfolio gives the company a way to adjust to international currency fluctuations. Whistler has benefited from the strong dollar, Katz said, adding that the resort “provides a natural currency hedge.” Exchange rates can drive guests to either Canada or the U.S., he added.
Taking questions from analysts, Katz said since the busiest summer months are in July and August — different fiscal quarters — the company will have a better idea of the program’s first full season in Vail and Heavenly at the end of this calendar year.
But, Katz said, Epic Discovery gives the company an opportunity to attract people who may not visit mountain resorts in the winter.
“Epic Discovery gives us a chance to convert (those guests) to taking winter trips,” Katz said, adding that summer customers “aren’t our best target for season pass buyers.”
EASING OUT OF REAL ESTATE
While Vail Resorts’ resort businesses are growing, the company is easing out of the real estate development business.
The company did generate $22 million in cash flow in fiscal 2016, and closed the sales of five units at the Ritz-Carlton Residences in Vail, three Crystal Peak Lodge units in Breckenridge. The company also sold a land parcel at the base of Breckenridge. That sale totaled $9.25 million.
While the company still holds more than $90 million worth of real estate, Katz said that the company is looking for partners with projects that “make economic sense.”
“We’re focused on what the resort and community needs,” Katz said. “We hope to announce a number of partnerships in the coming years.”
Those partnerships will include Park City. But, Katz said, the company is in no hurry.
“We’re happy to take whatever time is required,” he said. “We need to have something everyone can feel good about.”
Following is a letter to the editor from John Buhler, VP and COO of the Breckenridge Ski Resort that recently appeared in the Denver Post and the Summit Daily News.
TRUST IS A TWO-WAY STREET
I have been a part of Breckenridge Ski Resort and the Breckenridge community for 20 years. Throughout that time, I have heard how community members want to hold the ski resort “accountable” or how important it is that people could “trust” us. And all for good reason. Our ski resort is the biggest employer in Breckenridge and we are proud to be a critical part of what makes our town so special. It’s one of the reasons that last summer, despite some very serious concerns, we came together with the Breckenridge Town Council and tried to settle our differences over how to improve skier parking and transit. And now it’s time for the town to be held accountable for their commitments.
Last summer, the town was adamant that a lift tax was needed to build a new, $50 million, 700-900-space skier parking garage in the core of town on F-Lot. They outlined their plan in their public campaign materials for “Parking Now” and they made it very clear in numerous private meetings with our resort that they were fully and unanimously committed to a parking garage solution. We asked the town to take more time to study what was really needed. But our concerns were summarily rejected and we were told “the time for studies was over” and the tax and new skier parking on F-Lot was needed immediately.
Unfortunately, right after the election when voters passed this tax, the town council completely reversed direction saying they were not sure that new skier parking was really a priority and that F-Lot was no longer their preferred solution. It seems like it was a complete bait and switch. We took the town at its word. Now we are left struggling to understand why skiers are now paying a tax designed to pay, in large part, for a parking garage, and instead they will be getting a free trolley service.
Breckenridge Ski Resort was successful in getting season passes exempted from this tax, so many of you may feel that since you won’t be paying the tax, it’s not a big concern. But your guests will pay the tax, whether on a Buddy Pass, Ski with a Friend or daily lift ticket and we feel an obligation to do the right thing for all of our guests. We intend to strongly and loudly continue to hold the town accountable and fight for the parking they promised all skiers.
We know many would like to see us “get along” with the town. We agree. But we will not “go along” when they break their campaign promises and we won’t apologize for holding the town accountable to ensure town-core parking is built. The town needs to repair trust with us, because that is the basis for a kind of relationship we all aspire to and to ensure that we can continue to collaborate to improve our community.
As snow starts to dust the mountainsides, and Summit County begins prepping for ski season, it makes it hard to think of warm summer days. The summer months in Colorado mountain towns have historically caused a struggle within the tourism industry. Posing the question, how do you attract visitors to the mountains in the summer?
Fortunately for Coloradans, the worker bees in the tourism industry have been setting their minds to fixing this problem. And their work is paying off.
Denver-based DestiMetrics measures lodging statistics in the summer months from May to October. According to its data, mountain towns across six states are set to break summer records for the fifth year in a row.
