Browse Our Archives

May 2006

A Mixed Bag

In case we forgot, weather is king and will make the difference between good and great seasons.

Written by Linda Goodspeed | 0 comment

Record snowfall in the Northwest, Colorado, Utah and the Southeast helped propel those regions to stellar seasons.

Elsewhere, the season was more challenging. A string of Philippine pineapples pelted California resorts as high as 11,000 feet with rain early in the season, putting that state in a hole that even a blockbuster February and March could not even out. In the Northeast and the Midwest, the warmest January on record melted away super starts there. Once again, the season all came down to snow—who got it and who made it.

“This year made us very appreciative of snow, as did last year when we didn’t get any,” says Scott Kaden, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association.

At the other end of the country the appreciation was all about snowmaking.

“There was a direct ratio between snowmaking and business levels,” says Greg Sweetser, executive director of Ski Maine. “The areas that had the most snowmaking had the most business.”

Here are some other high- and lowlights from the 2005-06 ski season.

Far West
The good news is it snowed. The even better news is there was no hangover effect from last year when it didn’t snow.

“People didn’t have any reluctance at all to buy season passes this year,” says Duncan Howat, GM at Mt. Baker, Wash. “Our pass sales were up over 10 percent.”

And the faithful were rewarded with legendary amounts of snowfall. Baker, which last season had to close because of too little snow, this season had to close because of too much snow—117 inches in just one five-day stretch. “We had a powder snob group that didn’t bother to come out unless there was at least five inches of new snow,” Howat says.

As of March 25, snow depths at Timberline Lodge, Ore., were 136 percent above normal.

“There’s so much snow, scientists can’t measure it.” Kaden says. “We’re having a great season, a very strong bounce back from last year.”

In California, the season was more uneven, with a warm and rainy December and January followed by an “off the chart” February and March.

“We’ve had a very robust recovery, but we probably won’t be able to come all the way back,” says Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industries Association.

Western Canadian resorts were bouncing back strongly from last season.

“We have record snow depths and everybody’s reporting really good numbers on visits,” says Jimmie Spencer, president of Canada West Ski Areas Association.

Despite glitches in both the U.S. and Australian markets—the U.S. because of the currency exchange and Australia because of a big push by Japan for that market—many resorts were on record pace.

“The marketing guys have done a great job with the rubber-tire market,” Spencer says.

No glitches in Utah, which is on track for its second straight record season, despite a late start to its snow.

“It’s been a phenomenal year,” says Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah.

A few telling stats underscore just how phenomenal: Delta added its 100th nonstop flight to Salt Lake City, and the Park City bus, which services three resorts there, carried its one millionth passenger on March 23, compared to April 12 last year and June 2 in 2004. And get ready for more great news. Last year, the Utah legislature budgeted just $900,000 to promote tourism. This year it spent $10 million, and will spend $11 million next year. The state will also co-sponsor the Warren Miller ski movie tour for the first time.

“We’re on a roll,” Rafferty says.

Colorado, blessed with “the best snow in two decades,” according to Molly Cuffe, PR director at Colorado Ski Country USA, was also on track for a record year.

“We’ve had great snow and the resorts have done a great job delivering that message,” Cuffe says.

Every market was up, led by Front Range resorts (up 23 percent). Destination resorts were up eight percent.

In the Midwest, areas from southern Minnesota north did quite well on the weather; areas more south not so well. One highlight was Cascade, Wisc., which eliminated discounted midweek pricing and let kids 12 and under ski free. Visits jumped to record levels as did revenue (up $2 per person).

“It was a fun and comfortable year,” says Randy Axelson, marketing director.

Indianhead, Mich., which also lets kids 12 and under ski and stay free, also had a record year thanks to its joint marketing and ticket program with neighboring Powderhorn and Black Jack. “We grabbed a lot of local share,” says Dave Nyquist, Indianhead marketing director.

And while areas in the southern half of the Midwest didn’t benefit from good snowfall or cold temps, many areas still reported strong numbers, thanks to snowmaking efforts.

The big story here happened down south, where Southeast resorts had an exceptional season.

“Heck, we even had some of our natural snow trails open for the first time in seven years,” says Chris Bates, GM at Cataloochee, N.C.

Cataloochee busted its previous longest-ever ski season by nearly a month—from 96 days to 124.

Appalachia, N.C., skied to the fourth weekend in March for the eighth time in nine years.

“It’s been one of our best seasons ever,” says Brad Moretz, GM. “We received more snow and made more snow than ever before.”

In the Northeast, areas also made more snow than normal in a valiant attempt to offset a milder than normal winter. Okemo, Vt., used 25 percent more water to make snow this year. Its snowmaking budget will likely be up even more because it had to make snow at higher temps, using more energy. Overall, daily traffic at Okemo, as at most resorts, was down although strong season pass sales (up 23 percent at Okemo) pulled that area to a record year. Revenues were also up substantially as skiers continued to demand more personalized services.

Other resorts that had strong seasons included Stowe, which got a lot of buzz over its Spruce Peak expansion, Jay Peak, which got great snow and was running about 20 percent ahead in visits and revenue at the end of February. Mountain Creek, N.J., which qualified the Olympic snowboarding team, also did a lot of multicultural events and marketing to offset the affects of warm temperatures. Bretton Woods and Sunapee, N.H. also had good years. Overall, however, the season was disappointingly average or worse.

“It wasn’t a disaster but it wasn’t a record either,” says Karl Stone at Ski New Hampshire.

The season was much the same in eastern Canada, with “a lot of disparities” between northern and southern resorts.

“Areas north of the St. Lawrence River received huge amounts of snow,” says Claude Peloquin at the Quebec Ski Areas Association. “Overall, I expect we’ll be down between five and 10 percent. The decline would be worse except for a big increase in season pass sales. Revenue-wise, we won’t be that bad.”