ASPEN WARMS BACK UP TO COLO. CAMPAIGN:SKI COUNTRY HIKES SPENDING 50% AS RESORTS BASK IN STRONG SEASON

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Aspen Skiing Co. has rejoined Colorado Ski Country USA, salving wounds opened a year ago when the resort defected from the trade association in a squabble over priorities.

Ski Country President John Frew said the organization will focus on marketing Colorado as "the greatest ski product on earth," increasing its marketing budget by half.

When it quit, Aspen was reportedly contributing $140,000 to Ski Country's $1.8 million budget. Irked by Vail Associates, which independently placed ads in Aspen newspapers and hawked discount tickets on the Snowmass Village Mall, Aspen executives said they preferred to spend the money on their own marketing, not the competition's.

"We hoped our withdrawal would act as a catalyst for a review by Colorado Ski Country of its priorities, and that's exactly what happened," Aspen Skiing Co. President Pat O'Donnell said.

Aspen's defection prompted at least one awkward adjustment at Ski Country, whose 1995-96 media guide left Aspen off the map.

"Now, we're not selling Colorado skiing with an asterisk," Mr. Frew said. "It's more meaningful to corporate sponsors."

The news came as Ski Country launched its first national advertising in two ski seasons. The half-page ads started running last month in The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, touting the one resource money can't buy: snow.

GETTING THE MESSAGE OUT

"Since Jan. 1," said the ad, "Colorado has gotten more coverage than Whitewater."

Mother Nature dumped as much as 19 feet of snow on the Colorado Rockies in January, normally the driest month of the year. But the news was buried in coverage of East Coast blizzards, a Ski Country spokeswoman said.

"We decided that we had to get the message out about how good Colorado snow really is," she said.

The print campaign also includes key spot markets, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Florida. Ten Colorado Ski Country member resorts chipped in for the ads, created by Integer Group, Golden.

"It's a sign of things to come," Mr. Frew said. "It's a signal that we're back."

Most of the state's big resorts, including Copper Mountain, Aspen and Steamboat, have reported strong bookings. Several will extend their seasons into early May.

Loveland Ski Area, which relies on metro Denver skiers for its business, turned people away from full parking lots at least twice this year.

"We're blowing the pants off our five-year average," Marketing Director Scott Fortner said.

The record-setting snowfall is welcome news for an industry whose growth has flattened as skiers age. Snowboarding, which was banned from many resorts as recently as two years ago, is credited for keeping the downhill industry from going into a free fall.

FUNDING PROBLEMS

Colorado Ski Country has weathered a few storms of its own in the past few years. Voters discontinued funding for the state Tourism Board in 1993, making Colorado the only state without a tax-funded tourism effort. Aspen also quit in early 1995, allegedly because it was upset that money was being directed toward lobbying and public policy issues, rather than marketing.

President Doug Cogswell left the following summer for Vail Associates. Mr. Frew, an attorney and former chief of staff for ex-Sen. Tim Wirth, signed on in August.

"Everyone assumed from my background that this would be a public policy organization rather than a marketing organization," Mr. Frew said. "It has to be both because one plays off the other."

Mr. Frew set the tone early by luring marketing chief Shawn Hunter away from Comsat Entertainment Group. Mr. Hunter is credited for revitalizing the front-office fortunes of the Denver Nuggets basketball team and launching hockey in Denver with the Colorado Avalanche, formerly the Quebec Nordiques.

But he spent less than 30 days with Ski Country before leaving in early January to become CEO for Phoenix's as-yet-unnamed hockey franchise.

Mr. Frew took up the marketing slack himself. He appeared on "CBS This Morning" waving a copy of the USA Today ad. Phone traffic to the state's travel hot line jumped 20% in one day.

TRYING A TV SHOW

Another of Mr. Frew's pet projects, a 30-minute TV show, will air across the country March 15 after the Chicago Bulls-Denver Nuggets game on cable's Prime Sports Network.

If the pilot attracts a corporate sponsor, it could be back as a series in 1996, a Prime Sports spokesman said.

"People have forgotten what Colorado is all about," Mr. Frew said. "One Colorado county, Summit County, gets more skier visits a year than the entire state of Utah. The magic's still here, but somehow the message has been diluted."

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