Holiday weather a tourist boon

Early count suggests lodging numbers up over 2011-12 holiday

By Scott Hammers / The Bulletin

Deep snow, good driving conditions and a few fortunate twists of the calendar all contributed to what appears to have been a robust holiday season for tourism in Central Oregon.

Alana Hughson, president of the Central Oregon Visitors Association, said her organization’s preliminary survey of lodging companies, restaurants and others dependent on winter tourism suggests visitor numbers were up modestly this year. Companies that rent houses, condos and other larger lodging units saw 4-15 percent improvement in occupancy this year, she said, while hotels lagged behind but were still up from the same period in 2011-12.

Hughson said houses and condos often do better than hotels during the period surrounding Christmas, as families and other large groups seek out more spacious accommodations for an extended stay.

Having Christmas fall on a Tuesday in 2012 likely helped boost tourist numbers, Hughson said, giving families that waited until schools let out Dec. 20 or 21 to head to Central Oregon a few extra days to spend in the area.

Christmas fell on a Sunday in 2011 and a Saturday in 2010.

Portland schools were on a slightly different schedule than most of the state this year, said Doug La Placa, CEO of Visit Bend. Students in the state’s largest district were off during the week before Christmas and returned to class Jan. 2, he said, while nearly every other district pushed their winter break a week later.

La Placa said the best gauge of the 2012 Christmas holiday won’t be ready until February, when lodging operators file their room tax reports with Deschutes County. A 7 percent tax is levied on all overnight accommodations in the county, with 70 percent of the funding directed toward the sheriff’s department and the remainder divided between Visit Bend and COVA for tourism promotion.

Both Hughson and La Placa said the weather during the roughly two-week span of the Christmas tourist season was nearly ideal.

“We’ve had reports from skiers and boarders and snow enthusiasts that they saw some of the best conditions they’ve seen in years over the holiday season,” Hughson said.

Mt. Bachelor spokesman Andy Goggins declined to estimate how its visitor numbers compared with past years, but said the ski area is in a good financial position coming out of the most critical few weeks of the season.

“We’re tracking pretty close to the budget and had a good holiday weather-wise. It couldn’t have set up any better. With the storms we’ve had through most of December running through Christmas and as of the 26th, it cleared out and we had amazing conditions and sunny skies all the way up until today when it started snowing again.”

Good weather allowed Mt. Bachelor to open the Summit Express lift on Dec. 13 — its earliest opening on record, Goggins said — and keep it open every day between Dec. 26 and New Year’s Day, traditionally the busiest days at the mountain.

Approximately 70 percent of visitors to Central Oregon arrive in a personal vehicle, Hughson said, primarily from other parts of the Pacific Northwest, and the same snow that attracts winter visitors can sometimes keep them away if driving conditions are treacherous.

La Placa said the promise of good snow at Mt. Bachelor, coupled with clear roads over the passes, often prompts Willamette Valley residents to arrange a wintertime trip to Central Oregon at the last minute.

“That’s the nature of the ski industry; when conditions are good, people will book vacations with a very short lead-in time,” he said.

Dave Nissen, president of Wanderlust Tours, said his company saw increased numbers of visitors signing up for snowshoe and brewery tours this year. Wanderlust had its own lucky break in the calendar/astronomy department: A full moon occurred Dec. 28, Nissen said, most likely heightening interest in his company’s moonlight snowshoe trips throughout the week after Christmas.

Nissen said there was one downside to December snows. Conditions up in the mountains were so good, Wanderlust had a tough time drumming up interest in lower-elevation pursuits, such as tours of Boyd Cave east of Bend.

“You really couldn’t ask for better, and Mom Nature treated us with extraordinary fanfare, just dumping tremendous amounts of snow through Dec. 25, then it dried up and we had bluebird skies,” Nissen said. “There was the inversion down here that we all lived through, but up there, it was just spectacular.”