Colorado landscape architect Bryan Harding skied about 50 days on Aspen-area mountains last year, using a free season pass that was a perquisite of his job. But then he was laid off because of the bad U.S. economy.
Harding has since started his own landscaping company in Basalt, a small central Colorado town near Aspen. Despite his location near pricey Aspen, however, Harding is considering using less-expensive resorts for this year's ski outings.
Colorado, bisected by some of the Rocky Mountains' most challenging peaks, was one of the first states in the United States to establish a major skiing industry and remains at the heart of the industry.
Harding and his fiancee, Kim Noah, have not decided how many days they will take to the slopes this season.
"Last year, it was however many days we can get in," said Noah, 28.
"This year, it's however many we can afford," said Harding, 30.
With the recession's effects lingering, many Colorado ski resorts are adding value to their season passes, holding pass prices steady, or giving customers flexibility in booking lodging and paying for lift tickets to encourage mountain riders to visit and not to wait until the last minute to make plans.
"It's all about discretionary income," said Bob Bray, 74, a part-time instructor at Winter Park Resort. "You gotta pay for gas, tickets, equipment. If you don't have a job, you're probably not going to go as often.
"But dedicated skiers will find a way."
Resorts are helping. Wolf Creek in southwest Colorado has 14 "Local Appreciation Days" scheduled this season, when a one-day lift ticket costs $31 for adults and $18 for seniors and children. Telluride and Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort, two of the Rocky Mountain state's better-known resorts, are expanding expert terrain, while resorts including Ski Cooper, Powderhorn and Sunlight Mountain are holding pass prices steady this season.
Several resorts say early pass sales were up, but that could be because the added benefits and not a matter of more discretionary income.
For instance, Monarch Mountain kept season pass prices the same but now offers free or discounted access to 10 other resorts, up from eight last season.
Winter Park sold some passes online, allowing out-of-state skiers and riders to take advantage of deals that previously were claimed only by people who could buy them in person.
Melanie Mills, president of the trade group Colorado Ski Country USA, said she is guessing skier visits could be up slightly this season, based on feedback from ski shows around the country.
Heavy October and November snowstorms have not hurt either.
"We had all this great early snow in Colorado. That got people really fired up to go out and ski," Mills said.
Colorado resorts reported about 11.85 million skier visits last season, down 5.5 percent from the season before, according to Colorado Ski Country USA. The National Ski Areas Association saw a similar dip across the country, although resorts that were within driving distance of big cities and had lower-priced lift tickets fared better than ones that host a larger number of guests who have to hop airplanes to get there.
Echo Mountain President and CEO Gerald Petitt said his ski area about 45 minutes from Denver, expects a 30 to 40 percent increase in skier visits from last season. That is on top of the roughly 30 percent increase it had last season from the season before.
At $45, single-day Echo Mountain adult lift tickets are about half the peak window price of tickets at Aspen or Vail. The early season price for a season pass was $169.
"We're the closest resort to Denver. We're also the least expensive. In tough economic times, that makes a pretty good deal," Petitt said.
Here is a sample of deals at other Colorado resort offerings:
- Copper Mountain is letting people buy three to six nights of lodging that can be used one or two nights at a time, any time during the season, with some restrictions.
- Winter Park says guests who book at least two nights' lodging at certain nearby properties through Christmas get a free lift ticket for each night. Again, with restrictions.
- Crested Butte has deals that let children fly into town, ski and stay free, if adults book a qualifying trip.
- Aspen Skiing Co. says kids can ski and stay free in March if an adult buys a qualifying four-day, five-night lift ticket and lodging package by Jan. 15.
- Vail Resorts is sprucing up its cafeteria burgers without raising prices, adding value meals and offering guests less expensive options for guided skiing and expert tips from its ski schools. The company runs the Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone resorts in Colorado, plus Heavenly in California.
As always, Colorado Ski Country USA is offering the Colorado Gems card, which offers discounts and free skiing on certain days at smaller resorts. The card is $10 this year. The Web site's specials page is http://www.coloradoski.com/Resorts/Deals/.