The Rising Price of Aspen Slopes

Some locals, blaming rich outsiders, say they'll ski elsewhere

TICKER shock has hit Colorado.

Each year, the price of spending a day downhill skiing on the alpine slopes creeps a buck or two higher.

But this year, three mountains in Colorado have boldly passed the $50 mark - a marketing price barrier akin to shattering the 5,000 level on the Dow Jones industrial average.

The Aspen resorts, which include Aspen Mountain, Highlands, Buttermilk, and Snowmass, now charge $52 a day for lift tickets. Other ski resorts around the nation are watching the public reaction to the new price.

''There is a psychological boundary for a lot of people,'' says Kelly Ladyga, spokeswoman at Colorado Ski Country USA, a marketing organization for 20 of Colorado's 25 ski areas - not including Aspen. ''The $50 lift ticket is that boundary.''

It's a frontier that's separating skiers into two distinct cultural camps: locals, who make up 40 percent of all lift-ticket sales; and out-of-staters. Many Coloradans, egged on by local newspaper editorials, hold the outsiders accountable for the price rise.

''Locals won't pay it, and I won't pay it. We'll ski somewhere else,'' says Belinda Wiman, a former ski instructor who makes her home in the shadow of the Breckenridge ski resort. ''People along Colorado's front range won't pay $52 a day. They don't need to with all the other resorts to choose from.''

Even an outsider like Chicago resident Ken Finnegan is eliminating Aspen from his annual week of skiing this year.

''I can get the same skiing for $20 less at another mountain,'' he says, ''so I just don't see a need to make the drive and pay the extra money to ski Aspen.''

The Aspen price is not ''soft'' either, which means the resort isn't offering the special deals and discounts for one-day tickets that other Colorado ski areas offer.

At supermarkets and ski shops, skiers, especially locals, can purchase lift tickets at $5 to $15 less than face value. That means an individual headed to Keystone, one of the state's most popular areas, can get a $44 lift ticket for closer to $30.

The Aspen ski areas have no such discount plan, so one either pays the full $52 for a day of skiing, or purchases a six or seven-day lift ticket, which is discounted so the skier essentially gets one day free.

Despite the local grumbling, Aspen spokesman Kelly Murphy says the $52 lift ticket won't have a negative impact on the resort. Christmas and New Year's ticket sales were strong and the resort reports no drop-off in patronage.

''Most people who come to Aspen buy a week-long package deal,'' says Ms. Murphy. ''It is rare we sell a lot of one-day tickets.'' She also explains that this year's full-week ticket is only $34 more than last year's, and that the folks who come to Aspen don't see that small increase as a reason to go elsewhere.

Aspen also has the advantage of catering to a specific market - the wealthy.

''Aspen is not indicative of the ski industry nationwide,'' says Stacy Gardner of the National Ski Areas Association, based in Colorado. ''They cater to an exclusive clientele,'' she says, adding that Aspen's well-heeled clients don't care if the lift ticket were $40 or $60.

Last year, Colorado's 25 ski areas logged around 11 million skier visits. That means about $340 million in lift ticket sales alone. Combine that with related businesses (offering everything from Gore-Tex ski fashions to rentals of posh chalets), and the industry grossed well over a billion dollars.

Colorado Ski Country USA's Ladyga says that Aspen's price hike past the $50 level will do little more than encourage some skiers to go elsewhere. But she says other resorts may also raise prices that high.

''Next year, a $50 Vail lift ticket will not scare people away,'' she says. ''But that's because more people won't have to pay the $50; they buy a discounted ticket.''

Vail and Beaver Creek are the two resorts closest to the $50 mark next year, with both charging $48 this season for a one-day lift ticket. But with all the discounts available, and because only about 10 percent of the skiers actually pay the full price of a lift ticket at all the resorts except Aspen, it could be another five years before skiers at Vail or Beaver Creek actually shell out $50 to spend a day on the slopes.

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