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March 2006

Switching On the Off Season

For more and more resorts, summer business is becoming a way of life.

Written by Linda Goodspeed | 0 comment

“We have 882 lodging rooms open 365 days a year, so much of our baseline costs don’t change with the season,” says Dave Fields, PR director at Snowbird, Utah. “It’s of critical importance that we continue to bring people up here throughout the year. This is why we’ve expanded our summer offerings and summer lodging packages.”

On the other side of the country, Rob Megnin, marketing director at Hunter Mountain, N.Y., says almost the same thing. “The pressure is on now that we have a year-round hotel with rooms to fill. While we’ve always had a summer component with concerts, festivals and other activities, we’ll be expanding that as time goes on.”

Ahhh, summer. That lazy, hazy, crazy time of year when ski areas used to go to sleep. Not any more. From Sun Valley, Ida., where “July and August are our highest occupancy months,” says Jack Sibbach, sales and marketing director, to Massanutten, Va., where “We’re busier in the summer than we are in the winter,” says marketing director Joe Grandstaff, to Camelback, Pa., where summer visitors (370,000) to its water park surpassed winter visitors for the first time last year, ski resorts are getting into summer in a big way.

Of course, there are still those areas that do only winter. Cataloochee, N.C., for example, or Mt. Holly, Mich. “We’ve looked at it, talked to people about it, but haven’t seen the opportunity to involve ourselves in summer,” says Mark Tibbitts, GM. Welch Village, Minn., gets lots of requests to use its facilities in the summer but usually says no. “We steer clear of them,” says Leigh Nelson, president. “We’ve found over the years that we can work all summer to get one fairly good Friday of ski business. We’d rather spend our time and energy improving Fridays during the ski season than get a few people out during the summer. I’m not recommending it for everybody, but it works for us.”

“We’re busier in the summer than we are in the winter...”

There is a wide range of what works and does not work at ski areas in the summer. Golf is huge at many resorts. So is mountain biking, hiking, outdoor concerts and festivals. Here is a look at a few trends and interesting summer operations we found.

Ringing the Wedding Bells
While most ski areas host at least a few weddings in the summer, some have gone after this business in a big way. Holiday Valley, N.Y., redesigned and upgraded its base lodge facilities and 18-hole golf course in order to host more conferences and weddings. “We’ve found that people will flock to quality,” says Jane Eshbaugh, marketing director. “Right now summer makes up only about 15 percent of our revenue, but with improvements to the golf course and increased conference sales, we expect that to increase.”

Liberty Mountain Resort, Pa., has also spent heavily to upgrade and expand its summer wedding and meeting facilities. “We doubled the size of our snow tubing lodge,” says Anne Weimer, marketing coordinator. “It’s an amazing, beautiful, wooden structure. Even in mid-construction people wanted to book their wedding here.” Liberty now has three wedding facilities. “We can do five to six weddings a weekend,” Weimer says. “We’re booked at least 18 months out.” All the weddings keep the area’s 41-room hotel filled and its food and beverage staff busy. Liberty now has a fulltime banquet and sales department.

The area has also upgraded its meeting facilities in an effort to expand its midweek corporate conference business. “Initially, weddings and conferences were just something for us to do over the summer,” Weimer says. “Now it’s a major part of our operation.”

Bolton Valley, Vt., also has plans and permits to build a new three-season wedding and conference facility. “It’ll be elegant rustic,” says Molly Mahar, marketing director. The facility should be online by August.

Big Sky, Mont., which already does a big summer conference business at its Yellowstone Conference Center with its 900-person ballroom, amphitheater and breakout rooms, will partner with local activity providers to offer more summer group packages. Part of this initiative includes developing easier bike trails and more summer concerts. “Summer business is about 20 percent of our annual revenue, and we want to keep growing that,” says Dax Schieffer, PR manager.

Summer makes up about 50 percent of revenues at Crystal Mountain, Mich., and conferences are a big reason why. The area will add a spa this summer to its indoor/outdoor pool, fitness center, water playground, hot tubs, climbing wall and other amenities. Down the road it wants to add a third golf course. “We’re very family-oriented, with lots of family and kids programming,” says Joan O’Neill, marketing director. “We’re very busy with conferences and see a trend of attendees bringing their families to blend work with pleasure. We encourage that.”

All in the Family
A focus on families drives summer business at many resorts. Take Massanutten. “We have tens of thousands of time share owners who come week in and week out, as well as 1,000 residential homes,” Grandstaff says. “Our market model is very much a family resort.”

To keep those families coming, last year Massanutten opened a $35 million indoor/outdoor water park to add to its two 18-hole golf courses, driving range, mountain biking, skateboard park, hiking, concerts and other events. This summer it will add a snow-less tubing run. “We try to utilize the entire ski resort in the summer for concerts, events, activities, you name it,” Grandstaff says. “There’s a lot of acreage to work with.”

Bolton, which also has a lot of acreage (5,200), is broadening its focus beyond families with its Adventure Center programs, a challenge course with ropes elements, as well as the new wedding facility. “We do custom programs for corporations, church groups, youth groups, school groups,” Mahar says. “We want to be more than just a families-only resort.”

Special Events
Newly reopened (after four years), Whaleback, N.H., is making a strong pitch for the 8- to 26-year-old market with its unique blend of skiing and snowboarding and roller sports such as inline skating and skateboarding. In addition to the ski area with its many rails and pipes, the new owners plan to build a 10,000 square foot year-round skate park and action sports training center. “It will reduce the mountain’s dependency on weather,” said Evan Dybvig, president and former Olympic freestyler.

Reducing weather dependency is a trend at many ski resorts. While outdoor water parks at Camelback, Pa., and Mountain Creek, N.J., have done extremely well with just three months of operation, Boyne, Mich., is taking that model to the next level. In May 2005, Boyne opened a new 220-unit condo hotel with destination spa connected to an 88,000 square foot indoor water park. “All of a sudden we’ve become the default for that weather-dependent vacation,” says Julie Ard, PR director. “We have the answer to the family or couple who can’t play golf, or can’t ski because of the weather. The great thing about it, as opposed to just being a water park resort, we are drawing people who have never visited a ski area and decide to try skiing. It’s blowing all trends out of the water.”

Tubing is another activity that is going year round. Last summer Bryce Resort, Va., installed the nation’s first summer tubing runs. “It’s been very popular,” says Sally Montrey, Bryce GM. Bryce is also the only area in the U.S. to offer grass skiing.

But for at least one resort, the main event is still the main event, summer or winter. “Timberline, Ore., is the exception because in the summer we turn our attention to . . . skiing and snowboarding,” says Jon Tullis, PR director. “The lodge itself is one of Oregon’s most highly visited summer tourist attractions. The Palmer snowfield has one of the finest summer ski programs in the world. And we are having a BIG winter with lots of snow, which is really good news for our summer operation.”

Ah, summer.