At These Prices, Who Needs The Alps?

Peter S. Smith usually spends his winter vacation schussing the Swiss Alps. But this season, the London science teacher flew 5,500 miles to ski in Breckenridge, Colo. The skiing, he says, is "brilliant. The people are friendly, and I like the country music." Will he return? "Definitely."

Those words are as welcome as fresh powder to U.S. ski resorts. Some 80% of the world's skiers live outside the U.S., and more than ever, those foreigners are a prize market for U.S. resorts. Business has been flat for a decade, as yesteryear's hot dogs spend once disposable income on children, hearth, and home.

Foreign vacationers, in fact, do better than just replace the American skiers. "They spend twice as much and stay a fortnight instead of a week," explains William D. Benkelman, a partner in Breckenridge Spa, an upscale lodge. Skiers from overseas sample everything from shopping to sleigh rides, spending an average of nearly $250 per day at some resorts, compared with $150 for domestic skiers. And more are coming every year. SkiUSA, an international marketing organization for 16 U.S. ski resorts, estimates that foreign skiers represent some 3% of U.S. skiers, up from 1% five years ago.

No wonder Benkelman is rolling out the welcome mat for foreign skiers. He just spent $5 million to buy and improve Breckenridge Spa, mainly for the benefit of the British, who now contribute 40% of his revenues. The spa offers a currency exchange, English newspapers, and an afternoon repast with tea from Harrods, cucumber sandwiches, and scones.

Everything in town seems designed to keep the Brits in a spending mood. At the 111-year-old Gold Pan bar, folks fresh off the plane from London sip Coors with lime juice, shout requests to Sam the Singing Cowboy, and videotape each other kissing a mounted buffalo head. Obliging Yanks even stage impromptu fisticuffs for the visitors. "We fake fights for them," admits David Samples, a dishwasher at a local restaurant. "Sometimes they get up and run away." The British pop into Sundance Hats for $73.95 cowboy headgear or Quandary Antiques for quilts and vintage Cream of Wheat advertising placards. "They all say: `Isn't this lovely!"' reports owner Maureen Nicholls.

It's lovely for nearby Breckenridge Ski Corp., which began wooing British skiers about five years ago, after the tumble in energy prices all but wiped out skiers from the oil patch. Now, 8% of its business comes from foreigners. It's aiming for 10%.

GERMAN JUNKET. Ski the Summit, a marketing consortium that includes Breckenridge, Keystone, Copper Mountain, and Arapahoe Basin, zeroed in on the foreign market three years ago. It expects 23,000 foreign skiers, mostly British, this winter, representing about 7% of Summit County's ski business. Ski the Summit's next target is the Germans: 100 German TV and print reporters will hit the slopes this season, courtesy of the consortium.

Most foreign skiers go West, but Eastern resorts are attracting them, too. "They leave London on a morning flight, and they are here in time for their evening American meal," says Richard Blowers, a tour guide at Thomson Holidays PLC, which packages ski vacations at Killington, Vt.

The West should remain the prime draw, though--while the dollar stays low. A ski package that includes a direct flight from London's Gatwick Airport to Denver, local transportation, and two weeks' lodging now goes for less than $1,000, plus lift tickets.

Prices like that should appeal to more than the Brits, of course. Breckenridge Ski has started advertising in Japan. Not coincidentally, Breckenridge, like several other U.S. ski areas, is owned by Japanese interests. Park City, Utah, already has trail signs in Japanese. And to build name recognition, New York's Hunter Mountain licensed its name and the names of its runs, such as "Wall Street," to a resort outside Tokyo. Japanese skiers who come to Hunter will find a hillside sushi bar.

Resort operators are discovering, though, that the Japanese expect them to take customer service seriously. "They want to know if we have small enough ski boots and Japanese-speaking ski instructors," says Lucy Kay, Breckenridge Ski's marketing director.

It may not be time for American resorts to dump the hot buttered rum, but they should start warming the sake.

Sandra D. Atchison in Breckenridge, Colo., with Evan I. Schwartz in New York and Gregory Sandler in Boston