Ski resorts court lucrative international clientele
February 1, 2014
Doctor Leonardo Metsavaht was the first Brazilian snowboard champion in 1994, which got him an invite to do a Globo TV Sunday show about Brazilians in winter sports filmed in Aspen and Vail. Roughly 40 million viewers around the world watched the program.
He immediately felt a connection to Aspen and has traveled there every winter since.
"Aspen has a peculiar combination of the charm of European villages, with the organization of Americans and the soul of a real, old mining town," Metsavaht said. "I always say, 'In Aspen the flowers are not made of plastic, like many other ski destinations.'"
International visitors at Colorado ski resorts, specifically Aspen and Vail, are a coveted bunch. The resorts have focused efforts on attracting them in recent years for obvious reasons — their economic impacts were magnified during the American economic crisis when domestic business suffered.
In Aspen and Vail, there is a heavy Latin American presence, with the anecdotal consensus being that Mexicans tend to flock to Vail while more and more Brazilians are being seen in Aspen. Both towns enjoy a growing presence from both markets, though.
Eustaquio Cortina, a real estate broker who moved to Vail permanently from Mexico in 1982, knows firsthand the love affair that so many of his countrymen have with Vail. He thinks its popularity has a lot to do with the safety and security found throughout Vail's two pedestrian villages. And more than 5,000 acres of ski terrain and seven Back Bowls don't hurt, either.
"It's the best ski mountain, the best ski town," Cortina said. "It's very much family-oriented versus jet-set Aspen, let's say."
The competitive spirit between the two ski towns has made its way south of the border. Talk to Aspenites about Vail and you'll hear a lot of jabs about a lack of authenticity in Vail's villages. Talk to Vailites about Aspen, and they almost always tout the ski mountain and Vail's famous Back Bowls.
The family friendliness Cortina speaks of is a big deal for Mexicans, whose culture revolves around togetherness. Around the Christmas and New Year holiday, and again around Easter, it seems that every Mexican who has traveled to Vail knows one another.
"Mexicans, I think, like to commingle with the same group of people," Cortina said. "They come and they enjoy their Mexican friends and invite them over. They all enjoy Vail for one reason or another. Many families, you tell them, 'Let's go to Vail.' They'll say yes — nobody says no. Vail is the magic word."
Whatever their reasons for choosing one posh mountain resort over another, Latin Americans are doing so in larger numbers each year. Both Vail Resorts and Aspen Skiing Co. keep those numbers mostly private, however, but moves each ski company has made in recent years prove that international business is not only important, it's a critical part of success.
Vail Mountain launched a Spanish-language website, http://www.destinovail.com, a couple of years ago specifically targeting the high-end Mexican market. The company sends marketing representatives to Mexico City several times per year to continuously build relationships within the market. Vail Mountain has even hosted a red carpet event with complimentary Champagne for Mexican customers just to show appreciation for their business.
Aspen Skiing Co.'s Senior Vice President David Perry told Aspen Public Radio last year that the company is stepping up its international efforts, and not just in the already strong markets of Australia, Brazil, Mexico and Europe. China and Japan are now on the radar.
Vail Resorts' corporate restructuring in 2012 also signified the growing importance of Eastern markets. They promoted John Garnsey to president of Global Mountain Development, a new effort that includes the potential for global acquisitions and development opportunities.
As ski resorts cash in on international guests, so do the towns and local business owners. These seasoned international jet-setters buy up everything from designer furs to brand new ski equipment and clothing. They sip on Sassicaia while eating five-course lunches at Latin hotspots like La Bottega and Sweet Basil, and many of them also make multi-million-dollar real estate purchases.
The town of Vail and Vail Resorts report that Mexico, Canada and the United Kingdom are the top international markets for Vail, but they won't say in what order. In Aspen, the top two markets are Australia and Brazil, followed by the United Kingdom, Mexico, Germany and Canada, said Maureen Poschman, spokeswoman for the Aspen Chamber Resort Association and the former head of international marketing for Aspen.
"When Vail was being developed, they went to Mexico and marketed time shares and condos," she said. "Aspen and Snowmass tend to be bigger Brazilian markets."
The Latin American economic impact is a subject that real estate agents and municipal governments try to obtain accurate data about. It's a subject that trade organizations around Vail are currently analyzing, said Beatriz Martinez, a real estate broker with Slifer Smith & Frampton in Vail.
"There was an influx of Mexican investors and buyers during the 1980s, and in the past couple of years, we have seen them not only get involved in the area as buyers but also as developers, hoteliers and real estate brokers," Martinez said.
Martinez works mainly with Latin Americans and said the top purchasers come from Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil. She has learned a lot about what attracts them to luxury ski resort markets.
They're savvy buyers, she said, whether they're buying a townhome in East Vail or a single-family home in Bachelor Gulch. The purchase has to make sense not only in terms of meeting their family needs, but also as an investment.
"They do ask for data, and they analyze all the data very well," Martinez said.
In Eagle County, Land Title Guarantee Co. research shows international transactions as just 2 percent of the pie. Martinez points out that 2 percent is a lot when you're talking about a market like the Vail Valley.
"That is a significant number, but it has huge potential to grow, specifically with Latin American investors," she said. "Some of these emerging markets such as Mexico and Brazil have had great economic growth and stability in the past two years and are all looking to invest in U.S. properties."
Poschman said real estate purchases in Aspen have included buyers from Australia, Brazil, the United Kingdom and Russia.
"The Russians in the ski market have been going to the best resorts in France and Switzerland for 20 years," she said. So I've think they've discovered us now."
Lauren Glendenning is the editorial projects manager for Colorado Mountain News Media. She can be reached at email@example.com or 970-777-3125.
Read tomorrow's paper for part two, which focuses on the culture of Latin American visitors and why it integrates so well with luxury ski resort destinations.