After slowing in February, bookings to major western resorts accelerated in March and set the basis for a strong end to the 2010-11 winter season, according to the most recent report released by the Mountain Travel Research Program (MTRiP).

Actual occupancy in February rose for the sixth consecutive monthy in February, but only by 1.2% from a year earlier, according MTRiP data. That brought occupancy gains for the September through February period to 7.3%. Daily rates remained essentially flat-down 0.2% for February and 0.3% for the past six months.

However, data show on-the-books occupancy and average daily rate for March running 12.2% and 4.9% ahead of March 2009. For the next six months, arrivals from March through August, on-the-books occupancy is running 8.7 % ahead of the same period last year.  Lodging rates remain essentially stable.

“Good early snow and a stabilizing economy brought strong momentum to the start of this winter season,” said Ralf Garrison, director of MTRiP. “However, that momentum decreased through February, but we expect a very strong March that should compensate for what looks to be a weak April.  Most mountain destinations will have significantly better ski seasons than the last two years but until there is sustained growth  in both occupancy and rate, they won’t return to pre-recession levels,” he added.

The monthly report also discussed recent economic factors that may influence the remainder of the ski season as well as the upcoming summer.  The Consumer Confidence Index (CCI) increased 8.6 % and topped the 70-point threshold for the first time in three years and marks the fifth increase in the past seven months. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 2.8 % on Feb. 28 from January–the ninth time in the past year that the Dow has been up compared to the previous month. 

Although the national unemployment rate is down to 8.9 %, MTRiP research analyst Tom Foley remains cautious about the implications of the decrease.  “While the addition of 192,000 jobs in February is significant, it is only partially responsible for the drop in unemployment figures,” Foley explained.  “The number of unemployed people actively seeking work did not change significantly in February.  At some point, those job seekers on the sidelines who aren’t currently being counted are expected to begin looking for work. If job growth remains stagnant, those people will once again be included in the unemployment figures which will drive the rate up,” he added.

Concerns about oil prices were also listed as a primary issue facing the travel industry. The steady increase in consumer travel over the past year could be interrupted by fuel price increases that impact air and car travel.  Foley believes that the timing of these fuel increases will have less negative impact on the mountain resorts though since the ski and snowboard season is in its final weeks and not as vulnerable as in fall and early winter when ski vacations are typically booked.

“So with a strong March on the books, we anticipate a respectable winter season for the mountain lodging properties, despite what looks to be an anemic April,” observed Garrison. “Additionally, some resorts have reported increased spending, so overall tax revenues are expected to be up for local communities and municipalities which is good news for the mountain destinations.”