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January 2007

Snow? Who Needs Snow?

The early season brought its usual heartache and cheer.

Written by Linda Goodspeed | 0 comment

As usual, the U.S. ski season is once again a story of contrasts. Despite record warm temperatures and almost no snow of any kind in much of the Midwest, East and Southeast, ski areas there reported strong demand and a surprisingly good early season. Credit off-hill resort amenities for the latter.

In the West, credit snow—early and abundant—and some great snow press (it doesn’t get much better than a Monday Night Football game played in a snowstorm in Seattle) for jump starting the 2006-07 ski season there.

Let it snow, let it snow, PLEASE
Not even their vaunted snowmaking could help many ski resorts east of the Rockies open for the traditional Turkey Day first tracks. But luckily, amenities don’t need snowmaking.

Take Boyne Mountain, Mich., for example. Without a single run open, Boyne had an “awesome” Thanksgiving weekend, said Erin Ernst, PR manager. “We had a huge amount of people,” she says. “There’s so many other activities for people to do. Our waterpark [see related story, page 54] had outstanding numbers. People were taking spa treatments, dining. We were very busy.”

So was Wintergreen, Va., also without skiing. “We were quite booked over Thanksgiving,” says Sarah Lovejoy, communications manager. “There were a lot of crowds on the golf course. The spa was busy, restaurants, too.”

Ditto for Holiday Valley, N.Y. “It’s 50-50 if we get open for Thanksgiving [they didn’t], but people still booked and came,” says Jane Eshbaugh, marketing director.

At the Eastern areas that did manage to open for skiing, crowds were enthusiastic despite very limited terrain. Sugarbush, the first Vermont area to open (November 22) had 900 skiers “and a ton of smiles” the Saturday after Thanksgiving, says J.J. Toland, communications director. Okemo had 3,000 to 3,500 skiers that weekend. “The weekend started with two buses pulling in, which was a big lift,” says Bonnie MacPherson, PR manager. “All things considered, we were happy with the numbers.”

In New Hampshire, only Bretton Woods turned its lifts for Thanksgiving. Loon and Granite Gorge opened for walkups. Two areas in Maine managed to open—Sugarloaf USA and Sunday River —and both reported good crowds despite little terrain.

In the Midwest about 10 areas, mainly in Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, managed to open also. “Everybody’s feeling optimistic a great season is ahead,” a Midwest spokesman says.

People are optimistic in the Southeast too, even though only Snowshoe, W.V., and Sugar Mountain and Cataloochee, N.C., opened for Thanksgiving. “We had over a thousand check-ins over the weekend,” says Andrea Smith, communications director at Snowshoe. “It was a great atmosphere. Lots to do. We even had some skiing.”

One reason for the optimism, despite one of the warmest Novembers on record, is the market. Demand is palpable, even in the heat. At the Boston ski show, held the weekend before Thanksgiving with temps in the 70s and not one ski area anywhere in the East open, more than 40,000 people went through the gates—with credit cards in hand. “I saw a ton of skis walk out the door,” says Greg Sweetser, executive director of Ski Maine.

Areas report that sales of season passes and other products and packages are up, as are ticket sales at state ski associations. Debbie Moore, marketing director at Waterville Valley, N.H., pointed to two early November youth events for her “bullishness.” On November 11, Waterville (then closed) hosted a snowboard event that attracted more than 200 entrants and 100 spectators. At Loon (also not open), the area had to cut off entries at 120 for a rail jam.

But there’s more than just anecdotes behind the optimism. Reservations are on par or ahead of last year, say resort operators. At Sugarbush, the new Lincoln Peak slopeside luxury hotel was 60 percent booked for Christmas before it even opened. Overall reservations are running ahead of last year. Okemo was 85 percent booked five weeks before Christmas, with the new Jackson Gore property filling up first.

Some of the Midwest regional destination resorts, including Boyne, Indianhead, Giant’s Ridge and Lutsen, were all reporting “terrific” Christmases five weeks out. “Every indicator for the entire season is strong,” Ernst says.

Wintergreen, Va., also reported “terrific” advanced bookings for Christmas and beyond. At Snowshoe, traditionally slow periods were running ahead of last year. “MLK and weekends are filling up,” Smith notes. “Now we’re trying to drive the midweek business.”

Let it snow, let it snow, SOME MORE
It started snowing in Colorado in mid September. A-Basin got the ski season and its 60th year started Friday the 13th of October. So far, no bad luck. “We had record snowfall in October,” says Molly Cuffe, communications director at Colorado Ski Country USA. “Bookings for the entire season are very strong.”

She attributes last year’s record season (12.53 million) and great press around Colorado’s early snow for the strong numbers. “People realize if they book early they get a better price and their desired property,” she says.

People are booking early in Utah as well. By December 1, Hilary Reiter, communications director at Ski Utah, said bookings across the board were up 15 to 20 percent. “We’ve had three record years in a row and it’s looking really good for a fourth straight,” she says.

With little lodging or snowmaking, people don’t book ahead in the Pacific Northwest. “We take what falls from the sky,” says Scott Kaden, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association. And what they’ve been getting is hammered. “The early season couldn’t have been better,” Kaden says. “We’ve had huge amounts of snowfall.” Most areas were open by mid November. The economy is good and the momentum is there for another superb season.

With 80 percent of its business from in-state, the economy is also California’s leading indicator, and it is good, even if the early ski season was not. Mammoth opened on its traditional first Thursday in November, but everyone else missed Thanksgiving. And even Mammoth, with sparser snow than usual, had many cancellations over the holiday.

Not that anyone was panicking. “We didn’t have a great Thanksgiving last year either, and it ended up being our best season ever,” says Dana Vander Houwen, Mammoth communications manager. “We can make up for it.” And with bookings at the resort running ahead of last year, things were looking good.

The rest of the state is also optimistic, says Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Association. “The lights don’t really go on until the first series of storms rolls in,” he says. “Early season pass sales were strong, and if we have snow, particularly with the array of new product, ice rinks, spas and so forth, we’ll do fine.”

Check back at this space in March to see if they did.