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May 2010

Short But Suhweet

Good snow offset a short season for most.

Written by Linda Goodspeed | 0 comment

Late start. Early end. But in between, the 2009-2010 ski season was quite good. The length of the season left it way too short to be a record. And then there’s that whole recession thing, which didn’t help, but didn’t seem to hurt too much.

After taking a hit last season, per capita spending rebounded at some resorts. “People are spending money again,” says Darcy Liberty, communications manager at Sunday River, Maine. “President’s week was huge. So was the first week of March. We had the single biggest day in history for food and beverage that week. We had record numbers all season in the ski and ride school.”

At Saddleback, Maine, which is undergoing a major transformation, visits were up 20 percent over last year, despite big price hikes in all categories, and revenues were up 37 percent.

Elsewhere, visits and spending were not so rosy. After five straight record seasons, visits to Utah resorts dropped three percent in 2008-09, and will be down by about the same amount this season, says Jessica Kunzer, communications director at Ski Utah. Kunzer notes that discretionary spending was also down. “Visitors are definitely cutting back on travel days, meals, ski school, retail,” she says.

Bill Malone, president and CEO of the Park City Chamber of Commerce, says deals are slowly bringing spending back after last year’s paralysis—but at a much lower price point. “F&B is up from last year, lodging, many businesses are up, just not at the same price point,” Malone says. “Everybody’s looking for deals, and every hotel is offering them.”

Here’s what else was happening around the rest of the country.

Despite record snowfall in many major East Coast cities, snowfall in the mountains was not as great. Philadelphia, for example, had a record 90-plus inches. Jack Frost and Big Boulder, Pa., a few hours away, had less than 70. “We missed a lot of snow storms, but still had great conditions,” says Michael Cloeren, PR manager. The two resorts were on pace to match last year’s record season. “Since Peak Resorts took over five years ago, we’ve had strong seasons, and the last two have been records,” Cloeren says.

Snowfall was late and fairly sparse in the Northeast as well. “It was a very compressed season,” says Tom Meyers, marketing director at Wachusett, Mass. “Short on the front end, short on the back end, but we hit the ball out of the park on our core season.”

Like most of the Northeast, Wachusett missed Thanksgiving and a good two to three weeks of the season, but still ended 10 percent ahead of both its 3- and 5-year averages. “Once we got to January, we were flying and never looked back,” Meyers says.

“When we had our game on and no weather issues, we had a good season,” agrees Molly Mahar, marketing director at Loon, N.H., which opened three weeks late and closed a week early.

At Bretton Woods, N.H., skier counts were up two percent over last year, the area’s third best, and February was a record. Nordic also had a record season, and yields were up across the board: F&B 8.5 percent, lessons 2 percent, retail 5 percent, rentals 8 percent.

Overall, however, New Hampshire resorts fell short of last year’s 2.29 million skier visits (third best), says Karl Stone, marketing director at Ski New Hampshire. (2008’s 2.36 million was the state’s best.) The abbreviated season kept Vermont resorts from matching their record 2008 season, says Jen Butson, communications manager at the Vermont Ski Areas Association.

Okemo, which posted a record 630,000 visitors that year, ended up about even with 2008-09’s 610,000 visitors, says Bonnie MacPherson, PR manager. “Considering we opened 15 days late and moved up closing a week, we’re happy,” she adds.

Maine resorts also had an “OK season with a few bright spots,” says Greg Sweetser, executive director at Ski Maine. The state’s best season was also ’08 (1.4 million), followed by ’09, and this year matched that.

Among the ‘bright spots’ was Sunday River’s earliest ever opening (Oct. 14) and strong finish (pacing even with ’09 which was only slightly off 2008’s record). Saddleback was a success story as well. “MLK weekend and February vacation were our best ever,” Klefos says. “We had a 64-inch snowstorm in early March and had our best weekend ever after that.” Since 2000, visits have increased from 14,000 to 90,000.

Snowshoe, W.V., which had 229 inches of snow, had a “top five” ski season, notes Laura Parquette, communications manager. “Over the last five years, we’ve seen a big upswing.”

Snow was light in Washington and Oregon. “Mother Nature did not deliver any of the monster storms the northwest is known for,” says Dave Tragethon, executive director of marketing at Mt. Hood Meadows, until three feet fell in a late-March storm. Before that, the biggest dump was 16 inches, also in March.

Even so, the strong start and good management of conditions should lead Meadows to a top-5 season, says Tragethon, who expected between 430,000 and 450,000 visits, well above last year’s 400,000 but well off ’06 and ’08, each with 500,000 visits.

California, meanwhile, had great snow all season and great numbers, but no record. “We’ll be over our 10-year average.” says Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Association. And late snow in the Tahoe region was pounding resorts at presstime.

The strange snow pattern and poor economy kept Colorado resorts trending down. Visits dropped 6.9 percent in ’09, and were running 2 percent below that this season.

Numbers followed the snow in the Midwest, with more southerly areas in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and Indiana getting more of both. “They got lots of storms and business was up dramatically,” says a Midwest ski areas spokesperson. Further north in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, natural snow was more sparse, and so was business—even or down slightly for many resorts.

Spending trends were all over the place: Down at many resorts, up at some, shifting at others.

“There is a marked difference in spending between season passholders (stingy) and regular ticket purchasers,” says Tragethon. When more Subway bags and fast food containers began showing up in trash barrels, Meadows offered tightfisted passholders more discounts to get them spending money.

Jen Rudolph, communications manager at Colorado Ski Country USA, also says that deals, plus free concerts and events, helped lift discretionary spending this year.

“People are definitely seeking out more discounts,” says Stone at Ski NH. “They are taking advantage of technology to maximize their spending dollar.” “People are certainly budget conscious,” echoes Snowshoe’s Parquette. “Price is the deciding factor. We’ve seen people shopping around more. They used to book on the first call. Now, maybe they’re booking on the second or third call.”

But if Snowshoe can snag a customer, Parquette says, spending habits at the resort have not changed. “Because we are a true destination, and this might be their one ski vacation of the year, I think people feel a little more free to spend money.”

Mahar at Loon also points to a slight shift in favor of more overnight visitors as evidence that ancillary spending is on the mend. Although ticket revenue was down slightly year-over-year, Mahar says that snowsports in January and February, when conditions peaked, were up 16 percent, and children’s programs were up 26 percent. “Both group and private lessons were up over last year, and participation of children and teens was also up, with programs for 3- to 6-year-olds showing the biggest increase,” she adds.

“People have pulled back on spending,” notes Scott Kaden, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association. “Guests still have passion for the sport, but are demonstrating that passion in different ways. They are still coming with great frequency, but doing it in a more economical fashion.”