Mountain resorts focus on attracting families year-round By: Jeri Clausing August 04, 2010 BRECKENRIDGE, Colo.
— At the base of this ski mountain’s popular Peak 8, RockResorts has just opened its newest luxury ski resort, One Ski Hill Place. The condo-hotel is next to a gondola that provides free rides to town. Out front is everything a family needs for winter or summer fun: ski lifts, bungee jumping, miniature golf, even an alpine slide.
Next year, there will also be an alpine coaster, a low-to-the-ground roller coaster of sorts. The resort, one of only three in town offering room service and the only one that will offer it around the clock, also features a pool, a bowling alley, movie-viewing rooms and a game room. On its face, the new One Ski Hill Place might sound like just another in a long list of luxury resorts that have opened in recent years at Western ski destinations. For Breckenridge, however, it marks the opening of this mountain town’s first five-star property. And for the Western ski industry as a whole, it symbolizes several levels of a multitiered strategy for attracting new generations as the core group of big spenders that fueled the industry’s growth over the past 30 years starts thinking about hanging up its skis. “The industry’s economic well-being is based on a transition of skiing passion from the baby boomers across the bridge to the millennials,” said Ralf Garrison, whose Mountain Travel Research Program tracks lodging trends for ski resorts in western North America.
Fortunately for the ski industry, baby boomers, who wield the bulk of the country’s discretionary income, don’t act like their parents. With 60 being the new 40 (and with the aid of technology ranging from easy-to-maneuver parabolic skis to knee replacements), many will ski well into their 70s. So resorts like Breckenridge and its parent, Vail Resorts, are working aggressively to make sure they offer everything aging baby boomers (and their children and grandchildren) might want, even if sore knees start to limit the amount of time they can spend on the slopes. “The most important thing to keep baby boomers coming back is to make sure their kids want to come back — and their grandkids,” said Rob Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts, which owns the Breckenridge, Keystone, Vail and Beaver Creek resorts in Colorado and Heavenly at Lake Tahoe. The company also has a lodging arm, which includes RockResorts. “If you can take the kids and the grandkids on vacation, you know it’s probably going to be a huge success. “Properties like One Ski Hill Place are really an interesting place, where people and families can congregate and come together,” Katz said. “It really is providing a comprehensive experience. You have luxury opportunities, but you also have family opportunities, things for everyone to do on the mountain. That allows the baby boomers to come back, because everyone in their family wants to come back.”
Although adding luxury was key for a resort like Breckenridge, the economic realities of the past few years have largely put any new development on hold. Still, the new resort here, and this mountain town as a whole, offer a glimpse into what ski resorts, particularly in the West, are doing to prepare for the generational shift that some predict could create a 10-year trough in demand. It’s summer up there One of Colorado’s best-kept secrets, many residents will agree, is that its famed ski mountains are even more fun in the summer. When it’s 90 degrees-plus in Denver, locals can hop in the car and, just an hour later, find temperatures that are often 20 degrees cooler. The resort areas like Breckenridge that are lined up off Interstate 70 offer everything from hiking, biking, rafting and golf to horseback riding and hot-air-balloon rides. There is also a variety of music, arts and family festivals throughout the summer, and lodging rates are often a fraction of what one would expect to pay during ski season. On a recent Thursday in Breckenridge, tents offering bicycles repairs were set up in the town square for Breck Bike Week. Families milled around the streets, hanging out by the stream that runs through town, shopping, dining and generally enjoying the cool summer weather. The crowds were respectably thick, considering it was the off-season amid what many consider to be a lingering recession.
Although Vail is North America’s largest resort, Breckenridge has a few things in its favor. For one thing, it is a 100-year-old mountain town with the character and attractions that come with that kind of history. Vail was developed around the ski resort, with a center that, in terms of both lodging and shops, focuses on a higher-end consumer. Breckenridge is a half-hour to an hour closer to Denver, depending on traffic, and it offers a wide variety of more affordable lodging right in the heart of town. It boasts an old-fashioned, Main Street feel, and its dining options have grown increasingly diverse over the years. Just a few miles outside of town is the Breckenridge Golf Club, the only Jack Nicklaus-designed public course in the country. Those attributes seem to be paying off for Breckenridge in both summer and winter.
Although Vail Resorts doesn’t like to publicize the fact, Breckenridge for three of the past four years has drawn more skiers than the company’s flagship property. Last year, Breckenridge was the most visited ski area in North America, hosting 1.6 million guests. And in the summer, Donna Horii of the Breckenridge Convention and Visitors Bureau said, lodging occupancy averages 60%, a respectable showing that the locals attribute to the historical, hometown feel. Developing a real luxury resort at the base of the mountain, locals agree, is key to helping Breckenridge evolve, as it is clear that even in the winter, families are looking for more than skiing when they choose a resort. “No one buys those six-day passes anymore,” Horii said of skiers, noting they opt for fewer days on the slopes in favor of activities such as dogsledding, shopping and spa treatments. Because of that, Garrison said, increasing summer business at ski resorts is absolutely crucial to the larger goal of keeping boomers and their offspring coming back. Garrison said a strong shoulder season is crucial to maintaining the labor force, restaurants and attractions required to attract guests who are interested in more than skiing. Those businesses “have to be able to keep their doors open during the summer,” he said. “These collateral services are more and more important as baby boomers grow older, because boomers use more and more of those.”
