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Mountain News: U.S. skier days expected to dip below 50 million



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This comes a week after Mammoth Mountain in California announced it was laying off 75 employees and cutting wages for others. Mammoth's revenues are projected to be off by 30 per cent this winter.

Ethan Mueller, Crested Butte's chief executive, said his company was hoping for a quick turnaround of the economy — but it hasn't happened. "Frankly, one problem is that we took too long on making the hard decisions." He compared the actions to taking off a Band-Aid a little bit at a time.

"Now we are right-sizing to fit our reality and moving forward. That's hard, and unfortunately, we probably aren't done."

Crested Butte has been struggling for years. On good roads, it is four hours from Denver, and hence attracts relatively few day-trippers or weekenders. It has some very good difficult skiing, which is one reason the X Games were first held there. But for intermediate skiers, who are the bread and butter of all destination resorts — well, there's not much to hold your interest beyond three days. Ski executives have said that the repeat business is low, compared to places like Snowmass and Beaver Creek, which means high advertising costs.

The resort was one of the first in the industry to invest heavily in a direct flight program, but with gas prices rising and airlines trying to align their finances, that subsidized program has yielded problems. When the recession hit, skiers stayed home, and Crested Butte had to pay the airlines enormous sums in revenue guarantees.

Then, because the reserves were exhausted, the direct flight program was curtailed. This winter, for example, the number of seats from Houston is down 65 per cent. That will reduce the revenue guarantee by $425,000. But fewer seats means 385 fewer destination guests — who spend an average of $1,300 while on vacation in Crested Butte. It's a downward spiral.

Altogether, Crested Butte expects to see a 10 per cent decline in skier days this season, to about 330,000. That compares to a high of 550,000 skier days during the heyday of the early 1990s (although 100,000 of those were part of the Free Ski promotion). Owners of Crested Butte during the last decade have consistently said they need to grow the skier days to 550,000 to 600,000 a season.

"If we can get into the 450,000 to 500,000 skier days range in the next five years or so, that would be great," Mueller told the News. He said some numbers he tracks show improvement, though he offered nothing of secret sauce. His best ambition is to break even next winter. This one will end in the red.