For many mountain towns trying to find ways to market summer tourism meant changing the entire structure.
“Trying to run a 12 month budget off of three or four busy months during the winter was not necessarily the soundest business plan,” said Tom Foley, the operations director at DesitMetrics.
The season isn’t over yet, but the company said that as of Aug. 31, regional occupancy is up 7.3 percent from this time last year, and revenue is also up a stunning 14.7 percent.
In Summit County, towns like Dillon, Silverthorne and Breck consider July and August to be their strongest summer months.
Barb Richard, a marketing manager with Summit Resort Groups, said that Dillon has always had a strong summer season because of the lake and marina. But even Dillon is seeing increased travel numbers. She said that a combination of cheap gas and a good economy is fueling the fire for people wanting to travel. According to Richard, this led to double-digit growth for the resort’s properties in Dillon for June, July and August.
“August finished very strong compared to prior years,” she said.
Richard said that one of the biggest impacts for summer numbers is a shortening shoulder season. People are usually unsure of mountain weather in the months before July and after August. But lately even these months are doing well.
Bill Wishowski, the director of operations for the Breckenridge Tourism Office said that most of their growth is coming from weekday guests. He added that the town has been seeing steady growth since 2011 and that this summer is not an exception.
New construction and more places to stay could also be impacting the numbers. Some of these newer facilities, like the Hampton Inn in Silverthorne, which opened in December of 2015, don’t yet have the data to see if summers are a growing trend, but are optimistic about the future.
The hotel is operated and managed by Denver-based Silverwest Hotels through a franchise agreement with Hilton. Ed Mace, Silverwest’s president and CEO joked that if you want to look at trends, you’ll have to check in with him next year.
But things are looking good.
“We had a great summer. The business was as good, or better, than we could have expected for our first year,” Mace said.
Mace has been in the industry for 30 years and previously worked with Vail Resorts. His familiarity with resort towns made him realize that tourism numbers are not only good for the local economy, but can also be a stabilizer for seasonal workers as well.
“It’s good because we’re able to attract and hold employees who aren’t just dependent on four months a year. With more months in the year in this business, the service employees … have a chance to come and stay in the market and work full time rather than having to migrate in just for the winter and back out again,” Mace said.
Employee turnover and quiet shoulder seasons can put a strain on businesses in the community. During the slow months, shops may not see as much business, causing what Breckenridge Town Councilwoman Erin Gigiello calls a “feast or famine economy.”
“I think it’s important to continue an open dialogue with businesses to see how the town and the Breckenridge Tourism Office can help manage our guests to alleviate strain. I also know turnover can cause challenges in our businesses as well. My hope is that more consistent success and steady, year-round income, will help cut down on turnover in our workforce,” she said.
In life-or-death situations, adrenaline mercifully relieves us of the burden of thought, allowing instinct to take over. For most of us — except Summit County’s many extreme sports enthusiasts — it’s something we rarely experience. We owe that in large part to the men and women who expose themselves to such danger every day.
But when the chips are down, and our emergency responders shelve “flight” for “fight,” they rely not just on instinct but also training for almost any possible emergency. On Sept. 28, Summit County’s emergency responders will be preparing for one the worst possible scenarios: a mass shooting.
More than a hundred police officers, sheriff’s deputies, EMTs, fire fighters and other first responders from jurisdictions across the county will respond to a simulated active shooter event Wednesday morning at the St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco, then pursue the gunman to the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge.
“We certainly hope that a mass shooting never takes place in our community, but we have to be diligent about preparing for this type of event,” interim Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said. “These exercises give us the opportunity to ensure that we have the right systems in place to collaborate with one another in response to major disasters and emergencies that affect multiple jurisdictions.”
Colorado is no stranger to mass shootings, which have become a macabre reality of modern life. One of the nation’s most traumatic killings happened at Columbine High School in Littleton, claiming the lives of 15, including the perpetrators. In 2012, a gunman brandishing an assault rifle killed 12 moviegoers at a theater in Aurora, helping spur lawmakers to pass a controversial gun control bill in 2013.
