Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Visitation to Colorado’s high country might be plateauing, but those visitors are unquestionably spending more.
Sales-tax collections in Colorado resort towns notched another record this summer, marking five consecutive years of steadily increasing summer spending in high-country destinations such as Aspen, Vail, Breckenridge, Crested Butte, Telluride, Winter Park and Steamboat Springs. Since climbing out of the recession in 2013, taxable summertime spending in those communities has soared anywhere from 26 percent to 59 percent.
As the snow begins to pile up on the high peaks and Arapahoe Basin and Loveland kick off the 2017-18 ski season, resort communities are hoping for a repeat of the previous season, when visitation was strong and, like summer, spending was spectacular.
Last season, Colorado’s 26 ski areas saw a slight dip in skier visits below the record-setting season of 2015-16, when resorts tallied more than 13 million visits. But even with the negligible downturn in visits, resort towns once again harvested record sales-tax revenues.
Despite the mounting snow and cold temperatures the town is still bustling with people on Jan. 12, 2017 in Crested Butte.
Eclipsing the number of visitors hitting the mountain hamlets is the cash they are leaving in their wake. That’s a trend reflected in the Western resort lodging industry.
Inntopia, which tracks lodging activity in 20 mountain communities in eight Western states, shows summer occupancy for this year even with the previous year — thanks to a strong September erasing the first declines for July and August in seven years — while revenues are up more than 7 percent.
“The trend of revenue growth has been phenomenal, almost astronomical, particularly for the summer, since 2008,” said Tom Foley, vice president of business intelligence for Inntopia.
In 2012, as resort communities clawed out of the recession, Foley advised mountain town tourism leaders that summer posed the most opportunity for growth. Five years later, occupancy rates in the summer are almost identical with winter. And with those warm-weather occupancy gains comes a surge in room rates.
The steadily increasing growth in lodging prices worries Foley. As baby boomers back away from skiing, it’s well known there is no new wave of skiers waiting to replace the generation that birthed the modern ski industry. And these pricey room rates in resorts are not encouraging younger people to visit. If resorts keep raising rates and appeal to fewer visitors, Foley warns that the vibrancy of a community can fade as resort shops and restaurants accommodate one demographic: the wealthy.
“It becomes this interesting matrix with the health of the industry and the health of the community in the short and long term over the health of lodging properties in the short and long term,” Foley said. “Is it about growing the sport or getting a good rate and strong revenue in the short term?”
Bob Barto manages one of the largest condo-hotels in the Colorado hills, the 432-unit Beaver Run Resort in Breckenridge. After several years of record-setting annual performance, occupancy at Beaver Run was soft last winter, with a year-over-year dip in the January-March quarter.
But a downturn in occupancy doesn’t mean declining revenues for Beaver Run owners who rent their units to short-term visitors.
“We have definitely seen a nice increase in daily rates,” Barto said. “After record year over record year, last year was an adjustment — and sooner or later, there’s always an adjustment.”
Barto said bookings for the coming season are up over last winter.
“We are bouncing back nicely for 2018. We are poised for a great winter,” he said.
Inntopia’s numbers show winter resort lodging reservations made through September for November-March are down 1 percent compared with the same period last season, but revenues from those bookings are up more than 4 percent.
The numbers may be dipping, but the people who are coming appear willing to spend. And it’s not only visitors who are spending more.
The growing numbers of second homeowners and residents who are moving to ski towns and working remotely are fueling growth in resort economies.
“They are making their money outside the valley, but they are in here contributing to the local sales-tax revenue by spending,” said Kelly Jensen, manager of Crested Butte’s venerable Alpineer outdoor shop, noting that the shop’s sales over the past few years have shown steady increases without similar increases in traffic. “They want to live this lifestyle and they are making money.”