Hard Times Snowball Into Ski Industry

Ski resorts are already reporting low season ticket sales and low advance bookings. Foreclosures are on the rise, even in the high-end Rocky Mountain ski towns once thought immune to an economic downturn. Kirk Siegler reports for member station KUNC.

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And here's another industry that the country's financial woes are starting to affect. The U.S. ski industry. Western ski resorts are reporting weak sales of season tickets and low-advance bookings. Plus real estate prices are sputtering even in high-end ski resort towns like Vail and Aspen in Colorado, places once thought to be immune from economic downturns. Kirk Siegler of member station KUNC reports.

KIRK SIEGLER: Here in Colorado, ski resorts are in their annual frenzy of early season snow making. Snow guns like this one at an Arapaho basin are churning out artificial snow around the clock. The resort is already open, part of a marketing push to drum up excitement for the ski season, but this year that excitement has been tempered by concerns about the poor economy. Down in the valley in Breckenridge, the financial crisis is the buzz of the town. Nobody is sure what it might mean for the upcoming season. Dave Garrett and his sister Jenny Shelton owns Ski Country Resorts which rents out condos and destination packages. Shelton says hardly anyone is booking vacations right now, and those who are doing it last minute and for shorter stays.

Ms. JENNY SHELTON (Owner, Ski Country Resort): We're seeing the phones not ring as much, but we are seeing - we just think that, you know, after the election is over with and so forth, that people will start thinking about their vacations. I know they're coming, but they're going to wait till the last minute. See what the airlines do, gas prices.

SIEGLER: Bookings at Ski Country are about 30 percent lower than they were this time last year. Dave Garrett says he's also cut back on staffing for the winter but things could be worse.

Mr. DAVE GARRETT (Ski Lodge Owner): Yeah, we're glad we're doing some real estate, you know.

SIEGLER: Andrew Biggin is selling real estate or at least trying to as co-owner of Breckenridge and Associates down the street, sales there are down 40 percent compared to this time last year. But last year was a record year and Biggin spins thing this way. Gas prices are flattening, he says but unlike most of the rest of the country, they're not falling.

Mr. ANDREW BIGGIN (Real Estate Agent): And that's the big difference. And that's why I am really proud of that because when we come out of this fiasco in two or three years time, you can look back and go look Breckenridge (unintelligible) property values, say, just leveled for a year or two. They didn't tank.

SIEGLER: At least not yet. Biggin says these last few weeks have been particularly tough. Here's similar things, 80 miles to the West in posh Aspen, businesses are laying off workers, about half of the town's hotels are still empty for Christmas week, typically the busiest of the year, and the $15 million Victorian homes in the market, they're no longer appreciating.

Mr. DAVID PERRY (Executive Vice President, Aspen Skiing Company): It's no question. It's going to have big impact.

SIEGLER: David Perry is executive vice president of the Aspen Skiing Company. He says resorts are offering all kinds of deals to encourage people to come, and they're just trying to stay upbeat.

Mr. PERRY: You know, I don't think anyone would go out and hold their crystal ball up right now here in the middle of October and say, well, this is what the winter is going to turn out like. There's huge uncertainty in the economic stability of this country and all around the world. And so, what's happen is that people are not booking their vacations right now. They have more pressing concerns.

SIEGLER: International tourists have buoyed the American ski industry recently as a result of the dollar but since the financial crisis is a global one, Perry says resorts probably can't depend on the foreign market as much as they'd like.

Mr. GREG ALTIMERE (Manager, Norway House Ski Shop): I put everything away so all (unintelligible).

SIEGLER: Back in Breckenridge, Greg Alitmere(ph), manager of the Norway House Ski Shop says the industry is used to volatility after all business is always dependent on mother nature.

Mr. ALTIMERE: We're not sure what's going to happen with the economy. All we hope for is snow because that will make - I think, no matter what the economy is, we're going to ski and everybody is going to ski.

SIEGLER: Some of Colorado's high-end resorts like Aspen or Vail may not feel as much of a pinch in the end. The very wealthy will probably continue to ski and book vacation as long as the snow is good. For NPR News, I am Kirk Siegler.

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