The simulation is set to start around 9 a.m. when a sheriff’s deputy will start firing blanks into the air inside the hospital. Then, roughly 35 volunteer actors, some with gory make up and fake injuries, will serve as victims or distressed loved ones, allowing first responders to practice scene security and crowd control.
Then, the shooter will flee to the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge, where the simulation will end after the shooter takes his own life. There will be a press conference at around 2 p.m., where county spokeswoman Julie Sutor will take questions from the media.
“Statistically, that’s how most of these situations end,” said undersheriff Joel Cochrane who helped plan the scenario. “I don’t want to set up a gun battle or anything.”
Cochrane said the main point of the exercise is to practice coordination between different agencies and establishing a unified incident command.
“These are really granular tasks,” he said. “They’re what the public don’t (sic) see: all the synchronization that happens on a daily basis. This is just on a much bigger scale.”
These types of exercises — for which departments will sometimes hire “crisis actors” trained to adapt based on first responders’ behavior — have grown popular around the country, particularly in schools. Some consulting services even teach students basic self-defense and disarmament techniques.
Summit County lacks the extensive medical infrastructure of urban areas, where shootings more commonly occur. That makes it all the more important to practice how to adapt when that infrastructure is strained by a mass-casualty event, defined in Summit County as involving 10 or more immediate-need patients.
Sometimes, it can be the smallest components of this mass response effort that need refining. Last year’s simulation, for instance, provided much in the way of organizational learning, but also revealed how tiny details can accumulate — things like extension cords or even a flag for behind the press podium.
For Cochrane, these details are tiny links in a massive organizational web, and the active shooter scenario gives him and the Summit County Sheriff’s Office the opportunity to examine every nut and bolt of their emergency response plan.
The fake blood, mannequin corpses and blank rounds aren’t just for dramatic flair — Cochrane said the realism is important for first responders and especially medical personnel.
“The scenario isn’t designed to frighten or anything,” he said. “It’s just important to make it as real as possible.”
Cochrane and his team at the sheriff’s office have been putting together the plan for six months. This Wednesday, they’ll finally get to see it in action.
Real estate sales for the month of August hit a wall when compared to last year, but it’s not due to a lack of demand — it’s a lack of product.
While August is usually a big month for the county, this year it remained flat. This month saw only 13 more sales than August of 2015. Both July and August saw 21 sales that hit more than $1 million this year. August saw an additional two sales in that price range last year. While August did see an increase in the value of total sales from last year, it was not by much, barely inching above $1.1 million.
But demand for housing may continue to drive buyers to Summit County. Dennis Clauer, a broker from Real Estate of the Summit Inc., wrote in his monthly real estate update that the average sale price for the year-to-date in 2016 has risen 13 percent from the same time last year due to a shrinking inventory. He also said that the number of townhomes and condominiums for sale on the market in August has dropped 54 percent when compared to 2015.
Eddie O’Brien, owner of O’Brien & Associates Real Estate Inc., agreed, adding that the biggest issue in Summit County is a shortage of places to sell.
“It forces prices up, which is good for the seller, but it reduces the number of sales we could have if we could have more product in the lower and mid-range,” he said.
Some of the spike in demand is coming from people living in urban Colorado seeking real estate investments.
“We have so many people that are moving into the Front Range, that once they settle into the Front Range, over the last few years, they realize that the resort areas are very attractive and it’s a good place to invest,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien also added that many of the towns in Summit County are investing in their Main Street or downtown areas. Silverthorne is currently trying to revitalize its downtown area, basing it around the construction of the Lake Dillon Theatre Company’s performing arts complex. Breckenridge also did some work on its Main Street area by creating Breckenridge Creative Arts in 2014.
O’Brien thinks that one of the biggest areas that needs improvement in the county is condo construction. He said that many condo developers are hesitating to build due to the Construction Defect Law, which holds the developer liable for defects in the construction of condos. This makes it easy for them to get sued until the limitations on the law run out. The hesitation causes a problem, since there is a large demand for condos in the county.
“The market for condominiums is so high we should be building five times what’s being built right now,” he said.
TOP FIVE: AUGUST
1. $3,600,000 – Breckenridge, Highlands at Breckenridge Lot 3 (residential plot)
2. $2,260,500 – Breckenridge, Shock Hill Landing Lot 16 (residential plot)
The name says it all: Aspen Alley is where you go for a surreal, almost claustrophobic roller-coaster ride through aspen tunnels.
