DENVER -- A disappointing snow year in much of Colorado ski country last season has the state's resorts and hotels hoping that snowboarders and skiers will burn off some pent-up demand for deep snow this winter.
"Skiers and riders, it isn't just something they do. It's who they are," said David Perry, senior vice president of the mountain division of Aspen Skiing Co., which benefited from more snow than some other Colorado resorts last year. "They will come back if the weather is halfway normal."
Hotels and resorts are offering discounts and value-oriented deals for those willing to commit early to a Colorado ski trip.
The Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa at Beaver Creek Mountain is allowing people to cancel reservations for stays before mid-December without penalty if Beaver Creek reports a base of less than 19 inches (about a half-meter) on the day before arrival.
The Gant hotel in Aspen reports a 17 percent increase from last year in revenue from its Countdown to Winter promotion, which offers the biggest discounts to those who book lodging early. "We were initially concerned because we've had strong international business in Aspen, particularly from Australia because the exchange rate was favorable last year. The exchange rate is flat right now," said general manager Donnie Lee. "But our group bookings and domestic bookings are strong."
Among values at resorts, Arapahoe Basin is offering a season pass that's good for two seasons instead of one. And Aspen/Snowmass is teaming with Alta in Utah, Jackson Hole in Wyoming and Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows in California to offer a $349 pass that includes two free days at each of the four destinations, plus steep discounts on lodging and additional lift tickets. By contrast, a single-day ticket at the Aspen ticket window reached $108 during the busiest times last season.
Passes that offer access to more than one resort are becoming more commonplace. The number of resorts where Monarch Mountain's season pass holders can ride for free or for a discounted rate is up to 31 this season, and a few international destinations are included. This winter Vail Resorts Inc.'s top-of-the-line Epic Pass offers three free days at Verbier and the other resorts that make up Les 4 Vallees in Switzerland.
Skier Rich Maloy of Boulder didn't buy a season pass after moving to Colorado from New York last year, partly because of poor snow. But this year, he bought an Epic Local pass from Vail Resorts for access, with some restrictions, to the company's seven resorts plus Arapahoe Basin, along with a four-pack, good for four days at Loveland.
"It's based on the irrational hope that last year was the anomalous bad season, and this year will be amazing," said Maloy, 37. "I'm taking a gamble this year. If it pays off, that's even more irrational incentive to buy one next year."
Vail Resorts, whose Colorado resorts include Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Vail, reported strong spring sales of its season passes. An update is expected later this month when it reports quarterly revenue.
There were an estimated 11 million skier visits to Colorado resorts last year, down almost 10 percent from the previous season, according to Vail Resorts and the trade group Colorado Ski Country USA. Industry officials blamed one of the driest winters on record.
Arapahoe Basin, Winter Park, Steamboat and Telluride are among resorts that have added new snow-making and snow-grooming equipment to help keep trails in satisfactory condition when there's not enough natural snow. Vail is adding a gondola with heated cabins and Wi-Fi for moving visitors uphill in comfort.
Resorts also are adding attractions that don't need snow. Copper Mountain, for one, added a zip line above its ice rink.
Vail, Eldora and Steamboat celebrate their 50th anniversaries this season with on- and off-mountain activities. The Vail Snow Daze festival, sponsored by Vail and others, amped up the star power for the occasion by scheduling The Shins to play Dec. 13, Michael Franti & Spearhead on Dec. 14 and Wilco on Dec. 15. Concertgoers will have to buy tickets.
Beyond weak snow, Colorado's ski industry dealt with tragedy last winter, with avalanches killing skiers at Winter Park Resort and Vail Mountain. The victims' families have filed lawsuits against the resorts' operators.
Avalanche deaths are rare within resort boundaries. And beyond avalanches, there are generally some skier and snowboarder deaths every season.
The National Ski Areas Association estimates two-thirds of skiers and snowboarders now wear helmets at U.S. ski areas. Several Colorado ski areas require children in ski school to wear them. Aspen Skiing Co. and Vail Resorts Inc. require on-duty employees to wear helmets while riding.