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May 2011

Open Season

With good snow coast to coast, resorts racked up a second stellar year.

Written by Linda Goodspeed | 0 comment

Once again, proving that snow trumps all—even a still-weak economy—coast-to-coast great snow lifted the North American ski industry to a second, back-to-back, great year.

In the West, in fact, too much snow proved the biggest challenge, closing highways in Colorado and California, grounding Whistler’s heli-ski fleet and contributing to a number of backcountry deaths in California when riders and skiers fell head first into deep tree wells and suffocated.

“It’s a serious issue,” says Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Association, of the backcountry deaths. “We need to step up our educational efforts and make clear to skiers and snowboarders that if they are going to go into the trees, they need to have a buddy in sight at all times.” (See “Tree Wells Are Trouble” for more.)

On a brighter note, spending was up at most resorts. Not up to pre-recession levels, but improving. “People are not brown bagging as much or eating out of the back of their cars,” says Jared Winkler, marketing director at Brighton, Utah. “We’ve seen a little bit of an increase in food and beverage and things like that.”

“There was a teensy bump in spending,” agrees Jennifer Rudolph, communications director at Colorado Ski Country USA. “Overall, people are still looking for those deals.”

West: Almost Too Much Snow
Despite some weather challenges—extreme cold over New Year’s and President’s Day weekends, and some highway closings—Colorado had its best season in the last three years. “It was a tad better,” says Rudolph. “It’s nice to be a little ahead season-to-date.”

Utah also had its best season since its all-time record ’07-08 season. “We’re very pleased,” says Nathan Rafferty, executive director at Ski Utah. “It’s been consistently good,” agrees Winkler. “Better than last year,” adds Emily Summers at Deer Valley. “We’re also seeing more incremental spending in addition to lift ticket sales. Skier services had a great year.”

Summers says people continue to book last-minute and are most worried about price integrity, even at an upscale resort like Deer Valley. “They want to know if they book in November they won’t get a better deal in March,” she says. “They’re not necessarily looking for the cheapest. They’re looking for the best value.”

Road closings and poor timing on some snowstorms will keep California a little shy of last year’s 8.1 million skier visits. “Extras,” however, are way up, Roberts says. “Rentals, ski shop, lessons have all really bounced back.”

In the Pacific Northwest, La Nina got the season off to a strong start in November and December before taking a month-long vacation in January. MLK weekend was a washout. But La Nina returned February 15 in time for Presidents’ Day and a strong finish.

“We had a record December,” says Justus Hyatt, spokesperson at Crystal Mountain, Wash. “Before the holidays we had to turn people away because the parking lots were full.” With its new gondola (the first in the state), record numbers of passholders and heavy snowfalls in March, Crystal planned to stay open until June 12, its longest season ever.

The second snowiest winter (45 feet by mid-March) and lots of post-Olympic awareness helped propel Whistler Blackcomb to a strong season. “The Olympics created a very large level of awareness all over the world for us,” says Stuart Rempel, senior VP of marketing. He notes that only 19 percent of Germans had heard of Whistler before the Games; after the Games, that number had more than doubled to 42 percent. “It all adds up to meeting our expectations,” he says.

On the spending side, great value is more important to Whistler guests than great price. “People are looking for deals, but when they get here, they want a great experience. Our guest satisfaction scores were the highest they’ve ever been. That’s an indication of great value,” Rempel says.

Midwest, East Visits Strong
Despite an abrupt ending for many Midwestern ski resorts, especially those in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, the Midwest posted its second best season, right after last year’s record.

In the East, above average snowfall also translated into above average skier visits. “The season was front-loaded, with a really strong December and January,” notes Anne Weimer, marketing director at Liberty, Pa. “We closed March 13. We were hoping for another week, but we’re content. It was a great season overall.”

There was a lot of contentment all over the East. “We’re ahead of our five-year average,” says Tom Meyers, marketing director at Wachusett, Mass. “No complaints.”

“We’re running about three to 10 percent ahead of last year, and last year was above our 10-year average,” says Karl Stone, marketing director at Ski New Hampshire.

“We’re looking to hit the 4 million mark,” says Jen Butson next door at the Vermont Ski Areas Association. Last year, Vermont hit 4.1 million skier visits. Over the last five years, 3.8 million was the low.

In Maine, the benchmark is 1.3 million skier visits. “Last year we were a little below that mark,” says Greg Sweetser, executive director at Ski Maine. “I think we’ll be back above that mark this year. Everybody is extremely pleased.”

In New York, resorts were up five to 10 percent. “It could be a record season for some areas,” says Scott Brandi, president of Ski Areas of New York (SANY).

Non-Ticket Spending
And visits weren’t the only things up. As in the West, spending and other programs were showing increases. One of the most important: kids programs. After a steady 20 percent annual growth the last several years, Vermont’s fifth grade passport program exploded from 1,400 participants in 2010 to 2,500 this season. “I still had Moms calling and e-mailing me in March about the program,” Butsen says.

Sunday River, Maine, also had a spike in lessons. “I think a lot of adults took advantage of free learn to ski and ride lodging packages,” says Darcy Liberty, PR director. Camelback, Pa., which revamped and streamlined its lessons and rental operations, had a big year, too. “We had several record days in our snowsports school,” says Megan McCue, marketing director.

“People spent, no question,” adds Sweetser at Ski Maine. “I think everybody’s meeting numbers on food and beverage. A few places sold out lessons and rentals.”

“There’s been a great rebound in spending across the board,” agrees Brandi at SANY. “Retail set records at several resorts.”

“Our tour business was up,” adds Gerry Tschinkel, marketing director at Hunter Mountain, N.Y.

Bob Fries, president of Waterville Valley, N.H., said the key was getting visitors to the mountain. Once there, they spent. “People are still price conscious, but mainly around lift ticket prices,” he says. “When we’ve done any discounting, we’ve found people spend in all departments. Food and beverage, beer, retail, rentals, lessons have all been really strong. If we get them here with a good lift ticket price, they spend money.

“I think the past few years, people held back on lessons and some of the things that could be considered extras. We didn’t see them holding back on those things this year.”