Banking on summer: Ski resorts seek return on year-round investment
Steamboat Springs — At Vail Mountain, grown men could be heard screaming with fear and excitement as they raced down the summer tubing hill.
Tangled in ropes, the eyes of toddlers grew large as they contemplated their next step on the obstacle course.
On a ski lift, families visiting Vail rode back up the hill after cruising down the zip line.
“Mom, it’s awesome,” Dylan Taylor yelled below. “It doesn’t hurt your stomach. You can do it.”
There are tamer attractions too, such as the self-guided interpretive nature trails. That means, this summer at Vail’s Epic Discovery, there is something for just about everyone.
By building such attractions, ski resorts in Colorado and throughout the United States are on a mission to become year-round attractions.
Vail has led the way when it comes to ski resorts offering its guests more things to do in the summer, while other resorts, such as Steamboat Ski Area, are trying to catch up.
Ski resorts are no longer just in the business of selling lift tickets and slinging $12 hot dogs at the top of the mountain.
To meet the needs of the 313 ski resorts that are members of the National Ski Areas Association, the organization now holds an annual conference specific to mountain biking.
“We didn’t do that 10 years ago,” NSAA President Michael Berry said.
NSAA has also expanded its customer research to learn more about the summer visitor.
“We track summer season passes now,” Berry said. “Summer season passes didn’t exist 10 years ago.”
A study commissioned by the NSAA showed that 31 percent of the people surveyed at ski areas during the winter had returned to the same ski area sometime during the previous five summers.
In the Rocky Mountain region, 57 percent of ski resorts now offer a summer pass.
Chairlift rides, offered at 55 percentof ski areas, were the most popular non-snowsport amenity. Forty-two percent offered mountain biking, 28 percent had zip lines, 26 percent had disc golf and 13 percent had mountain coasters or an Alpine slide.
“The industry has changed,” Berry said.
He credits the recent surge in the construction of non-winter activities to the passage of the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act.
Former Colorado U.S. Sen. Mark Udall sponsored the bill, which passed in 2011. It opened the door to the U.S. Forest Service allowing amenities such as zip lines and mountain coasters on the 190,000 acres of land at ski areas permitted by the Forest Service.
“The argument was you have the infrastructure,” Berry said. “Why don’t you take some of your high-impact activities and have them in the ski areas?”
It was also argued that allowing more amenities would create jobs.
“This bill will bolster mountain economies by enabling the Forest Service to permit more use during the off-seasons,” Udall said after the bill’s passage.
Since last summer, Vail has added an additional 130 employees to support Epic Discovery, and since 2012, the resort has created 360 summer jobs.
Vail Senior Communications Manager Sally Gunter said one of the biggest benefits of Epic Discovery is it has allowed the resort to keep employees working year-round.
“It’s huge,” said Berry, who added that ski resorts can now employ ski patrol members year round and hold onto their key employees.
Taking in the view
Isabelle Gefke’s red curly hair stood up as she wailed down Epic Discovery’s plastic ramps on a tube.
She and her dad, Brad Gefke, are from Erie and were visiting Vail for a father-daughter weekend.
Brad Gefke decided to visit Epic Discovery after seeing an advertisement.
“It’s so beautiful, and this looked like a lot of fun,” he said.
Eric Taylor and his family were visiting from Iowa. They said they decided on a family vacation to Vail after hearing about it from members at their country club.
While there is a flurry of activity at Vail Mountain’s Lionshead Base, the Epic Discovery attractions are tucked away at the top of the gondola, overlooking the Holy Cross Wilderness.
Vail Resorts spent $25 million to create Epic Discovery centers at Vail, California’s Heavenly Mountain Resort and Breckenridge Ski Resort. The Epic Discovery in Breckenridge is set to open next summer.
One-day, all-access passes to Epic Discovery cost $89, and there is a restricted $49 pass for children. For $189, guests can experience nearly two miles of zip lines during a three-to four-hour guided tour
The $89 pass allows access to smaller zip lines, ropes courses, tubing, a climbing wall, bungee trampoline and gondola rides.
New this year is the Forest Flyer, a mountain coaster similar to the one proposed for Steamboat Ski Area.
Gunter said the educational component is what truly brought Epic Discovery together this summer. That includes a trail where guests can imitate the giant steps a moose takes and try to jump as high as a mountain lion.
“We want people to leave being better stewards of the environment,” Gunter said.
Vail donates 1 percent of summer lift ticket and activity revenue to The Nature Conservancy for forest restoration projects on Forest Service lands.
According to an earnings report, Vail Resorts anticipates between $6 million and $8 million in profits from its Epic Discovery operations in 2016.
In February, Intrawest CEO Tom Marano announced the company would spend between $43 million and $48 on capital projects at its resorts.
Of note was a mountain coaster, a miniature golf course and a new chairlift to replace the Elkhead lift at Steamboat.
Momentum has been building at the Steamboat base area in recent years with the addition of a promenade that features a creek running through it and a beach.
Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. executives hope to build off that base-area energy by locating the mountain coaster and miniature golf course at the base behind the Christy Peak Express lift.
The activities will not be located on Forest Service land but, instead, on land owned by the ski area.
“We’ve been focused on private land, because we know we can go there,” said Jim Schneider, Ski Corp.‘s vice president of skier services.
In its master plan, the ski area envisions installing zip lines, climbing walls and summer tubing on Forest Service property.
At 3,500 feet long, the mountain coaster will be the longest of its kind in North America, according to Schneider.
The miniature golf course will be tiered and built into the hillside, with landscaping that is consistent with the promenade. The design features local themes and landmarks, including a rock replica of Rabbit Ears.
“We were trying to figure out how to put a Fish Creek Falls in, but I don’t think we’re steep enough,” Schneider said.
He said the locations of underground utilities complicated the design process, but they are working to secure the final necessary permits and hope to break ground in the next couple weeks.
Ski Corp. hopes to have the attractions open sometime next summer. Schneider declined to disclose the cost of the projects.
“We think this will be a nice motivation to come to the base of the ski area and have some fun,” Schneider said. “And we’ve got parking. We’ve got spaces within walking distance for 800 cars.”
Jim Clark, CEO of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association, is hopeful that additional activities, such as, those planned at the ski area, will lead to visitors extending their vacations.
“If you run out of activities at a certain point in time, you’re done,” Clark said.
In addition to making the base area a more vibrant place, Clark thinks additional activities will help spread out the summer crowds.
“That kind of the thing you want to see happen, because a lot of the congestion that you see during the summer is downtown,” he said.
Spreading the word
Just because there are more things to do in Steamboat doesn’t mean more people will visit and spend money.
“You have to tell people what you have,” Clark said.
That means spending money on marketing and advertising.
Currently, the Steamboat Chamber has a non-winter marketing budget of $700,000. That money comes from the city’s general fund.
It was hard for Clark to think of a comparable mountain community that spends less than Steamboat on its non-winter marketing.
“Even Glenwood does more than we do,” Clark said.
The town of Snowmass Village devotes a whopping $5.86 million for marketing and hosting big events.
Vail works with a $2.9 million budget, while Aspen spends $2.4 million.
Clark said a Steamboat Chamber committee is currently looking at ways to generate more money for marketing.
“I don’t think we lack for activities, per se,” Clark said. “What we lack is the funding to market ourself on a more year-round basis.”
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