Tuning up college week

Ski package attracts young adults with music legends, new sensations

When they tune up the acoustic guitars and fiddles under the big tent in the gondola parking lot Sunday night, an international audience will tune in to satellite radio to catch the performances live.

Legends of the Texas music scene, such as Ray Wylie Hubbard and Robert Earl Keen, and younger sensations, such as Cross Canadian Ragweed, were featured on a series of live concerts on XM Satellite Radio last week.

The concerts originated in a 25,000-square-foot tent at the base of Steamboat Ski Area.

The 40 performances at the ski area were part of the seventh annual MusicFest at Steamboat, a mostly private destination-travel event. It's aimed at attracting primarily young adults, but the event also draws families that are fans of a particular brand of music. More than 4,000 people -- not all of them skiers -- signed up for the trip.

It sold out in October.

The live music can be heard from 2 p.m. until midnight today on XM Satellite Radio, channel X-Country 12.

Organizer John Dickson said Thursday that many of his customers were in a celebratory mood after watching the University of Texas Longhorns claim the college football national championship the night before. The music fans rose the next day to ski powder under sunny skies.

"The moon, the stars, everything aligned just right today," Dickson said as the first band of the evening took the stage last Thursday. "The energy level is very high right now. It's all about the music."

Many of the musicians who perform during the festival have become fans of Steamboat, Dickson said. Some of the performing artists, who are songwriters and musical storytellers, bring their families to enjoy the mountain setting.

New look for college week

The combination of new media and acoustic "Americana" music fits a strategic repositioning of "college ski week" at Steamboat Ski Area. There is a significant difference between the "new" college ski week and the old-school version of the annual semester break invasion of the Colorado Rockies. Only four out of five of the young adults here for the MusicFest at Steamboat this week still had valid college IDs. The rest earned their undergraduate degrees and moved on years ago.

"This is the best of both worlds," Steamboat Ski Area Marketing Vice President Andy Wirth said. "We have college students, but the young adult in the 23- to 30-year-old age group is the primary customer here."

Wirth said the ski area has been working hard with Dickson for almost eight years to elevate the stature of the old college ski week, Wirth said.

"It's only in the last two years that it's really hit its stride," he added.

January may be Steamboat's snowiest month, but in spite of all that powder, it's also the softest month of the ski season in terms of tourism. Traditionally, when families have returned home from their holiday ski trips, they've been replaced by rowdy crews of college students on semester break. Ski resorts offer big discounts this time of year.

Wirth said Steamboat has tried to break out of the "herd mentality" and avoid slashing lift ticket prices by offering January ski vacationers something extra.

"We know we're competing with Snowmass and Breck--enridge, where they're selling lift tickets for $17, $19 or $21," Wirth said. "Rather than trash lift-ticket and lodging prices, we'd rather build something special that differentiates Steamboat."

Building a following

Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. spends six figures to rent, erect, heat, staff and light the giant outdoor tent for the festival, which runs from Jan. 4 to 9, Wirth said.

According to the Dickson Productions Web page, ground packages for the festival can cost as little as $189 at the Fairfield Inn in Steamboat and as much as $800 at the Sheraton Steamboat Resort. Most ground packages range between $350 and $500 a person. That includes five nights' accommodations and four full-day lift tickets.

Wirth said it's very important to him that the Americana music Dickson brings to Steamboat is compatible with the Steamboat brand of "Western friendliness."

Bringing a hip-hop festival to Steamboat would be a reach, he said.

"Performers like Cory Mor--row, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Lee Ann Womack are quality legendary names," Wirth said. "Young adults in Texas and Oklahoma have a strong affinity for these artists, similar to what people in Florida felt for Jimmy Buffett in the late 1970s."

Dickson said about 50 percent of last year's 4,000 festival goers are back for a repeat trip this year.

"Some of them have been coming for many years and ask for their lodging by room number," he said. "We have people from 42 states and three countries. It was quite moving this year to e-mail several servicemen in Iraq and help them and their families plan their leave."

Wirth sees the music festival as a way to build loyalty among new customers, and the exposure on satellite radio is a bonus that associates Steamboat with techno-savvy youths.

Dickson loves satellite radio because it embraces a diverse music format that doesn't often show up on all-hit radio.

Both men value their business collaboration.

"It's a partnership, and it's a friendship," Dickson said.

Wirth is mindful that the parking lot where the music festival tent sat this week is set to be developed into luxury condominiums within two years, and he is exploring two alternative sites. The Steamboat MusicFest is a piece of business he's not about to let go of.

"We know there are three primary portals for entry into snow vacations," Wirth said. "The first is people who grew up in a family that skied. The second is people who married into skiing. The third, and it's a powerful one, is people who happened to join along on a college ski trip."

-- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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