Small resorts go after big-time competitors

Courtesy Taos Ski Valley

Unlike many of its bigger competitors in Colorado and elsewhere around the West, Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico has plenty of snow.

With bleak snowfall at Colorado’s biggest ski resorts, the nation’s smaller ski areas are moving in for the kill — and tourist dollars.

Big Sky Resort in Montana has offered free skiing to anyone who bought an Epic Ski Pass good for Colorado’s Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone resorts. And Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico has offered discounted lift tickets to Vail season pass holders as well.

“We kept hearing how dismal the snow in Colorado was so we said, ‘Let’s share the love and let’s get people up here,’ ” said Chad Jones, spokesman for Big Sky Resorts, which has 3,000 acres of skiing open, a healthy 52-inch base and an average of 2,000 skiers a day. The ski area introduced the offer to Epic Ski Pass holders on Tuesday.

The same day, executives at Taos Ski Valley offered $15 off $75 adult lift tickets to Colorado season pass holders. When California skiers grumbled about it on Facebook, the ski area offered the deal to any ski pass holders from anywhere in the country.

This year, 103 inches of snow has fallen at Taos, providing a solid 62-inch base at the top of the mountain. Meanwhile, Vail Mountain, the world’s largest ski area, has a dismal 18-inch base and for the first time in 30 years, the resort has not been able to open its back bowls.

“This is a good time to show people how great the mountain is,” said Adriana Blake, Taos Ski Valley marketing director and a third-generation family owner of the ski area.  “We think once they come down here, we’ll hook them.”

Call it snow equity, said Ralf Garrison, director and senior industry analyst at the Mountain Travel Research Program in Colorado. Snow has become a strategic part of resort marketing. Smaller resorts want to get on the map, positioning themselves as an alternative to major ski areas.

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“The goal is not just to attract pass holders but impressing someone in New York who is booking a week-long vacation,” Garrison said. “That is the pot of gold.”

Expect even more offers as the season progresses: Snowfall is not expected to improve dramatically for much of the West anytime soon, according to AccuWeather.com.

By this time last year, 90 percent of Western ski areas had achieved higher-than average snowfall, said Ken Clark, senior meteorologist for AccuWeather. This year that same percent of ski areas is well below normal levels.

“The difference is like night and day,” Clark said. “There is really no chance of having any kind of more normal conditions in the foreseeable future.”

The new snow marketing by smaller ski areas does not ruffle Rob Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts, which owns Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone resorts in Colorado and Heavenly Ski Area and Northstar-at-Tahoe Resort in the Lake Tahoe area of California and Nevada.

Katz retweeted the Big Sky Resort offer to his 2,737 Twitter followers because he thinks the ski-free deal makes the Epic Ski Pass even more valuable. “If everyone offered free-ski days I would be thrilled,” he said.

Katz says destination travelers still want something more than just deep snow. They want shopping, restaurants, ice skating, tubing and festivals found at larger resorts. Despite the conditions, lift ticket and ski school revenue are both up this ski season over last year for Vail Resorts, he said.

“Is the snow worse this year than last year? Of course,” said Katz. “There is no question that it hurts but it’s not total doom and gloom.”

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