As the ski train starts running to Winter Park again this winter — and at least two resorts plan to open in October — Colorado’s ski industry is gearing up for yet another banner season.
For the 2016-17 season, resorts are partnering with their competition, enhancing their facilities and diversifying tourists’ experiences to stay relevant and successful in the snow business.
With more than 25 ski resorts in the state — most receiving an average snowfall of 300 inches a year — Colorado remains a leading destination to hit the slopes.
According to a study released last year by Colorado Ski Country USA and Vail Resorts Inc., the state’s ski industry generates $4.8 billion in economic impact each year, supporting more than 46,000 year-round jobs and producing $1.9 billion in annual labor income.
And while skiing is a big industry in Colorado, many of the resorts — like Arapahoe Basin, Ski Cooper and Monarch Mountain — classify as small businesses, operating with a few hundred employees.
The 500-passenger ski train hauling skiers and riders from Denver’s Union Station to Winter Park will return Jan. 7 through March 26.
Through an agreement with Amtrak, Winter Park Resort and Union Pacific Railroad, on Saturdays and Sundays (and on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Presidents Day), the Winter Park Express will route passengers through Moffat Tunnel to the base of Winter Park’s ski mountain, Mary Jane.
The historic train began operating in 1940, but owner Philip Anschutz closed it in 2009 due to declining profits. Grants from the Colorado Department of Transportation, the town of Winter Park and city of Denver reestablished its operation.
“It’s a big deal that the ski train is back,” said Chris Linsmayer, public affairs manager for Colorado Ski Country USA. “Now with Denver’s airport rail, we’re the only state where you can fly in and never have to get in a car for a ski vacation. You can take the train from DIA to Union Station, spend the night there and catch a train to Winter Park. You can stay at Winter Park for the weekend or however long you wish, and then return on the train to Denver and catch the A-Line back to DIA.”
For more information on the Winter Park Express, visit amtrak.com/winterparkexpress.
Instead of closing up shop during the off-peak — or shoulder — seasons, most resorts have developed robust summer programs and activities during the fall and spring to further utilize ski areas and continue to profit.
Industry professionals say the business no longer consists of an “off season” and has focused on additional dining, events and outdoor options such as hiking, biking and fly fishing.
“Resorts are doing more events that extend into those shoulder seasons to help close the gaps,” said Emily Jacob McCormack, a public relations representative for Crested Butte Mountain Resort. “We rarely see complete shutdowns anymore. The old formula of everybody taking two months off in the spring and two months off in the fall doesn’t really happen anymore.”
Besides May and October, Copper Mountain Resort is fully operational, said Morgan Whitehouse, communications coordinator for the ski area.
“We have events almost every weekend, our restaurants and ski lifts are open and we even offer activities such as bungee jumping and ziplining,” she said. “We have something for every age and ability.”
Each year, Loveland Ski Area hosts a free Mountaintop Matrimony. The mass wedding is held at 12,050 feet, near the Ptarmigan Lift at Loveland Basin, for couples getting married or renewing vows.
After the ceremony, couples and guests ski or snowboard down the mountain for a casual reception.
“It’s pretty wild to witness,” said Dustin Schaefer, group sales and new media manager at Loveland Ski Area. “Last year we had 100 couples participate. A lot of couples will also visit Loveland during Valentine’s Day because it’s ‘love land.’”
Weddings also occur at Arapahoe Basin as soon as ski lifts shut down, said Adrienne Saia Isaac, marketing and communications manager for the resort.
“Our wedding business has really boomed in the last few years — people really want that rustic Colorado, very romantic and scenic experience,” she said.
Arapahoe offers yoga sessions and special dinners on the mountain; last year it hosted a portion of the USA Pro Challenge cycling race.
But skiing is still the heart and soul of the resort’s business, Saia Isaac said.
“That’s what we’re passionate about and what brought us to Colorado,” she said. “We are creating a recreational, four-season experience for people and being on Forest Service land, it’s public land, and we want to give people the best access to it whether it’s skiing, hiking, biking or having a wedding.”
Although annual snowfall stays pretty consistent in Colorado, some ski resorts invest in snowmaking teams to make sure snow covers the ground as long as possible during ski season.
Professionals send water through snow guns or snow cannons to create artificial snow, helping the ground cool and creating a base layer on the mountain. The team watches the weather around the clock and as soon as the right conditions form, with temperatures lower than 32 degrees, snow-makers will head out at 2 a.m. to produce snow, she said.
“Snow-making is a science,” McCormack said. “There is this perfect storm of conditions that have to come together. It’s not just about temperature or humidity — there are all of these ratios that have to fall within this very small window.”
Man-made snow has different benefits and uses to a ski resort, she said.
“It really allows us to extend our seasons as much as we can,” she said. “It also allows us to create a good, stable base for the snow that Mother Nature will bring later.”
And snowmakers can only produce snow for so long due to water and environmental regulations.
“I think snowmaking is one of the hardest jobs at the mountain,” Saia Isaac said. “There are so many factors to making it go well, but the people who do it are dedicated to doing it well.”
McCormack said partnering with other resorts and conglomerate pass products are trending in the industry to introduce customers to different ski areas.
“You have pass products like the Mountain Collective Pass, where it’s a collection of mountain resorts from all over the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe — depending on the pass,” she said. “It’s a great pass for someone who knows they’re going to ski at more than one destination in a year.”
It’s a competitive market, especially in Summit County with a lot of resorts close together, Whitehouse said.
“But I think each resort has its own personality and different things they’re known for,” she said. “Copper has a very laid-back, all-inclusive vibe. We’re very family-friendly, and once you get to Copper, you don’t need a car. You can even head over to Frisco because there’s a free bus service.”
There are many different lines of business for ski resorts, McCormack said.
“Ski pass sales are really important, but that also drives everything else,” she said. “The people who are skiing on a pass are also usually eating at the resort, staying and playing there — so one drives the other.”
Arapahoe Basin plans to undergo renovations, spending $1.3 million to improve guests’ experience. In 2012, the resort created a master development plan to add a lift in the Beavers terrain [back-country terrain owned by the federal government], taking on an additional 400 acres west of its ski area boundary.
The resort wants to add to its operating area, the intermediate terrain, tree skiing and patrol through The Steep Gullies.
“We started the federal approval process four years ago, and now we’re at the tail end,” Saia Isaac said. “We’re hoping in November or December to receive the final record of decision and believe we’ve done this in the most sustainable way — and in a way that makes sense.”
The new lift would open in 2018-2019.
“We want to offer a different type of skiing,” she said. “Arapahoe Basin is mostly above tree line, and this terrain would offer more glade skiing and intermediate terrain. That’s a trend you’ll see across Summit County.”
Within the past three years, Arapahoe Basin has invested between $4 million and $5 million in its base area and facilities.
“I think it’s the commitment to those capital improvements that keeps us going,” Isaac said. “We want to keep with our laid-back vibe but don’t want to fall behind in technology or amenities we can offer.”
Ski resort season dates:
Loveland Ski Area: Mid-October through early May
Crested Butte Mountain Resort: Thanksgiving Day through early April
Copper Mountain Ski Resort: Nov. 11 through April 17 (tentative)
Arapahoe Basin: Mid-October through June
Monarch: November to April
Eldora: November to April
Winter Park: November to April