Found just outside of Breckenridge at Boreas Pass, the trail is a wild ride in autumn (or any other time of year), when the trail’s namesake aspen stands change colors and begin to drop leaves. Few experiences compare to barreling over a carpet of multi-colored singletrack, but if you’re lucky enough, it’s a must.
The trail also provides stunning views of Breckenridge Ski Resort from start to finish. In 2015, the Breckenridge trail crew finished a series of trail improvements, including mellow berms on the numerous switchbacks and natural-rock pavers on flood-prone sections. The upgrades were a godsend: The trail sees a ton of traffic from late May until the start of winter. Be wary of loose dirt in the lower switchbacks late in the season, and, of course bring your camera.
Pedal through the Boreas Pass access gate and take an immediate right onto Aspen Alley. The 1.3-mile one-way trail is downhill from start to finish, with only a handful of brief flat sections to catch your breath and rest your brake finger. The singletrack is more flowy than technical — don’t expect massive roots or jagged rocks — and thanks to the addition of switchback berms, it’s now faster than ever before. On average, a single run only takes about 15 minutes, making it a prime candidate for looping three or four times via the Summit Stage bus. Due to high volume, portions of the trail tend to get rutted or dusty depending on the conditions.
From I-70, drive south toward Breckenridge on Highway 9. Turn left onto Boreas Pass Road (also known as Broken Lance Drive if taken to the right) at the stoplight on the south end of town. From here, you have two options. Park at the Stephen C. West Ice Arena lot and hop on the free Boreas Pass loop bus. Ride the route for about 15 minutes until the bus reaches the Bluffs Condos stop. Pedal up Boreas Pass Road for about 1 mile to the trailhead.
You can also drive 3.5 miles up Boreas Pass Road to pavement’s end. Park in a pull-off on the left where the road becomes dirt. The Aspen Alley trailhead is on the right immediately after passing through the brown access gate. The trail ends at a small dirt lot about 1/4-mile east of the ice arena. You can either pedal back to the Boreas Pass lot or save your legs by taking the bus from the ice arena.
As the days begin to shorten and crisp mornings bring the anticipation of winter, Summit County takes one last breath of brilliance before succumbing to the snow. The explosion of reds, yellows and oranges along the trails and across the peaks give the High Country breathtaking views almost anywhere traveled.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE COLOR
Although fall in the mountains is relatively short, the turning of the leaves can be counted on each year.
“There’s three factors that influence the leaf color,” said Adam D. Bianchi, deputy district ranger of the United States Forest Service — Dillon Ranger District.
Those factors are leaf pigments, the length of night and the weather, he said. “Typically we think that weather really affects the change, but realistically it’s more the length of the night. … Every calendar year we can predict when the colors are going to start to change. When the days get shorter and the nights get longer, a biochemical process starts to occur inside the leaves.”
The process affects three pigments produced in the leaves: chlorophyll, carotenoids and anthocyanins. Chlorophyll gives leaves their basic green color and is produced in photosynthesis through sunlight. With shorter days and longer nights, the chemical reaction of photosynthesis slows.
“The sunlight that it was using to manufacture some of the sugars that cause photosynthesis begin to slow down, and then it pushes all of those sugars into the root system,” Bianchi said. “So when that happens, we tend to see more of this carotenoid pigment that’s in the leaf all year round, we just don’t see it because how much chlorophyll is there.”
Carotenoids are the yellow, orange and brown colors seen in the fall, which is often the pigment seen in carrots, rutabagas and corn, Bianchi said.
While sugars are being pulled down into the root system and chlorophyll is no longer being produced, anthocyanins comes into play because the tree is trying to produce as much sugar as possible to pull into the root system for dormant season. Anthocyanins gives the leaves that red, purple color — the same pigment seen in cranberries, red apples and blueberries, Bianchi said.
“Basically, during the summer growing season, chlorophyll is continually produced, broken down, and so the leaves are green,” he said. “As the night length increases in fall, the chlorophyll production slows down, stops and eventually the chlorophyll is then destroyed, and that’s why we see the carotenoids and anthocyanins already present.”
