Mountain High

Ski destinations aren't just for skiers anymore. Thanks to a long list of indoor and outdoor activities, resorts throughout the western United States are attracting incentive groups made up of everyone from avid skiers to those who prefer to endure the winter in other ways, like hitting the shops in town, for instance. Who says that sun-and-fun can't involve snow?

In fact, the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) 2004 Demographic Study found steady visitation by first-timers and beginners as well as an increase in the number of visitors aged 45 and over. While there are no specific figures on incoming incentive business, Keri Hone, director of events and projects for the Lakewood, CO-based NSAA points to ongoing tourism development as a key to sparking the interest of this important market segment.

"The resorts are expanding their activities, and overall resort towns can accommodate many different individuals," she says. "These expansions include night parks with tubing and snow biking, as well as shopping and dining. All of this combined makes for a more well-rounded destination for corporate events."

Maybe that's the reason Kim Hester, director of meetings and incentives for the La Jolla, CA-based Travel Dynamics Group, chose Park City, Utah, for a program for her Silicon Valley Internet company client last March.

During the four-night "Achievers Club" program, the young group of 48 stayed at the upscale Hotel Park City and experienced much of the exciting winter destination. In addition to skiing, snowmobiling, and spa appointments, highlights included an afternoon at Olympic Park, complete with ski-jumping demonstrations and bobsled runs; horse-drawn sleigh rides; a cozy mountainside dinner at the Snowed Inn with a surprise visit by Olympic athlete Picabo Street; and a ski session with Street the next day.

While Park City fit the demographic of the Internet firm, Hester stresses the importance of knowing your audience. "Make sure winter sports are their thing," she says. "Always have good options for non-skiers. For the right group, a ski destination can be exhilarating and wonderful."

Fortunately for U.S. companies, ski destinations are only a short plane ride away. Here's a report on the top winter resorts out West, from Colorado to Utah.

Ski Central: Colorado

Aspen, a posh Rocky Mountain playground located in the White River National Forest, offers a lot of action for group itineraries. Outdoor enthusiasts benefit from the area's "power of four," namely Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass, and the Buttermilk Mountains. Here, visitors can experience all things snow, including skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling. Or they can enjoy other attractions such as the Aspen Art Museum, the more than 100 restaurants and bars in the area, and luxury boutiques such as Chanel and Christian Dior.

"As far as planning an incentive trip to a winter destination, there is a lot Aspen can offer. We have four mountains, 37 lifts, and more than 4,800 acres of trails for skiing and snowboarding," says Jennifer Barnhart, sales and public relations manager for the Hotel Jerome. "But Aspen is not limited to skiing. There is a lot of history."

Part of that longevity can be found at the historic Hotel Jerome, which was built in 1889 by Macy's department store co-owner Jerome B. Wheeler. Dining options include The Century Room, Jacob's Corner, and The Library. Another amenity that planners might find appealing is the hotel's Ski Concierge, who provides services such as arranging for private or group ski lessons, securing lift passes, and storing equipment.

"Many of our guests are coming from the South or the East, so they are not really exposed to Colorado or the Rocky Mountain experience," says Barnhart, who lists ESPN and Citigroup among her clients. "We can work in conjunction with Aspen Skiing Company to create races specific to groups. We can also help set up dine-arounds or a country hoedown at The Lynn Britt Cabin or the Elk Mountain Lodge, a private lodge toward Ashcroft."

Another Aspen notable, Sky Hotel, keeps in step with San Francisco parent company Kimpton Hotels & Resorts by putting a fresh spin on hospitality with pet-friendly services and the choice of yoga, karaoke, or flavored oxygen for meeting breakouts. In the wintertime, it's not uncommon for ski instructors to share the scoop on the day's best runs, or to lead appropriate stretches to prepare for the ski day during a group's breakfast. The ski-in, ski-out Sky Hotel features 90 guest rooms and suites, an outdoor heated pool and spa, and the 39 Degrees Lounge.

