Downhill to Disneyland

The slopes are crowded, so why aren't Colorado resorts rolling in cold cash?

Every year, the Colorado ski industry looks forward to the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in January as one of the busiest times of the year. But this past winter, on the Sunday of that holiday-enhanced weekend, the number of skiers on Vail Mountain exceeded even those eager expectations.

On that day, for only the third time since the mid- to late 1980s, the number of skiers at Vail climbed high enough to reach what the U.S. Forest Service, the mountain's landlord, calls its "Skiers At One Time" limit. The ski area notified the town manager and the Forest Service, advising both that the mountain had reached capacity. Though no action was taken, it was noteworthy.

A ski mountain's capacity is actually a floating number that varies according to a surprisingly scientific calculation. It takes into account a resort's bathrooms, restaurant seats and other infrastructure factors, as well as how quickly the resort can move skiers up the mountain on its lifts. For example, Bob McLaurin, Vail's town manager for the past eight years, says that Vail's SAOT number is based primarily on how many visitors government planners originally projected could get in and out of Vail's sole four-way intersection without immediately seizing into gridlock.

Since then, the traffic signal has been changed to a roundabout, so the tourist volume the town can absorb is slightly higher than the 19,900-person limit set by the USFS. Additionally, in the time since the Skiers At One Time limit was fixed, the resort has opened up its Blue Ski Basin, greatly expanding the available ski-mountain terrain. Still, given the relatively small size of the town of Vail -- and, in particular, its limited parking -- the Forest Service decided to stick with the early capacity figures.

No matter how you counted it, though, January 21 was an awfully busy day at Vail.

Vail was hardly alone this year in enjoying a bumper crop of skiers. In the early part of the season, Colorado Ski Country USA reported a 29 percent increase in skier visits at Front Range destination resorts over the same period the previous year. Although the stampede to the slopes slowed this spring, most analysts project at least a 5 percent hike in visitors overall from last year. The National Ski-Area Association already has announced that more people went skiing and snowboarding this year than in any other year in history.

Of course, this is not news to anyone who has driven into the mountains recently to get to a favorite slope. Denver-area skiers heading west on I-70 later than 6:30 in the morning on a Saturday or Sunday, or returning to the city any time after 2:30 p.m., know better than to expect a quick drive. Entire Sunday evenings can pass into night while fatigued skiers inch eastward from Georgetown to Idaho Springs.

This is not simply the perception of a few cranky drivers, either. The Colorado Department of Transportation counts the number of cars driving through the Eisenhower Tunnel (to Breckenridge, Keystone, Copper, and sometimes A-Basin, Vail and Beaver Creek) and over Berthoud Pass (Winter Park and Berthoud). Ten years ago, about 19,000 vehicles drove through the tunnel each day. This winter, the number was just under 29,000.

The number of cars climbing Berthoud pass on a winter day has grown similarly during that same period. The ski industry prefers that you think of these weekend winter jams as a transportation problem. But as anyone with a bursting bladder stuck inside a barely moving car on President's Day weekend can attest, it is a big skiing problem, too.

Most striking, however, is that all of this crowding is occurring at a time of unremarkable profits for the industry. Earlier this month, Vail Resorts, owner of Keystone, Breckenridge, Vail and Beaver Creek, announced layoffs due to what the company termed an "increasingly competitive landscape." A week before, Winter Park had reported its own job cuts, joining Aspen and Crested Butte in reducing its workforce.

This raises several puzzlers that cut to the heart of the state's travel-poster industry. For starters, it is worth asking how a business that charges a $50 admission fee and attracts enough customers to cause a ten-mile traffic jam can still not make money. More crucial to every Colorado skier who has waited a half-hour in a lift line, though, is a much more fundamentally troubling question: Is a successful ski business incompatible with good skiing?


About five years ago, researchers at the U.S. Forest Service decided to review the environmental impact that Aspen Highlands ski area was having on the local ecology. As part of their research, they took photographs from an airplane during several busy winter days. One of the purposes in reviewing the pictures was to gauge what is known as "terrain capacity." While the calculation is definitely qualitative, it tries to answer a simple question: How many skiers can share the slopes and still have fun?

No number is set in stone, but Ed Ryberg, the USFS's regional winter sports coordinator, says Colorado ski areas try to stay close to a few relatively solid standards. On beginner and intermediate runs -- wide, groomed trails with no hazards -- there should be no more than fifteen skiers per acre. For advanced runs, which demand more movement and room for error, the USFS figures five skiers per acre is plenty. The number isn't consistent at all ski areas at all times. Two years ago, the busiest resort in the state was Breckenridge -- even though, at 3,156 acres, the area is a third the size of Vail's 12,590 acres.

"Of course it's all subjective anyway," Ryberg says. "Back East, in Vermont, you can get double those numbers. In Japan, you quadruple that." In other words, Colorado skiers have been spoiled with comparatively uncrowded slopes. Ryberg adds that while the number of skiers has increased slightly over the years, so, too, has the skiable terrain. This has spread the crowds out and kept the terrain capacity near constant. (Generally speaking, anyway: Most expansions have involved expert terrain, while most skiers stick to intermediate trails.)

