Both the summer and winter seasons are on-track to reach new highs, in Summit and across the western U.S. Thanks to a solid snow season, a relatively stable economy and a growing reputation, Summit broke records in lodging rates for the 2015-’16 ski season.
According to statistics gathered by DestiMetrics, a Denver-based destination consulting service, Summit County saw a 1 percent increase in occupancy and an 8 percent increase in lodging rates, for total revenue growth of 9 percent.
Compared with western U.S. resorts, Summit saw less occupancy growth, but more rate increases; the overall U.S. Mountain Market saw occupancy increase of 4.4 percent and rate increases of just under one percent.
“Summit County gained more overall revenue,” DestiMetrics director of operations Ralf Garrison said. “But they did so largely by raising the price, not attracting more people.”
With strong demand across the board, winter rates have traditionally been higher than the summer, as a more established vacation market
“Breckenridge has a reputation of having a consistent season throughout the year,” said Bill Wishowski, director of operations for the Breckenridge Tourism Office.
“We open at a normal time, but in those last couple weeks of April, people are used to us being open and having that snow.”
Last season, Breckenridge saw a nominal increase in occupancy, at just half a percent, but still reached a record-setting level for the town.
“We beat last year, and last year was a record winter. We beat that one by very little,” Wishowski said. “As we’re setting records on occupancy, it’s not as if you can’t come up.”
He noted even in the busier winter season, there are often weekday openings in the town. He attributed part of Breckenridge’s seasonal growth not just to the skier market, but to a growing number of ‘winter vacationers’ seeking other activities, such as snowshoeing, dogsledding or catching a bit of history.
“With so many things to do in Breckenridge, our growth in occupancy isn’t just the skiers coming. … The town is our advantage,” he said.
In total, the town reached 52.8 percent occupancy for the winter, with the majority of openings on weekdays.
While Front Range visitors often keep up-to-date with the latest snow forecasts for a weekend getaway, Garrison said that wasn’t necessarily the case for out-of-state visitors.
“They’re more likely to book on how they heard last year was or the long-term reputation,” Garrison said. “There’s a phenomena we call snow equity — If you go to a restaurant and have a good meal, you’re likely to come back because it left a good impression.”
In the same way, heavy late-season snowfall, as seen the past two winters, often increases bookings for the following season.
“The destination guest that comes from out of state books earlier, stays longer, and makes reservations before they even know what snow conditions are going to be like,” Garrison said. “You care more about the snow and less about the economy if you’re close by.”
With abundant snowfall in the early season, just before Christmas, Garrison said early sales were off to a good start last season. But later in February, with several weeks of dry, mild weather, bookings reduced to a slower pace than usual. Then, late April flurries brought in a more local crowd.
“The late season snow we got in April didn’t hurt us a bit,” Wishowski laughed. “We’re blessed. We do celebrate Ullr for a reason.”
While the national economy remained relatively stable for most of last season, erratic swings at the beginning of 2016 reduced consumer confidence, resulting in a bit of a pullback in January and February.
“The last three years have been averaging about a 10 percent increase as we come out of the recession,” Garrison said. “While last year was still growing, at an all time record coming out of the recession, the rate of growth was less than it has been.”
International travel also slowed last year, in part due to the strength of the U.S. dollar. Not only does a stronger dollar increase the cost of a vacation for most international travelers, but it also gives citizens a stronger incentive to travel abroad.
“It was a little more competitive because the Canadian dollar,” Wishowski said. “U.S. travelers were taking advantage of going up to Canada and saving money.”
In addition, improved snow on the west coast, including Tahoe and Mammoth resorts, may have also detracted slightly from Colorado visitor levels.
THE PUSH FOR SUMMER
In mountain resort communities, the appeal of the milder, summer months is gaining renown among visitors. While many of the towns are still synonymous with powder days and cozy mountain lodges, summer brings its own special charm with a wide range of outdoor activities.
“Summer is just two to three years in being discovered by the out-of-state visitor,” Garrison said. “People are booking further in advance for summer. More than half of this summer’s reservation activity is already on the books and deposited as of May 1.”
Nationwide, occupancy rates for the “summer season” (May through October) have set a record for the past four years in a row. At the rate the season has started, this year may break records again.
In total, mountain resort occupancies are up 11 percent so far for this upcoming summer, with rates up seven percent for a total revenue increase of 19 percent. Summit is up 8 percent in occupancy and 8 percent in rates, for a total of 16 percent. Yet even with the jumps in summer lodging prices, the season is a much more affordable time to travel to the mountains, with rates at about half of winter prices.
“Winter has a higher demand, and is more established, so people expect to pay more,” Garrison said.
In Breckenridge, summer bookings are outpacing last year’s by about 8 percent.
“To see 8 percent growth early on is certainly positive,” Wishowski said. “About 40 percent of our summer business is on the books.”
In total, the town still sees slightly lower occupancy rates than the winter, at about 34 percent.
The town’s growth is not consistent through all of the months. Early season, in May and June is a tougher sell with chilly weather and variable conditions. But the autumn months are one of the largest areas of growth, with warmer weather and back-to-back events creating more reasons to visit.
“This September is going to be good because we have some new events coming on,” Wishowski said. “Essentially, we have eight days or so where we have one event after another.”
This fall, Oktoberfest, Camp 9600, the Breckenridge Film Festival, the Governor’s Conference on Tourism and a new event, the Breckenridge Wine Classic will all fall within a week of each other.
Meanwhile, in the early season, a new BreckCreate exhibit is expecting to bring in more visitors next week, as well as a women’s business conference.
“Summer business peaks in July and falls off in late August as kids go back to school,” Garrison said. “Then, there’s a big bump in September and early October. It’s almost like a whole new season.”
Between summer’s explosive growth, and winter’s more modest increases, Garrison said he expects to see a balance of sorts between the two seasons, creating more stability.
“The tourism-based economy is leveling out,” he said.