DENVER - Michelle Michaels, a Colorado Springs software support employee, is a longtime ski season passholder to Breckenridge, Keystone and Arapahoe Basin. But she won't be getting a pass this year while she tries to pay off debts.
"It's one of the most devastating things," said Michaels, who still plans to buy individual lift tickets to snowboard. "I won't be going 20 times like I normally do."
Early sales and reservations figures for some destination ski resorts suggest the nation's financial crisis could put a crimp on the $6 billion ski industry. But industry leaders say past downturns - such as the 1970s fuel crisis and the post-2001 terrorist attacks - show that snow and proximity to urban areas matter.
"If it snows and we have a great snow year, the impact of the economy tends to be negligible," said Michael Berry, president of the Lakewood, Colo.-based National Ski Areas Association. "If there are early, significant snows, people will find a way to bring their families and friends together to share time in the mountains."
Berry's trade group reported a record 60.5 million skier visits to resorts last year. Early snows this winter could allow the industry to meet the three- to four-year average, or roughly 58 million visits, Berry said.
To keep guests coming despite high gas and airline prices and airline baggage fees, ski areas are offering discounted travel packages, more rental gear so customers can leave their own gear at home, and free bus rides from town to the lift lines.
Resorts that rely on local traffic figure to stomach the downturn better than destination resorts, say industry associations for California, Midwest and Vermont ski areas.
"We are just a tankful of gas away from 80 million people in core metro areas," Ski Vermont President Parker Riehle said.
But Ski.com, which books vacations at 80 resorts in the western U.S., Canada, Europe and South America, has seen a single-digit percentage drop in sales compared to last year, spokesman Dan Sherman said. That could change as deadlines to redeem early season discounts near.
In September, Vail Resorts Inc. CEO Rob Katz said the number of Colorado season passes sold was down 8.4 percent. It operates Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Vail resorts in Colorado and Heavenly in California. Adult passes range from $409 to $579.
Advanced lodging bookings through central reservations were down 17.7 percent in room nights over the same period last year, Katz said.
JMP Securities analyst William Marks is projecting a 9 percent drop in skier days for Vail Resorts this season.
Intrawest didn't release details but has seen similar booking results in Colorado, where it operates the Steamboat, Winter Park and Copper Mountain resorts, Chief Marketing Officer Andy Wirth said.
Aspen Skiing Co., with four mountains, is filling its higher-end rooms faster than more moderately priced properties, and advance booking for the late season is "a little sluggish," spokesman Jeff Hanle said. Season pass sales are up roughly 5 percent so far from last year, perhaps boosted by snowy memories of last winter, he said.
While airlines are trimming their flight schedules, Colorado destination towns like Steamboat Springs and Aspen actually have more flights this winter, thanks in part to additions by Frontier Airlines. Schedules to Denver International Airport are roughly the same.
Katz said it isn't clear whether customers are simply delaying purchases.
"Skiers are a little bit different," said Sherman, of Ski.com. "Come January, if someone needs to take a vacation, someone who's going to the beach might look at their checkbook and say, 'Maybe next year.' For skiers, skiing is part of their identity. It's a passion they have."
Resorts are doing what they can to remove the sting of gas prices and airline baggage fees.
Even smaller resorts like Monarch Mountain in Colorado are boosting rental gear supplies, while Vail Resorts is offering credits up to $50 to help cover baggage fees of guests who book certain vacation packages early.
Steamboat has promotions where kids can fly to town free when a parent buys at least two nights of lodging, lift tickets and a roundtrip ticket on certain airlines during specific periods.
Utah resorts hope to benefit from Salt Lake City flights offered by Southwest Airlines, which doesn't charge for up to two checked bags, said Jessica Kunzer of the promotional group Ski Utah.
In Wenatchee, Wash., season pass holders for Mission Ridge resort can get free bus rides from around the local area for free. The resort hopes that helps ease customers' fuel expenses and a parking crunch.
Mt. Bachelor in Oregon slashed prices for adult season passes to $799 from $929, if they were bought before Oct. 1. The Rocky Mountain Super Pass Plus for Winter Park, Copper Mountain and Steamboat fell $60 to $439 for adults. Buyers received a free two-day ticket to Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia if they bought their passes before Oct. 12.
International guests offer hope for U.S. resorts as the Canadian, European and British currencies gain ground on the U.S. dollar. The National Ski Areas Association says international visits were 6.4 percent of all visits last season, up an estimated 28 percent from the previous season.
Aspen Skiing Co. reports strong early season bookings out of Brazil and elsewhere in South America.
"We've got reasons for concern, but there's also reasons for hope," Hanle said.
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