The tourism forecast
Strong winter expected despite downturn

SideStory: Opening Day set for Saturday

A couple crosses Main Avenue during a recent blustery day. Despite the country’s economic downturn, Durango seems to be bucking the trends as far as tourism goes. According to local tourism experts, bookings and reservations are on par or only slightly behind those of 2007, which was a blockbuster year./Photo David Halterman

by Missy Votel

Despite a less than promising short-term weather and economic forecast, the winter tourism outlook remains bright. According to local tourism officials, winter bookings for Durango are nearly the same or even above where they were last year at this time.

“Our reservations are very good – on par with last year if not slightly above,” said Sven Brunso, marketing director for Durango Mountain Resort.

Despite the ski area’s postponed opening (see sidebar), the ski area said bookings and pass and ticket presales in feeder markets have been strong.

“Pre-sales of tickets, like four-packs in Albuquerque, have been selling at a record pace,” he said.

Brunso added that season pass prices either stayed the same or only increased a small amount over last year, making them popular with locals as well. “We didn’t raise the price of college passes and regular season passes only went up $10 or $20,” he said.

Also fueling interest in DMR are the recently built base facilities, including the new Purgy’s base lodge, which celebrated its grand opening last week despite the fact the ski area was still closed. “There seems to be a lot of interest and hype around the Purgy’s lodge,” he said. “It’s the first tangible thing locals have been able to see and touch that we’re doing for them.”

Brunso said a recent drop in gas prices hasn’t hurt business either. “We’re mostly a drive market, and gas is actually less expensive now than it was last year at this time,” he said. “I think the air-dependent markets are the ones suffering the most.”

And speaking of air, after several months of negotiations, DMR recently announced a partnership with Frontier Airlines that offers discounted flight-ski packages from more than 45 cities. “The Frontier flights cost substantially less than on our own charter from Dallas last year. It opens up a whole new avenue,” he said. “Packages start at $339 from Denver. They can’t even drive up to Vail for less than that.”

A visitor snaps a shot as the D&SNG pulls away from the depot in August. Although ridership is down 11 percent year to date, revenues are holding steady, thanks to riders spending more on first-class amenities./Photo by David Halterman

Up the road in Silverton, numbers at Silverton Mountain are also holding steady. The ski area, which received 25 inches from last week’s storm, welcomed 50 skiers for the first day of unguided ski

ing last Saturday. Another 50 more people showed up Saturday (the ski area was closed Sunday because of high winds) for bootpacking duties, said co-owner Jen Brill.

The ski area, which relies almost exclusively on reservations for its guided-only season, which starts Jan. 15, reports steady bookings after a slower-than-normal October. “October reservations were substantially down. I think a lot of it had to do with the uncertainty of the election and the whole bank bail-out,” said Brill. “But November was back on track, and even with the additional staff we hired this year, we’re doing OK.”

According to Kory Samson, sales and marketing coordinator for Gateway Reservations in Durango, the ski industry tends to be a relatively insulated one in times of economic downturns. Bookings through Gateway, which serves as the reservations arm for the Durango Area Tourism Office, were down only slightly compared to this time last year. He said October sales were down 1.5 percent, and November sales were down 1.3 percent from the same month last year. However, he was quick to note that 2007 showed triple-digit increases over 2006, thanks mostly to an earlier and abundant snowfall. “When you consider that 2007 was such a banner year, to only be down by 1 percent is actually pretty good,” he said.

Nevertheless, Samson said advance bookings have shown a bigger decrease, with ski packages showing a decline of 21 percent over last year. “I think people are changing their buying behavior. They’re still traveling, but they’re waiting around to the last minute to see how things play out before they book,” he said.

One bright point so far this season has been the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad’s Polar Express, which started running nightly trips last week. “It’s our first year offering the Polar Express, and it’s been a fantastic product,” he said. “It’s been selling like crazy, and the Front Range calling has been really strong.”

D&SNR Marketing Director Andrea Seid said the Polar Express is on track to do as good as last year, with 10,500 riders thus far. “We’re actually really pelased. At this rate, we’re hoping to go after the 17,000 riders we had last year.”

As for the train’s general ridership, she said although bookings have been down 11 percent year to date, revenues are holding steady if not slightly above last year. She said this could be a sign of fewer riders spending more money. “It shows that people who are coming really want that first-class experience and don’t mind paying a little extra for it,” she said.

And while the national economy has a role in how local tourism will shape up this winter, all agreed there’s one person who will have the final say.

“It’s really all up to Mother Nature,” said Samson. “Durango so far has been hedging its bets, but if she doesn’t start dumping, then it could be a big change.”

Brunso, of DMR, agrees. “People are really excited about the ski season. All we need now is Mother Nature to cooperate, and hopefully, we’ll have a repeat of last year.” •



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