For Skiers, the Slopes Still Lead to Colorado

COLORADO is the Alberto Tomba of the United States ski industry. Like the brash Italian skier and Olympic champion who boldly predicts victory before his biggest races, Colorado calmly schusses into yearly dominance of the multibillion dollar industry, leaving other states to fight over mundane details like market share and skier visits.

In the annual competition for downhill skiers and their money, Colorado remains the undisputed winner. With just 5 percent of the nation's ski resorts, Colorado commands 20 percent of the ski business. Last year, Colorado's 30 ski areas had more than 11 million skier visits, which brought $2.5 billion into the economy. California, the second most popular state, had a bit more than half that many skiers.

While the avalanche of green stuff has Colorado resort owners smiling, some competitors sniff at the state's dominance.

``Most of our customers are Californians,'' says Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Association. ``We have such a substantial market here. It wouldn't make any difference if we tried to compete with Colorado.''

Ski officials in Utah aren't so charitable. Attracting less than 3 million skiers per year, Utah offers similar snow and conditions to Colorado and has taken off the ski mittens in the fight to fill chair lifts.

Last month, Ski Utah, a trade association, mailed out 30,000 postcards that read, ``In Denver you could lose your luggage. In Utah, you could lose your self.'' Shortly after that, Park City, a Utah ski resort, sent a similar postcard that made fun of the problem-prone Denver International Airport. The opening of the $2 billion airport has been delayed numerous times because of cost overruns and a faulty baggage system.

Mark Menlove, the president of Ski Utah, says the response to the direct-mail campaign was very positive and the group got a lot of free national publicity. ``It turned out to be a very good media buy,'' he says. Calling Utah a ``hungry challenger,'' Mr. Menlove believes Utah had to get more aggressive because Colorado has so much more money to promote itself.

Menlove says his entire annual budget for office expenses and advertising is $700,000, a fraction of what just one of the big ski areas in Colorado will spend on advertising alone.

Record snowfalls

Advertising can't make it snow, however, and this year, Mother Nature seems to be favoring California and Utah. California ski areas are enjoying the best snowfall in 20 years. Last month, Utah had record snowfalls. Both states have recorded sharply higher skier numbers due to the good snow. Meanwhile, snowfall in Colorado has been lower than average. A few ski areas have had good snowfall, but the state's largest areas, including Vail, Breckenridge, and Keystone are in dire need of snow to accommodate the surge of skiers during the Christmas and New Year's holidays.

Most of the ski areas in the central part of the state are operating at partial capacity and are using snowmaking equipment to augment the natural snow. Despite the lack of snow, skier visits to the state are near normal and resort operators are confident that they will equal or surpass last year's numbers.

Promotion of the ski business has become increasingly important as the number of skiers has been flat for several years. There are 516 ski areas now operating in the US, giving the nation's 10 million skiers a panoply of schussing options. Industry officials say the only way to get more skiers on the slopes is to swipe them from competitors.

A ski industry analyst said Utah could corral a few more skiers this year, particularly with Denver's airport problems. But he believes that, in the long run, Colorado's dominance will continue, because it has more of the infrastructure that skiers want and need. ``Utah just doesn't have the bed space that Colorado does,'' he said.

The center of Colorado's ski industry lies about 80 miles west of Denver in Summit County. The most popular ski destination in North America, some 3.4 million skiers a year visit the county's four areas, Copper Mountain, Breckenridge, Keystone and Arapahoe Basin. Business has never been better. ``We can't see an end to the good fortune that we are experiencing here,'' says Lillian Ross of Ski the Summit, the county's trade association.

Construction boom

Construction in the county is booming. In the past few years, dozens of outlet shops and hundreds of condominiums have been built throughout the county. For skiers, the area offers a lot of amenities.

C.B. Holland, a Texan, was skiing at Keystone with his family last week. He chose Summit County, because ``there is so much to ski here. I went to Utah before, but there's not as much variety.''

Resort operators in Colorado don't like to talk about their competitors.

``I just hope Santa's too busy to have heard you use the word, Utah,'' jokes Jim Felton of Keystone Resort, Colorado's third most popular ski area after Vail and Breckenridge. And although Mr. Felton can joke about Utah's challenge to Colorado's supremacy in the ski business, he turns serious when talking about the future. ``We are the king of the hill and have every intention of remaining so.''

Mr. Tomba would be proud of the statement.

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