Although Western resorts have been growing summer business for most of the past decade, it is more challenging out West than for places like Stowe Mountain in Vermont, where the manager of the Stoweflake Resort & Spa said the destination gets 60% of its business in non-skiing months. “We have always been a big summer attraction,” said Stoweflake General Manager Chuck Baraw. “Stowe itself has been a summer tourist town for a couple hundred years. People used to come by stagecoach.” It has remained a summer and fall destination because of its cool temperatures, green mountains and fall foliage, he said. “Why do you need to go to a ski area in the West in the summertime?” he asked rhetorically. “I love where I am in the summer. It’s one thing to travel that far for the best powder in the world. … But they will never fill in the summer. They are way overbuilt for that.”
Recovering from a down cycle but the long-term strategy for Western resorts goes beyond drawing summer crowds. With real estate sales way down, new development is largely on hold for the foreseeable future. And while spring break visitor numbers made an impressive comeback this year, ski resorts, like much of the travel industry, are coming off two pretty tough years. So, while Breckenridge needed to add a little bit of luxury to keep its momentum, some Vail resorts are toning theirs down a bit. For example, at the Arrabelle, a luxury hotel that was developed at the height of the ultraluxury boom and which opened just before the global economy collapsed, Paul Toner, senior vice president and COO of RockResorts and Vail Resorts Hospitality, says the company has made some changes. There is less emphasis on amenities such as 24-hour butler service, he said. And the fine-dining restaurant was scaled down to make way for an upscale tavern. “That really hit a home run,” he said, explaining that RockResorts is focusing more on “smart, savvy” luxury.
The company is also working to offer more value-oriented packages that make the whole vacation easier. Two years ago it bought Colorado Mountain Express, which offers van service from Denver Airport and regional airports. That makes it easier for the company to package transportation with its offerings. Vail has also had a lot of success with its Epic Pass, which offers unlimited skiing at all of its mountains for just under $600 a season, less than half the cost of season passes at most major ski resorts. “The goal was really to build loyalty,” Vail CEO Katz said. “It’s a way to expand our season-pass membership base, to really reach out to folks and say, ‘If you are ready to commit to ski at our resorts all season, we are willing to give you a good price.’ ” Some resorts are finding other creative ways to keep luring back baby boomers. In Aspen, for example, former Apple executive Joe Nevin and physical therapist Bill Fabrocini have developed a “Bumps for Boomers” program to teach older skiers who might be frustrated by the crowds on the groomed runs to ski less-crowded mogul runs, without the knee pain associated with those tougher runs.
Challenges ahead To stay relevant for the long term, however, ski areas also have to rethink their marketing, said Art Webb of BCF Marketing, who consults for several East Coast ski areas and works with the Aspen Bumps for Boomers program. While the ski areas need to focus on the younger generations to build a future, he said, boomers are their most crucial audience in the present. “I think the ski industry is struggling right now with a little bit of a paradox, which is that the boomers are definitely aging out of the category but there are still a lot of boomers spending a lot of money,” he said.
Coming out of the recession, Webb said, boomers have been the least affected in terms of real wealth. He said Generation Y is saddled with high credit card debt, while Gen X is feeling the pinch of unemployment. At the same time, he said, “Unemployment [among] boomers has decreased. There are fewer unemployed boomers now than before the recession, so what you have is a group of people who still have a lot of money.” One of the problems for the ski industry, he said, is that it tends to market itself through the lens of youth, “and as a result, it is missing a pretty substantial mark.” “Twenty and 30 years ago, when the 80 million boomers in North America were in their 20s and 30s, and when the number of people under the age of 50 was nearly double the number of people over 50, you could get away with the bias of youth, because there were way more people under the age of 30,” Webb said. “Now there are as many people over 50 as there are under 50, and the people over 50 have the money,” he said. “Seventy-two percent of our nation’s wealth is in the hands of people over 50.”
Because of that, he said, ski areas need a dual-pronged marketing program to keep the wealthy boomers coming back while building interest among their children, who have cheaper alternatives, such as urban skating parks, than baby boomers ever had when they were seeking an adrenaline rush in their 20s. “They need a two-barreled shotgun,” he said of the resorts. “You need programs like Bumps for Boomers for older-skier retention because if you can get another two or three years out of that skier, you’re talking $20,000 to $30,000 in revenue … and they need to be thinking about what they can do on an industrywide basis to launch a greater effort in attracting skiers to the sport.” The ski resort industry, he said, enjoyed perfect market conditions with baby boomers when demand was high and supply wasn’t. Peering into the future, he sees the industry entering the beginning of a 10-year trough as boomers drop off and smaller and poorer successive generations are unable to fill the gap. “Skiing is not a rational proposition,” he said. “It is emotional. The industry as a whole tends to focus very much on what they’ve got: how many blue runs, how many blacks, how many quads [chairlifts] as opposed to the emotional payload of the experience. They’ve lost sight of marketing the magic of ski.”
This report appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of Travel Weekly