After the summer hordes head home and as ski resorts start the countdown to opening day, fall is often an underappreciated and underutilized season for meetings and events in the mountains. This “shoulder” season has a growing legion of fans but still sometimes gets lost between summer and winter. Yet, it more than compensates for any drawbacks with great rates, more availability—especially on weekdays—and spectacular fall colors.
However, across the U.S. Mountain West, not all times and places are the same in fall, according to Scott Winegar and Patrick Moloney, owners of TMN Events in Boise, Idaho. “Part of it depends on what time of fall you’re talking about,” says Winegar. “Frankly, we’ve had some of the most stunning, gorgeous events in late September and early October at mountain resorts. The colors are out, and the weather is phenomenal.”
Moloney calls it a “roll of the dice,” recounting a recent fall event he attended in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “We played golf in short sleeves and the next day it snowed.”
But the benefits of autumn can outweigh the chance of snow. “There’s more space available, rates are lower, and you can have your pick of venues and activities,” says Winegar of the key selling points.
Marcia Skillman, owner of Destination Services of Santa Fe, seconds that notion. “September and October, I just love that time of year,” she says. “It’s really cool in the evening and sunshine in the day. You get the trees turning, the aspens and cottonwoods. It’s just so beautiful.”
The rates drop with the leaves, she adds. “Into November, there are great dates and rates.”
In the Pacific Northwest, the weather can be even less the predictable than it is in the Rockies, but there is a silver lining. “There are a lot of conventions in the fall, but they often don’t go to the mountains,” says Kristin Farris, regional product manager in Washington state for HotelPlanner.com and Meetings.com. Groups “can stay at three- and four-star hotels for half the summer rate.”
But the more ground you put between yourself and the Pacific Ocean, the better the autumn weather, she adds. “The weather in eastern Washington is really mild. When it’s raining in Seattle, it can be sunny there.” She recommends Leavenworth, the Bavarianthemed mountain town 135 miles east of Seattle, for fall events. “You have to go at least once.”
Shoulder season or not, Farris advises meeting planners to stick with the basics. “You still need to plan early,” she says. “You have to have really good partners. You’ve got to know your client and know what they want to do.”
In the Mountain West, it’s all about getting outside. “I would make sure that any meeting incorporates some outdoor activity or meal function so that the attendees do not feel like they have been brought to a paradise and cannot experience it,” she says.
That said, she advises to plan for the worst. “I make sure they’re planning things indoors and outdoors,” she says. “You always want to have indoor backup space in case it gets cold or if it’s rainy.”
But a little rain never hurt anyone, she adds: “We tend to go outside and go hiking anyway. Bring a raincoat.”
And don’t discount November. That’s when TMN planned an active corporate event for employees of Red Robin Burgers and Brews in Park City, Utah. “We had a nice day,” says Moloney, splitting the group between a bicycling/shooting variation on the biathlon at Soldier Hollow, which served as the 2002 Olympic course in the nearby town of Midway, and a rowdy game of paintball.
While Red Robin had good luck with the weather, Moloney suggests an insurance policy. “Because weather is a crapshoot, you have to have a spa.”
Winegar says the new spa at Sun Valley, a popular mountain destination for TMN clients, is solid in this regard, and the resort’s bowling alley is another bad-weather backup. Driving and indoor-oriented tours, such as the local Ernest Hemingway tour in Ketchum, are other storm-proof options.
But more often than not, the Rockies’ fall weather doesn’t quash the planned outdoor activities. “Fly fishing is still going on,” says Moloney. “The fish don’t know it’s getting colder. Hiking is still great in fall.”
Skillman suggests that groups get people out walking. In Santa Fe and other artsy locations, that can mean a gallery-hopping event. She typically contracts with two or three galleries to stay open late and offer catered food and drink. A major benefit is that each attendee can set his or her own pace.
Like Moloney, she also recommends taking scenic drives and hiking mountain trails that are typically clogged with snow in winter and spring and hot spots for lightning in summer and as can’t-miss fall activities in the West’s high country. The chairlift at Ski Santa Fe opens for leaf peepers before the slopes see snow, and groups ride it up and hike down the mountain. A group can then buy out a spa before heading back to town. “That’s the perfect day for me: hiking and a massage,” Skillman says.
Hot air ballooning is another solid fall activity throughout the Mountain West, she adds. In Santa Fe, a balloon ride over the Rio Grande Gorge near Taos “is insanely popular.”
And fall is also harvest season. That means one thing in the Southwest: chile roasting. “I love the smells of Santa Fe,” says Skillman. “In the fall, it’s the smell of chile everywhere.” This local delicacy can be tied into a meal or even as the centerpiece of an activity. For example, Santa Fe School of Cooking has facilities for up to 60 attendees and a small chile roaster that’s always a big hit.
No matter where you are, local culinary traditions can help underpin fall events. In the Northwest and other grape-growing regions, winery tours and tastings can be great activities, says Farris. “It is important to build upon the locally sourced Northwest food in all of the F&B functions so the attendees can really get the local experience,” she suggests.
Beyond activities, there’s another critical factor: travel. Many mountain airports see seasonal cutbacks with fewer flights after summer ends. “Look at your air schedules—that tells you everything you need to know,” cautions Moloney. “You’ve got to find ways to get them there.”
If a flight schedule, chartered airplane, train travel and relatively close driving distances make transportation no problem, lodging can be as much as one-half lower than peak summer and winter rates at some mountain properties, he adds, and everything is more negotiable.
“If there’s nobody in house, there’s no business,” Moloney says. “You have leeway to talk besides the room rate. Can you get a free meeting room? You can get things you might not ordinarily get and make it special.”
A national scenic byway follows Highway 143 in Utah and winds through forests of aspen trees like these near Brian Head.
Aspen trees, one of the most common types of leaf-changers in the U.S. Mountain West, aren’t singular organisms. A grove of trees share one root system, so they’re all connected much like a team of employees and stakeholders.
That’s why aspens all change colors simultaneously in such dramatic fashion in the fall because an entire mountainside is often just one big plant. And the biggest such plants are Utah’s Pando and the grove on Colorado’s Kebler Pass between Crested Butte and Paonia.
They’re some of the biggest organisms on the planet, in fact. Scientists have estimated that Pando consists of 47,000 separate trunks and proclaimed it as the largest organism in the U.S. Critics say that the Kebler Pass grove is bigger, only it hasn’t been fully counted.