Still, one thing that Ryberg and other researchers did notice in their pictures was the difference between how traditional skiers used a run and how snowboarders and Telemark skiers used one. While the skiers headed more or less directly down the fall line, the other two tended to use much more of the slope to turn. This is particularly true for snowboarders, who have a blind spot on their heel-side turn.

Anyone who has tried to pass a snowboarder knows this is only common sense. But it did occur to the researchers that, even if the terrain capacity stayed exactly the same year after year, the increasing percentage of snowboarders crisscrossing the mountains had resulted in a crucial difference: The slopes now felt more crowded.

Such perceptions are becoming increasingly important. In the 1960s and '70s, the sport essentially sold itself. People who skied still had their own subculture; the sport was the thing. Today, however, with the cost of shlepping the family to the slopes for a weekend of schussing reaching upwards of $1,000, customers are demanding a better experience. It has been a transition from downhill to Disneyland.

This is a crucial distinction, because there are big differences between the two types of businesses. In one, you sell tickets. In the other, you sell everything else, too. The ski business is not alone in confronting the change. A similar trend has already taken hold of professional spectator sports. The recent rash of tearing down perfectly fine twenty-year-old stadiums and constructing new ones in their place has occurred because baseball, football and basketball bosses realized that ticket sales just weren't going to pay the bills anymore. They also needed to sell everything else: parking, hotdogs, luxury suites -- even the name of the building.

Like these sports, the skiing industry has become less and less dependent on actual ticket sales for revenue. Stacy Forbes, an industry analyst for Janco Partners, says that as recently as five years ago, the sale of lift tickets was responsible for more than half of a resort's income. Today, two-thirds of a ski area's revenue comes from non-lift-ticket sales, meaning that overpriced pizza, T-shirts, restaurant revenue, condo sales and equipment rentals are now more important than lift tickets to a resort's bottom line.

Most resorts are still scrambling to make the switch. Next year, instead of leasing out retail space to vendors, Winter Park will open its own retail and ski rental stores. Vail has entered into a joint venture with Ritz-Carlton to build a luxury hotel. Conferences and golf courses and wedding-banquet catering have become just as important to ski resorts as well-rounded moguls. With the introduction of its super-exclusive (reported joining fee: $30,000) "ski clubs," Vail has even found the skiing equivalent of luxury stadium suites.

Yet old habits die hard, and, the Forest Service's Skier At One Time guidelines notwithstanding, there is no attendance restriction on a ski area. Thus, the temptation for a ski resort is simply to get as many people on the mountain as possible. "Part of our goal is to get more people skiing," explains Joan Christensen, communications director for Winter Park Resort, which is owned by the City of Denver. "We want to grow the business."

That was the thinking this past year when, stung by two poor years in a row, the Front Range resorts offered deep discounts for their day lift tickets. With a drop in what are known as "destination skiers" -- those gold-plated tourists who fly in to Colorado for several days and splurge on meals, rentals, hotel rooms and lift tickets -- the ski areas figured that drawing more local skiers to the hills could help make up the difference.

At the ticket counter, the result for skiers was exhilarating. Winter Park offered unheard-of deals such as a carload of as many as ten people for $29. This spring, Vail offered a one-month pass, good at three resorts, for the same price. The result was predictable. "In terms of skier visits, we had a great year," says Lee Heirholzer, marketing director of Arapahoe Basin, which offered its own steep discounts. "But I can't say we were profitable."

And on many days, skiers paid a high price for the savings. Actually getting to the ticket counters to enjoy the savings was almost not worth the price. "Discounted tickets," says Ryberg, "were a mixed blessing."

As the industry prepares for the coming years, it would be worthwhile for executives to remember that their business is fundamentally different from, say, Wal-Mart. With perhaps the exception of finding a parking space, a customer's shopping experience does not fluctuate according to how many teen blouses Wal-Mart sells.

That is not the case with skiing; at some point, skiers begin to get in each other's way. Despite this, a strong more-is-better bias lingers among resorts. Whenever the ski industry announces an increase in the number of skiers in Colorado, it is inevitably reported as good news.

But "you can't just go on adding capacity forever," explains Eric Martin, another Forest Service winter recreation analyst. "It's not an exact number, but there comes a point in time when you experience crowding. And the utilization levels are getting high enough where the quality of the experience is something the ski areas have to be concerned about."

Recently, a national ski organization commissioned a study to measure the quality of its product. One of the questions asked first-time skiers if they'd come back for a second visit. The results were alarming. Eighty-five percent of the ski virgins said no. The reason, says one analyst, is not hard to figure.

"You spend two and a half hours driving to the mountain, and then another two hours waiting in line getting your equipment and situating the kids in ski school. It's five hours before you start skiing," he says. "People figure there are better ways to spend their time."

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