Tourism forecast may be brighter |

Tourism forecast may be brighter

Visitor numbers appear to be climbing as snow piles up

Blythe Terrell
Yampa Valley Regional Airport ramp agent Kirklann Baker waves in a Frontier Airlines plane Tuesday. Local business leaders are keeping a close eye on arrivals at the airport as they attempt to get a feel for overall tourist traffic early this winter.
Matt Stensland

— Local business owners and Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association officials have relied on a couple of assumptions while trying to remain optimistic about the ski season: People are booking closer to the time of their trip, and people will come when the snow does.

That was precisely the case for the Connolly family, of Abilene, Texas. The family – Mike and Denise and children, Michelle and Brian – was waiting for its flight home from Yampa Valley Regional Airport on Tuesday. The Connollys booked their five-day trip Dec. 9. It was their first time in Steamboat Springs.

“I was looking for some more snow,” Denise Connolly said. “It was between y’all, Breckenridge and Vail. We had it up on the Internet and were just looking at who had snow.”

That’s good news for businesses and the Chamber. A winter storm blew in at the end of the week, adding to the more than 100 inches the slopes of the Steamboat Ski Area already has received. YVRA, in Hayden, was busy last week, and the lodging forecast for the holiday week was mixed.

On Wednesday, inbound flights were about 70 percent booked, with 854 arriving passengers, according to reports from Janet Fischer, director of airline programs with Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp.

Initially, an increase in flight capacity compared with 2007 was expected at YVRA because of the unexpected addition of Frontier Airlines. But some airlines cut flights, putting the number about even with ’07, Rob Perlman, vice president of sales and marketing for Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., said at a recent Chamber event.

Frontier started its winter flights 10 days ago. Traffic is picking up on the flights to and from Denver, said Lisa Hirsch, the temporary station manager for Frontier at YVRA. Passengers come and go on a 70-seat Bombardier Q400 aircraft operated by Lynx Aviation.

Hirsch, who has opened stations in Sioux City, Iowa; Fargo, N.D.; and Colorado Springs, said the startup at YVRA has been typical – a bit chaotic.

“I’ve been very impressed with the type of staff we have here, people working the startup, people working the ramp,” Hirsch said. “They really care about their passengers. That’s something you can’t teach; it comes from the community.”

Frontier’s inbound flights have gone from about half full to three-quarters full, she said. Outbound flights have been lighter – less than half full, she said.

“This is a destination airport,” Hirsch said. “You have to get them in to get them out.”

Planes start filling up in January, she said.

The Chamber’s lodging barometer doesn’t reflect that expected increase. Steamboat’s visitor properties were expected to be 88 percent full Saturday, compared with 94 percent for the equivalent night in 2007. That 88 percent amounts to 13,100 visitors. Wednesday’s numbers look better, however: 92 percent compared with 80 percent in 2007.

The Chamber has started giving businesses a heads up more than a week in advance. Because of late bookings, those numbers are expected to increase, Chamber Executive Vice President Sandy Evans Hall said earlier this month.

For example, the Dec. 17 lodging barometer stated that properties were expected to be 47 percent full Jan. 3, which amounts to 7,000 visitors. In the latest barometer, released Wednesday, that number increased to 54 percent, or 8,100 people.

Those numbers count only people who book lodging, however. At YVRA, a few people waited for flights after having stayed with friends or family. Leigh Haefle, of Lincoln, Neb., was in town visiting friends with her 7-year-old nephew, Jack Dobson. They were happy with the time spent skiing and sledding.

“Well, I kept falling in the snow all the time at the end,” Jack said about his sledding adventures. It didn’t hurt, though, “because the snow was powder there.”

Even if visitor numbers are down, the Chamber and groups such as Mainstreet Steamboat Springs are pushing to ensure pleasant experiences for people who come. The Chamber started a program called Spurs on Service this year, and Mainstreet is sponsoring maps and other services.

Those efforts are geared toward making sure people such as the Connollys go home happy. The family from Texas sure seemed to.

“We loved it,” Denise Connolly said. “We loved the mountain; we loved the snow. Maybe the biggest thing was the people were so friendly, from the bus drivers to the grocery store. Everyone was so friendly.”

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