Ski area unveils master plan

Ski Corp. president forecasts return of destination skiers

Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. President Chris Diamond said Friday he sees encouraging trends that lead him to believe the ski area will be able to afford building some of the improvements listed in its new master plan.

The new plan, technically an amendment to the ski area's existing master plan, anticipates capital projects the ski area might build in the next five to seven years. Changes range from a smattering of new runs to several new chairlifts and additional mountain restaurants. But the fact that those projects are listed in the conceptual plan doesn't mean any decision to fund them has been made.

The return of more vacationing skiers from outside Colorado would help pay for such projects, Diamond said.

Colorado, and Steamboat with it, has suffered through succeeding years of declining visits from destination skiers, Diamond said. But he sees a fresh new generation of skiing families budding on both coasts. And he hopes that a weakening dollar on world currency markets will bring back international skiers.

"Colorado has gone through a painful shrinkage in our destination skier market," Diamond said. "It's meant a significant change in our business model. Those are the skiers who stay five days and spend money in shops and restaurants. We've all been under pressure with that shrinkage. But I'm pretty comfortable we've hit bottom."

Diamond was speaking in front of about 20 people attending an open house held to unveil the master plan to the public. It was the second step in a public outreach program that will continue through March.

Lyn Halliday, director of guest services and environmental affairs for the ski area, said the company will host about 10 public meetings. It already has met with the Steamboat Springs City Council. Soon it will meet with Routt County government, season pass holders, ski area employees and adjacent property owners.

Halliday and Doug Allen, senior director of mountain operations, went into great detail during Friday's meeting explaining improvements described in the amended master plan.

Allen said it was difficult to decide among competing priorities. However, he sees two areas of greatest need. Allen and his colleagues think the ski area needs to streamline the number of chairlifts skiers must ride to avoid long gondola lines during peak holiday weeks. A new six-passenger chairlift that would replace a series of older lifts would accomplish that.

Second, Allen said ski school slopes need to be reconfigured, re-graded and expanded to allow the ski area to introduce new skiers to the sport.

"The areas where we could best improve ourselves are in out-of-base capacity and teaching areas," Allen said.

Diamond introduced anticipated improvements on the mountain and to the buildings in Gondola Square.

Dan Huber, a member of the audience, went right to the heart of the matter.

"Are we just pipe-dreaming here to make this great mountain better?" Huber asked, or can the ski area really fund the improvements.

Allen responded by saying that once a decision is taken to fund a major capital project such as a new chairlift, the planning and permitting process easily could take two years. To catch the trends Diamond referred to, the ski area must begin identifying high-priority capital projects now.

Diamond said nationwide studies of skier visits show growth in young adults visiting ski areas on the East and West coasts. That growth has turned into a three-year trend, Diamond said. Skiers in their 20s living in urban areas are the natural source of future destination skiers for Colorado, he added.

"It takes a while for all that young blood to reach their 30s and begin families, but I'm confident the day will come," Diamond said.

Steamboat also stands to reclaim market share lost among international skiers, Diamond said. Skiers from foreign countries formerly represented 12 percent of Steamboat's skier days, but that share has been cut in half.

"Seeing that shrinkage is painful," Diamond said. "I think the main reason has been a strong dollar, but I think we'll start to see that taper off."

As the value of a dollar falls against foreign currencies such as the euro, skiers and riders from Europe can purchase more American ski vacation for their money.

"Colorado is positioning itself better in the international market," Diamond said. "We want to be ready for the new pulse when it comes."

Diamond concluded by hinting that the current ski season is off to a good start, but stopped short of providing details.

"It's a little too early to call it a home run but things are on the right track," Diamond said.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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