While mountain towns live for winter and summer, that leaves several months of the year where things are going into and coming out of hibernation. Groups should take note because spring and fall are in many cases a better fit for meetings and events than the peak seasons. The shoulders might not be the best for skiing or various outdoor sports, but there is still plenty to do outside, and groups get more bang for their buck.
However, the word is getting out. More and more meeting planners are looking to the high country during the shoulder seasons, but if you know when and where to look, there are still plenty of deals.
Bend & Mt. Bachelor, Oregon
With a population fast approaching 100,000, Bend is a city in the middle of nowhere. And that’s a good thing.
The local climate allows for an amazing range of experiences in spring. Locals call it “the famous Bend double,” says Hank Therien, Visit Bend’s director of sales and sports development. “You ski in the morning and golf or climb or hike in the afternoon.”
The other shoulder has its own attraction. “Fall’s interesting because we have a really long summer,” he adds. You can’t ski at Mt. Bachelor yet, but groups “are diving at that late September, early October time frame.”
The commonality? Both shoulder seasons offer great value. “You have lower occupancy rates and lower rates for rooms and venues,” says Therien. “A lot of folks are willing to work with groups.”
Elise Mackenzie, regional group sales coordinator for Mt. Bachelor ski area, says the season is still in full swing in the spring. “We have one of the longest operating seasons in the lower 48,” she confirms. “I think spring is definitely the best time to come. The mountains across the West are closing, and we’re still open and getting snow. You travel a bit down the Cascade Lakes Highway and there are mountain bike trails that are open. In town, it’s 50 degrees and sunny.”
Groups of 20 or more get a 20 percent discount on lift tickets, but Mackenzie touts the $199 Spring Pass. The price is less than the cost of three lift tickets, and it affords unlimited skiing in April and May
Mackenzie says the ski area typically works with hotels in Bend because there is no lodging at the base. But that can be a feature, not a sticking point. At other areas, she says, “People tend to disperse and do their own thing. If you’re a group, you’re traveling up to Bachelor together, so there’s more of an opportunity for a cohesive group experience.”
As Bend doesn’t have a municipal convention center, the largest event venue in city limits is the Riverhouse on the Deschutes with 221 guest rooms and 41,000 square feet of event space.
“Spring and fall are our busiest convention seasons,” says Erick Tracshel, Riverhouse director of sales and marketing. That’s catalyzed in part by competitive pricing: Room rates are about 20 percent off the summer peak in both shoulder seasons.
Most groups “will do a conference and a day of activities with the attendees,” he adds. And they’ll top it all off with a beer. “We have more craft breweries per capita than anywhere in the nation.”
Big Sky, Montana
Lone Peak dominates the horizon at Big Sky Resort. The destination resort between Bozeman and West Yellowstone is a good target for groups looking to cast away in a forest in spring or fall.
“The neat thing about groups when you’re in Big Sky is everybody from the restaurants to the bike shop knows you’re here,” says Jamie Roberts, Big Sky Resort’s national sales manager. “We’re just a little more personable.”
The resort shuts down April to early June and October through Thanksgiving, but provides one lodging property, the Whitewater Inn, for groups when Yellowstone National Park opens, typically in late April. Everything else (lodging, restaurants and on-mountain activities) opens in June.
It’s all about logistics. Most seasonal staffers leave when the lifts stop turning in April. “We have to be realistic on what our employee base can handle [in the shoulder seasons],” says Roberts
That said, the resort offers some seasonal deals. Roberts says room rates can be 25-30 percent lower in spring and fall. “I’m willing to waive meeting room prices at that time,” he adds.
Big Sky has 800 hotel rooms and the 55,000-square-foot Yellowstone Conference Center that can accommodate events with up to 750 attendees. The premier lodging property is the Summit at Big Sky. “For value, we have the Huntley Lodge,” explains Roberts. “We can offer some flexibility on that.”
When the resort opens for summer in early June, the iconic Lone Peak tram is accessible via chairlift and covered vehicle. “On a clear day, you can see the Tetons,” says Roberts.
Yet, September is Roberts’ favorite month. “We have the colors, and the elk are bugling. The airline prices are cheaper at that time, too, which is important for your total budget,” he suggests.
That’s a common sentiment. “Fall is the big time for us for corporate groups and retreats,” echoes Heather Ready, direc - tor of sales at Lone Mountain Ranch, a cross-country ski resort and guest ranch in Big Sky.
The ranch is a good spot for smaller retreats as capacity is limited to groups of 30-75 people in both meeting space and lodging, but there’s also a canvas-walled outdoor pavilion that accommodates around 150. “My focus is on customized events,” says Ready. “I like to talk to each group and see what they like to do.”
The ranch’s best group rates are early September to mid-October and mid-May to early June, plus there are shorter minimum stays than in peak seasons.
Then there’s Yellowstone National Park and its western entrance about 50 miles away. The gates here are typically open from mid-May to mid-October and midDecember through mid-March. Ready recommends a full-day park tour as a great bookend to a few days of meetings at Big Sky.
