The Independents: carving out a niche in skiing’s biggest market

Ski areas such as Vail and Aspen dominate the Colorado resort landscape, but there's still room for independents like Echo, Eldora and Monarch. SNEWS takes a look at what the little guys do to stay relevant in skiing's most competitive market.
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Ski areas such as Vail and Aspen dominate the Colorado resort landscape, but there's still room for independents like Echo, Eldora and Monarch. SNEWS takes a look at what the little guys do to stay relevant in skiing's most competitive market.

Just 35 miles from downtown Denver, Echo Mountain has never tried to be everything to everybody. The area opened five years ago above Idaho Springs almost exclusively as a terrain park, and has since expanded its appeal as a feeder mountain by expanding its ski school, and adding an adult race league and weekday lanes for younger racers who on the weekends train at Vail or Winter Park.

Echo general manager Cindy Dady told SNEWS® she sees the area as more of a community swimming pool than a full-blown ski area--a convenient place where parents can drop their kids off for the day and know they’re safe. “One guy who showed up with his four-year-old girl summed it up perfectly,” she said. “He told me, ‘I don’t need 28 chairlifts right now. I just need some hot cocoa and a Magic Carpet.’”

Colorado is America’s biggest ski market by a long shot, reporting 12 million skier visits last season, far ahead of second place California’s 7.5 million visits, and triple that of Utah and Vermont, which notched a little more than 4 million visits each. It’s also dominated by Vail Resorts, the Aspen Skiing Company, Intrawest and Powdr Corp.--major corporations with expansive resort holdings, world class terrain, multi-million dollar marketing campaigns, and in some cases, $100 lift tickets.

For drive-ups like Echo to survive, and even thrive among the giants--especially in a year in which Colorado’s mountains have been swimming in snow while the Front Range has experienced a bit of a drought--they have to pick off customers from the bigger areas, or try to cater to a vastly different market.

“The reality is that we are not competing with Vail or Winter Park,” said Dady. “Maybe we compete with Eldora a little bit, but they’re drawing from a market that probably wouldn’t drive over to us. Our real competition is movie theaters, skate parks, and any other activities that are low cost.”

Further up I-70, the often crowded interstate artery that connects the majority of Colorado’s local and out-of-state skiers with many of its most popular resorts, Ski Loveland has built its reputation as being the first best place to stop. With nearly 400 inches of snow already this season, powder skiers have been plentiful, and marketing director John Sellers said he thinks the great conditions could help the area break last season’s record of 317,000 skier visits.

“We’re up over where we were last year at this point,’ Sellers said. “It’s not head and shoulders above those numbers, but I think it would take something pretty extreme to knock us off the pace.”

Along with the snow, Sellers points to several value ticket options (Loveland’s highest price is $59 at the ticket window), an increased focus on customer service, and “a family friendly environment” as contributors to the visitor increase. But he said any time he surveys guests on why they ski Loveland, “proximity to Denver seems to the most popular answer we get.”

“I think maybe people get frustrated with the traffic and the prices involved with skiing further up the highway,” Sellers said. “When they look at what’s important to them, it’s really just the skiing, and driving less.”

For Golden, Boulder and Fort Collins residents especially, no area is closer than Eldora, which completely avoids the I-70 experience. With the recent approval of its Master Plan, (click here to read our recent story), which includes potential upgrades of nearly 100 acres of new glades and new terrain, and a new guest services building and a new lift, the area is poised to capitalize on its role as the alternative to the interstate.

“Any work we can do is still a couple years away just as we head into analysis for each project,” said marketing director Rob Linde. “But it is very exciting to be moving forward on the improvements because they will really enhance the skiing product.”

Linde said that more leeward terrain, and more intermediate terrain, will help draw more of the local family crowd. But when asked if Boulder’s heavy population of hardcore riders wasn't still more apt to brave I-70 for bigger hills--particularly with the heavy snowfall this season--he said he thought the traffic hassle was playing more and more to his benefit.

“A couple years ago I would say it probably was the case. But there a lot of people who just don’t want to make that drive anymore,” said Linde. “I know a lot of people with kids on the race program, where if they drive up I-70 for a race, they stay overnight just because they don’t want to face traffic twice for a day up and back.”

The drive-up customer is king to the south of the I-70 corridor as well, where Monarch Mountain counts Colorado Springs and Pueblo as its strongest customer-base. But the area also draws well from cities such as Albuquerque, NM, and Topeka, Kansas.

“I look at Colorado Springs and the growth in that area, and the growth in Pueblo, and realize we’re not even close to saturating those markets,” said marketing manager Greg Ralph. “From there we market out to Texas and the Panhandle and Kansas. We're only an eight to 10 hour drive from Wichita, and that continues to be a good market for us.”

Monarch’s nearest accommodations include a lodge three miles from the ski area, and Salida, which is about 30 minutes from the slopes. But some of Colorado’s best snowcat-skiing, a wide variety of terrain and a value friendly vibe have all led to an annual increase in out-of-state business. “We actually significantly increased our international visits this year, from zero to twelve,” Ralph joked.

Monarch would be on pace for a record year if it weren’t for a couple days of 40 below zero cold, a rockslide that cut off access from Salida for six days, and a weekend powder day when a snowcat driver hit a generator and knocked all the power out. But that hasn’t slowed down plans for expansion, Ralph said, as the area is in the midst of trying to get a new Master Plan approved, with proposed improvements including new terrain and new chairlifts.

“There’s a bunch of stuff we’re trying to do here,” said Ralph. “Including adding a new chairlift off the backside of the mountain and a new parking lot. If we can get it approved, we’ve got plans for $8.5 million in investments. A lot of people know that there’s snow in Colorado, and we’d like to keep capitalizing on that fact.”

--Peter Kray

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