Opulence coming to a ski resort near you

With the number of skiers stagnant, areas go upscale to lure big spenders.

Ski Cooper and Copper Mountain come within one letter of sharing the same name. But that's where the similarities end.

Ski Cooper is skiing as it used to be. Near Leadville, Colo., its runs were cut in 1942, when 10th Mountain Division troopers trained nearby. There's no snowmaking. The cafeteria sells burgers and dogs. The four lifts move at speeds best defined as glacial.

Twenty miles away, though, in Copper's new pedestrian village, the scene is altogether different. Visitors walk among graceful timbered lodges. There's a 42-foot climbing spire, a Nike outlet, and America's first branch of the Indian Motorcycles Cafe and Lounge restaurant. For those who actually snap on their boots, a high-speed six-person chair - one of 20 lifts on the mountain - ferries skiers above the tree line.

It's the new American skiing landscape. With the number of skiers hitting the slopes stagnant, the biggest resorts are sinking millions into amenities like fondue restaurants and valet parking, hoping to lure rich baby boomers seeking a pampered lifestyle and a few feet of powder.

Others, meanwhile, are just trying to compete. The contrast is stark, and as America's wealthiest families crest on a wave of unprecedented economic prosperity, it is a trend that is only growing.

From many resorts' point of view, going opulent can make good business sense. Since the 1970s, the number of skiers has been stuck at about 50 million.

Baby boomers, who boosted the industry to historic highs when they were young, have left the sport in droves - unable to find time to ski amid new family commitments.

"People just don't have the time to engage in the sport like they used to," says Mike Shirley, general manager at Idaho's Bogus Basin Ski Resort.

Meanwhile, there simply aren't enough Gen-Xers to make up for the loss. As a result, the Vails, Aspens, and Coppers of the world are targeting those older skiers who are looking for a second home and can pay for a premium alpine experience.

* For $50,000, a member of the Aspen Mountain Club gets two annual ski passes for life; a ski locker at the Little Nell, a five-star hotel; reserved parking; and access to posh luncheon services at Vail's Game Creek Club.

* Telluride just opened Allred's, a gourmet restaurant at 10,500 feet.

* Keystone offers cooking classes, yoga, and nature tours on snowshoes. The Outpost lodge serves Bavarian cuisine at 11,400 feet, and like Allred's, is open at night for those adventurers who want to come up by gondola.

* Utah's Deer Valley lets visitors FedEx their skis to the resort. They'll be waiting within 100 feet of the lift. And no need to walk from the parking lot; there's valet service.

To be sure, skiing has not entirely become a sport for the rich. Even big resorts are slashing season-ticket prices to lure locals. And for every Vail, there are dozens of smaller slopes catering to the less well heeled.

Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Association, says high-end skiing constitutes no more than "25 percent of the market."

Yet that sliver is in large part driving the industry, as resorts seek new ways to make money in a flat market. "Our non-lift-ticket business accounted for 74 percent of our revenues - that's higher than ever before for our company," said Adam Aron, head of Vail Resorts, in a report.

And what about Copper?

Resorts owned by Canadian company Intrawest - which include Copper - offset a 1.7 percent decline in skier visits last winter by making 12 percent more off each skier.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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