Mammoth Lakes, California
Sandra DiDomizio, founder and chief experience officer for Mammoth Lakesbased Green Fox Events & Guest Services, says the ski town on the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevadas is evolving into a yearround destination. Are there still deals to be had in Mammoth’s shoulder seasons? “Yes and no,” says DiDomizio. “I do think there are deals to be had, but you have to know when to ask for them and when to look for them.”
At Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, where the ski season sometimes lasts until July 4, the best times to ask and look are April to June and October to November, says DiDomizio. “They will always be shoulder seasons, because the weather is unpredict - able,” she says. “Our shoulder seasons have gotten shorter, but there are lower room rates to be had, and you can buy out restau - rants that might be otherwise unavailable, and maybe get deals on services.”
Laura Kennedy, Mammoth Mountain’s director of sales, says midweek meetings and events get the best rates for lodg - ing and meeting venues year-round. The resort’s venues include the Mountainside Conference Center, which can accommo - date events of up to 800 people, and several on-mountain facilities.
“Our shoulder seasons, May/June and September/November, still offer beauti - ful weather, endless outdoor activities and lodging rates that are typically lower than our peak season,” she adds. “We don’t dis - count the venues just based on the season. It’s based on the group and the season.”
Erin Heilman, sales manager for The Westin Monache Resort, Mammoth, says that the resort discounts groups that buy 20 or more room nights by 10-25 percent off rack rates. “September and October are going to be the lowest rates you’re going to find for rooms,” she says.
The Westin has more capacity for meetings and events in spring and fall, adds Heilman, and the resort sometimes waives the room rental fee.
DiDomizio says the shoulder allows for takeovers at many local restaurants, and she points to The Brasserie (above popular bowling alley Mammoth Rock ‘n’ Bowl), Mammoth Brewing Company, and the onmountain Parallax as being among her favorite local venues.
There’s plenty to do in both shoulders, she adds, with fishing season beginning in April and fall weather usually being a good match for outdoor activities.
Vail and Beaver Creek, Colorado
Below the peaks of the Rockies in Vail Valley, the rates mimic the landscape
“The peaks have always been high: Everybody wants to be in Vail for Christmas,” says Dawn Harker, founder and president of AlpineAccess, a destination management company covering Vail, Beaver Creek and other mountain destinations in Colorado. “Historically, the valleys have always been super low, but we’re finding the valleys right now are a little higher.”
Why is that? “People are on to that hidden secret: You can come in the shoulder seasons.”
Professional associations and other groups looking at Denver and other big cities will still find comparable prices in the Vail Valley in spring and fall. “Three hundred people can come the first week of May,” she says, “and get a competitive rate.”
Some Vail Valley lodgings with peak nightly rates around $1,000 bottom out below $200. The Sebastian - Vail, for example, has spring and fall rates starting at $239 a night for meetings. Restaurant buyouts are likewise “substantially lower,” says Harker. “It’s a substantial difference.”
She highlights The Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa Avon, Vail Valley, as a good shoulder-season target, featuring 7,500 square feet of event space that has a capacity for about 200. “It’s an amazing property, and the dining is really good,” says Harker.
And the price is right in the shoulder seasons. “Group rates in spring and fall are more than 50 percent off group rates in winter and summer,” says Chris Cofelice, The Westin’s director of sales and marketing. “Room rates are generally in the low to mid-$100s during the months of April, May, October and November.”
Cofelice explains, “The common thread is folks looking for value; they can definitely enjoy fantastic deals on rooms, food and beverage, and spa treatments. Many restaurants offer 50 percent off their menu or special prix-fixe seasonal options, like three courses for $30.”
Harker adds, “The holy grail of meeting planning is finding the right space for the right group. You don’t want to be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond, touching the edges.” In that context, Avon “has a robust local community,” she says. “You don’t want to go someplace that completely shuts down.” That is, unless you want to be the only show in town. “You’ve got these villages that are primarily resort-generated,” says Harker. “That means you can completely take it over.”
And the excess capacity means Four-Star lodging is available for Two-Star prices. “We have great group rates that come out in the spring,” says Randi Alt, group sales manager for Four Seasons Resort and Residences Vail. “It can vary, but it can be up to 40 percent off.” Fall is priced higher, Alt says, but affordability remains the prime selling point for both shoulders.
The Four Seasons’ 8,510 square feet of event space accommodates up to 300 people for receptions. The best fit is groups that meet during the day, spend evenings at local restaurants, and spend a day outdoors, Alt notes.
The weather’s reputation is worse than reality. “The reality is it really is beautiful,” says Harker. “If you come in April or November, you can still catch a bluebird day.” She adds, “Here’s the deal: It rains everywhere. I ran a trip to Maui in March, and it was cold and rainy.” Harker’s advice is to have contingency plans if the weather turns. “Under-promise and over-deliver.”
Springtime in the Rockies, as well as the Sierra Nevadas and Cascades, is not only beautiful, but it’s also a time when groups can save some real money on firstclass venues. Same goes for fall. And don’t be scared off by the weather. It can be unpredictable, but odds are good you’ll see a little bit of everything or a whole lot of blue sky.