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June 2012
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Small ski resorts tout authenticity

By KRISTEN WYATT Associated Press

DENVER -- A budget ski resort in western Colorado came up with an eye-popping offer -- a $700 lift ticket, the most expensive in the nation. Only this lift ticket comes with a sweet bonus: a pair of handcrafted skis made from Colorado wood.

Gimmicky? Sure. But Sunlight Mountain Resort says that in an era of increasing ski-industry consolidation, scrappy independent resorts need all the help they can get to compete with amenity-laden megaresorts.

From baking fresh doughnuts for skiers to displaying local art to play up a sense of community, smaller, independent resorts say they have to rely on personality.

"It's the difference between Budweiser or a craft brew," said Troy Hawks, Sunlight's head of marketing and sales.

The ski industry used to be dominated by independent resorts, where downhill and cross-country skiers would drive to a local mountain, maybe get a fireside cup of hot chocolate in a lodge, then drive home. A ski area with an on-mountain hotel was a rarity; one with nighttime entertainment and white-tablecloth dining would be a true destination.

Starting in the 1980s, larger conglomerate companies started consolidating ski areas, investing heavily to make their mountains 12-month vacation destinations.

They made room for snowboarders. Added spas and skiing lessons. Built condominiums and larger hotels. Allowed guests to buy one pass good at several mountain resorts.

Consolidation expanded in spurts. The trend hit a new milestone last October when Vail Resorts of Broomfield spent $1.05 billion to buy Canada's Whistler Blackcomb Holdings Inc., North America's biggest and busiest ski resort. The purchase brought Vail Resorts to a dozen ski areas, all of them destination resorts that court overnight guests.

Mega ski operators like Vail can afford to advertise worldwide, and they grab headlines when they grow. But an industry association that tracks skier visits says that independent resorts are holding their own.

"There's the visible national destination resorts, but there's a whole other aspect of the industry made up of resorts that are closer to home, that they're easily accessible, affordable, and in many cases specialize in teaching people how to ski," said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, based in Lakewood.

Just a fraction of the nations' 463 ski areas are owned by multi-mountain conglomerates, and no one counts how many of the 57 million or so annual skier visits are made to independently owned mountains, Berry said.

But he conceded that consolidation isn't going away, making it imperative that independent resorts keep locals coming back.

"The better they do, the more likely they are to be a target for acquisition. It's one of those ironic realities," Berry said.

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