Telluride, located in the San Juan Mountains, part of the Rocky Mountain range in southwest Colorado, ranks tops with incentive groups. The Wyndham Peaks Resort & Golden Door Spa appeals to groups who want an alternative to a beach or desert location, says Brad Balow, senior sales manager for the property.

Adventures abound in Telluride, with options including heli-skiing, sled rides, and cross-country skiing.

Morgan Keegan, a financial company in Memphis, TN, has chosen the Wyndham Peaks as the site of its President's Club outing several times. "Ski trips have really been popular. We have President's Club qualifiers who select it year after year," says Kathy Ridley, managing director of communications, who has also used The Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch for her company's ski programs. "It's definitely a perk for our financial advisers, and they really work to earn the President's Club designation."

During its programs in Telluride, Morgan Keegan typically arranges for instructors to work with small groups. After a group ski lesson, a fun race and an outdoor lunch on the mountain are usually scheduled. "We have a good percentage of folks who go on this trip even if they don't ski," Ridley says. "There's always the spa, nice restaurants, and that complete change of environment."

The Vail Valley is another viable incentive getaway, with its resort hubs Vail and Beaver Creek. Expect a transformation in several years with Vail Resorts Inc.'s announcement of a comprehensive development project called "Vail's New Dawn," featuring two main components: the Vail Front Door and the new LionsHead projects. Plans under the Vail Front Door initiative include a new Vail Village Park, a new Lodge at Vail Chalets, new base area, and a luxury ski club, as well as a new spa and accommodations at the Lodge at Vail. For the LionsHead plan, proposed additions include an outdoor ice-skating rink, European-inspired pedestrian plaza and village, a four-star, nationally branded hotel, and a luxury RockResorts hotel. Until then, the Lodge at Vail, a RockResorts hotel, will continue appealing to the corporate incentive market with its prime location in Vail Village.

Eight miles away from Vail in Beaver Creek Village, the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek Resort and Spa continues to stay on the radar of incentive planners. Cory Carlson, senior manager of leisure travel and director of skiing programs at the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek, says that its Performance Ski Program, a leisure concept that focuses on skiing technique, après-ski dinners, and other winter diversions, has attracted interest from the corporate crowd, primarily from company presidents and CEOs interested in building relationships with their customer base.

Glory Days: California and Utah

Strong ties to the Winter Games can be found at Squaw Valley, CA, the 1960 Olympic host city. Ten minutes from Lake Tahoe, the Village at Squaw Valley USA, located at the base of Squaw Valley USA Ski Resort, offers one-stop planning for corporate groups. With slope-side luxury condominium lodging ranging from one to three bedrooms, ample restaurants, shops, and free entertainment, the Village at Squaw Valley provides guests plenty of action, and that's not including outdoor activities. Skiers and snowboarders are all set at Squaw Valley USA with 4,000 ski-friendly acres, 2,850 vertical feet, 33 lifts, and three terrain parks. For prime views, make a trip to High Camp. Located at the top of the cable car, High Camp is social central, with restaurants and bars, a snow-tubing arena, pool, Olympic Ice Pavilion, and Olympic Museum.

A more recent Olympic site is Park City, UT, home of the Utah Olympic Park, the venue for the ski-jumping, bobsled, and luge competitions of the 2002 Winter Games. Nestled in the Wasatch Mountains, Park City boasts three ski resorts: Park City Mountain Resort, The Canyons, and Deer Valley Resort.

Guy Morris, director of marketing and sales for the Hotel Park City, says the biggest benefit is location. "There is no other place in the United States where you can fly into an international airport [Salt Lake City International Airport], check into your hotel in 30 minutes, and be on the slopes within one hour," Morris says. "In Park City, your incentive time starts quicker."

Dave Stevenson, vice president of sales for The Canyons Resort, agrees that the proximity to the slopes is a strong selling point. But he says people are drawn to winter destinations for another reason. "There is this romance with the allure of the mountains." It's just the type of memory companies are trying to give their incentive winners.