LENGTH OF THE SEASON
In Summit County, the vibrant colors are only seen a few weeks out of the year — here one minute and gone the next. How long the leaves stick around in those colors varies by tree species and when they start to turn is based off of latitude in the United States.
“It’s kind of genetically inherited when the colors come on and how long they stay,” Bianchi said. “In late September in New England states, they will start to change color and move southward across the United States. But at that same time — it’s basically based off of latitude in the United States — so at that same latitude here in Colorado and in the high mountain elevation, you’ll see stuff changing the same time you might see something change in New England.”
How long the leaves will stay in their autumn colors is affected by weather conditions. Warm, sunny days and cool, crisp nights brings more spectacular color displays, because that weather pattern produces more sugars inside the leaves, and cool nights and gradual closing of the veins within the leaves prevent the sugars from moving out quicker. With this type of weather, the colors come on later and last longer into the fall.
“A lot of times you’ll see that more with the reds and purples,” Bianchi said. “So on the flip side, more of the yellows, the aspens that we see, are more dependent on soil moisture. If we have a late spring, or severe summer drought, it can delay those colors.”
A warm period during the fall will also lower the intensity of the colors. So the most favorable conditions for vibrant yellow colors are a warm, wet spring, and warm, sunny fall days with cool nights. In the mountains, the leaves begin to change first at higher elevations, and move down to the valley bottoms.
This year, Bianchi said he thinks the leaves might hang around longer due to a relatively wet summer season. The fall colors will probably last into early October.
“But if you get a cold snap in, or a nice frost, it could really shut things down quickly,” he said.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR VIEWING NEAR SUMMIT
North of Silverthorne
Acorn Creek trailhead can be accessed by driving north on Highway 9 from Silverthorne for approximately 10.6 miles. After you cross the Blue River you will immediately turn right onto CR 2400 (Ute Park Road). At the first junction, continue left following the trailhead sign. Then turn right onto FDR 2402 (Rodeo Drive) and travel approximately 0.6 miles to the trailhead/parking lot. (Directions from US Forest Service website.)
“I really like Acorn Creek. … That to me is a great place to view (leaves),” Bianchi said.
Beaver Creek Trail
Fairplay, Park County
In the summer, Beaver Creek Road is open to traffic, but there are also numerous hiking, biking and 4WD trails in the vicinity to get off the main path. It takes roughly an hour to get to the area from Frisco, but the views even from just the road are exploding with color right now.
Elevation: 11,488 feet
On the south end of Breckenridge is Boreas Pass. The road is open to vehicles during the summer, or park in the lot and hike or bike up. The road has a gradual ascent to the summit, making it a relatively easy hike. Boreas offers an expansive view of the Blue River Valley and the Ten Mile Range, and also boasts views of Breckenridge Ski Resort.
Cataract Lake area
North of Silverthorne
This trail is roughly 25 miles north of Silverthorne near Heeney. Getting to Upper Cataract Lake is a hike — it requires about six hours of hiking over 10.5 miles of trail, with an elevation gain of 2,000 vertical feet. Lower Cataract is easier, the trail is about 2 miles long with minimal incline.
“I was there a couple days ago, and Lower Cataract was really changing quick,” Bianchi said.
Elevation: 11,319 feet
Fremont Pass forms the Continental Divide on the border between Lake County and Summit County. Take the Copper Mountain exit (195) and follow CO-91 south — it takes about 20 minutes from Frisco.
Elevation: 11,670 feet
Guanella Pass Scenic and Historic Byway is a 23-mile route through Pike and Arapaho national forest land that links Georgetown and Grant. The road is rugged, which means less traffic. Guanella Pass takes about an hour to get to from Frisco.
Elevation: 11,542 feet
Hoosier Pass separates Summit and Park counties. There is a large parking lot at the top of the pass for picture taking, as well as hiking trails. Coming down Hoosier Pass into Park County also lends itself to spectacular views of the valley.
Elevation: 9,997 feet
Getting to this pass takes a little over an hour from Frisco, but it is one of the most popular areas for leaf peeping. This also means beware the crowds — weekends especially — so watch for slowing traffic and pedestrians when getting close to the top.