By Jason Blevins
The Denver Post
Colorado ski resorts broke a visitation record in 2013-14, thanks to an early start, a late finish, a drought in California and, of course, steady snowfall all season.
The state’s 25 ski areas logged 12.6 million visits, up 10 percent from last year — the strongest year-over-year surge in recent history and an 8 percent increase over the five-year average. The 2013-14 season is now the benchmark, unseating the 12.56 million high set in 2006-07.
“It’s been eight years and a Great Recession since the last new visitation record, and that feels great,” said Melanie Mills, president of resort trade group Colorado Ski County USA, which announced the season’s visitation at its 51st annual meeting at Copper Mountain.
Visitation was up across all categories, with the number of out-of-state skiers growing alongside international visitors and pass-wielding locals.
While California skiers have long ranked as a top market for Colorado resorts, the snow-gobbling drought there fueled a double-digit percentage increase in Californians on Colorado ski slopes this season.
Colorado resort leaders never wish a decimating season on their peers from other states, but there’s hope the 2013-14 season might turn some California skiers on to Colorado.
“We think that all those visitors that came to Colorado had a great experience,” Mills said, “and we think that gives us an opportunity to get them back.”
Colorado Ski Country’s 21 member resorts saw 7.1 million visits in 2013-14. Vail Resorts’ Vail, Breckenridge, Beaver Creek and Keystone ski areas drew 5.5 million visits.
Vail, the nation’s largest resort operator, last month reported solid growth in the 2013-14 season, despite poor performance at its California resorts, with visitor spending reaching near-records on increases in lessons, lift tickets, dining and retail.
Colorado’s ski communities reported strong spending during the season as well, with many resorts — like Vail, Aspen, Breckenridge and Telluride — posting record sales-tax revenues for the ski season.
Mills said member ski resorts enjoyed similar boosts in spending.
“A number of member resorts had a record year (for revenues), and everybody had a strong year,” she said. “It was the perfect snowstorm this year, with a snow message that started early and it was authentic … we just had snow every month.”
Monarch ski area saw a record 190,000 visits, up from 168,000 the previous year, spokesman Greg Ralph said. The Chaffee County hill harvested record revenues too, Ralph said.
Aspen Skiing Co.’s four Roaring Fork Valley ski areas posted the highest visitation since 1997-98, company spokesman Jeff Hanle said. Lodges in both Aspen and Snowmass saw highest-ever occupancy in March, with the season falling just shy of the all-time occupancy record set in 2006-07, said Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass, the reservation hub that books lodging across the valley.
“We had a really good start and an incredible finish,” Tomcich said.
Colorado’s skier visitation growth bested the 6.4 percent annual increase for the Rocky Mountain region, which includes resorts in Utah, Montana and New Mexico.
The snow was a blessing, and the international media’s sensationalized focus on Colorado when the state legalized recreational marijuana in January certainly helped.
Mills called legalized marijuana “the PR event of the year and the operational nonevent of the year,” meaning resorts barely noticed the new laws but welcomed the attention.
“From a PR perspective,” Mills said, “we did not view it as a negative that everyone was talking about Colorado as of January first.”
Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/jasonblevins