Despite rumblings in the U.S. economy that preceded the start of the ski season, half of North America's major specialty tour operators reported an improvement in business that ranged from 3 per cent to as high as 40 per cent over last year.
The Ski Tour Operators Association (SKITOPS), a trade organization that held its annual Network conference at Whistler last week, also reported that although Colorado resorts finally bounced back this season with good snow and more package tour business, Whistler continued to hold a strong position. And in some cases bookings to Whistler even increased among member companies.
An annual survey conducted by the organization noted that business was generally good for the majority of travel firms that specialize in winter sports vacations. One-fourth reported no change from last year and another one-fourth reported single-digit declines.
Tour operators sell pre-packaged ski vacations which usually include airline tickets, lift tickets and lodging.
Its difficult to determine exactly what percentage of visitors tour operators bring to Whistler because of a number of variables which fluctuate from season to season. However, within the American travel market generally, roughly one-third of vacationers use a tour operator. Another one-third use a travel agent and approximately one-third travel independently.
SKITOPS is a trade group that consists of 25 of the oldest and largest independently-owned ski travel companies in North America. More than 300 people participated in SKITOPS Network 2001 conference last week, including representatives from destination ski areas, lodging properties, airlines and ground transportation providers from the United States and Canada.
Although Whistler experienced lower snowfall this season, the destination is still a compelling attraction for American skiers, according to the SKITOPS survey. One-fourth of the SKITOPS member companies said their business to Whistler increased from 5 per cent to as much as 25 per cent over the previous year.
Colorado's premier destinations also fared well, with the tour companies reporting growth of from 10 per cent to 45 per cent for Aspen, Steamboat and the Front Range resorts of Copper Mountain, Vail, Keystone, Winter Park and Breckenridge. Reasons most often cited for the rebound were value pricing by resorts, fewer restrictions on lodging, bountiful early snow conditions, and new attractions such as villages and lifts.
"It was like a waterfall of good news," said David Tanner, president of SKITOPS and the owner of Rocky Mountain Vacations of Glenwood Springs, Colo. "It started with significant storms in early November that built skier confidence. Then there were rollbacks of lift ticket prices, including Aspen's early-season offer of $39, which helped us sell more packages in advance of the main season. And this year there were no economic negatives such as inflated Millennium rates for lodging. Accommodations in general were very competitively-priced."
Tour operators noted that the same factors that have influenced American skiers to book Whistler during the previous two winters were evident again this year: a highly favorable exchange rate, value priced skiing and lodging, and the availability of new hotels, accommodations and other amenities. Some commented that two good years of snowfall stimulated confidence in early reservations.
Among the other trends reported in the SKITOPS season-ending survey:
In general, individual skiers are booking much closer to their travel dates, evidently waiting to assess snow conditions and possible air fare bargains. Typical advance bookings are between 30 and 60 days, with some as short as two weeks out.
The average length of a ski vacation is five days, down slightly from previous seasons, but skiers seem to be taking more trips of shorter durations.
Over half of the tour companies report declines in family travel, while group business among clubs and corporations is on the rise.
More non-skiers and non-skiing activities were evident this season, and clients expressed growing interest in spa treatments, snowmobiling, gourmet dining and local sightseeing.
Although the majority of out-of-state skiers preferred direct flights to close-in mountain airports, flight delays and cancellations at those facilities sometimes made alternative travel options more challenging. But clients found that the accessibility of tour operators including after-hours and on weekends helped them through the glitches.
Internet inquiries and bookings continue to grow, accounting for a significant percentage of some tour operators' business. Average online traffic to SKITOPS member Web sites increased from 20 per cent to 30 per cent.