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May 2016

An El Niño Year

Thanks for everything, or nothing.

Written by Linda Goodspeed | 0 comment

A monster El Niño wreaked havoc on the 2015-16 ski season, restoring normal snowfall and visitation to the Pacific West, but bringing the warmest winter in history and one of the worst-ever ski seasons to the East.

It was a winter of contrasts. In the West, it was a “nice” El Niño. “There was plenty of snow, good, strong visits, no elevation issue. Everybody benefited,” says John Gifford, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association.

But it was not so nice in the East, where El Niño brought a green-grass Christmas and rainstorms heading into the MLK holiday. Instead of counting meager snowfall and sparse skier visits, resorts tracked days open. Many never reached 100.

West: the Coast Returns to Normal

After four years of drought, “normal” felt like a bounty on the West Coast.

“It seems much greater than normal because people have forgotten what normal was,” says Mike Reitzell, president of the California Ski Industry Association. “Most of the resorts have done very well. It’s a great testament to skiers and riders. Once the snow comes back, they come back, too.”

The natural snow totals lifted all resorts. Mammoth Mountain plans on skiing until Memorial Day after receiving nearly twice as much snow as last year. “Visits are pacing above average. Nothing off the charts, but definitely a really strong year for us,” says Lauren Burke, PR and social media manager at Mammoth.

All four Mammoth Resorts properties (Mammoth, June, Snow Summit, and Bear) had strong seasons, which should bode well for its California pass (holding the line at $749). “A strong winter always helps for the upcoming season,” Burke notes.

The story was much the same in the Pacific Northwest, where snowfall through mid-March was anywhere from 103 to 143 percent above average, leading to strong seasons and great momentum for next year.

“Fabulous” snow and a favorable U.S. exchange rate helped put Whistler Blackcomb on a record pace. From Oct. 1, 2015 through Feb. 8, 2016, the resort hosted 1.14 million visitors, the highest ever for that period. “Conditions have been amazing. We’re extending the season a week, until the end of May,” says Emily Wright, communications coordinator.

Colorado was also on a record pace, also thanks to great snow, especially early season. Through Feb. 29, skier visits were up 6.2 percent over the same period last year, the state’s second-best ever.

Utah had a “monumental” season, not only on the hill with good snow and strong business, but also with significant off-snow developments. Vail Resorts connected Park City to Canyons to form the largest ski resort in the country, Deer Valley began operating Solitude, Snowbird built a new $35 million summit lodge at 11,000 feet, and Cherry Peak, a new local ski area, opened outside Logan.

“It’s exciting,” says Paul Marshall, communications director at Ski Utah. “It’s been a monumental year for Utah. I think these big improvements brought in a lot of new visitors who will hopefully come back.” He notes that Utah has a 70 percent return rate.

East: Short But Not Sweet

“You can’t put lipstick on a pig anymore,” says Ski Areas of New York president Scott Brandi. “When we lost Christmas, we put a positive spin on it. Still three months [to go]. Then we lost MLK. By the middle of February, there was nothing left to spin. We were running out of time. Then March came along with balmy weather.”

“Rather than talk about skier visits and revenue, we made it simple and talked about operating days,” Brandi adds.

That was the story in northern New England as well. For most resorts, operating days were down a third or more. From there, it’s easy to do the math.

“When resorts are closed going into Christmas, the skier visit count is going to be down,” says Jessica Keeler, executive director of Ski New Hampshire.

But there were some bright spots. Snowmaking, for one, especially all those high-efficiency systems resorts have been installing in recent years. “Energy-efficient snowmaking was the key,” says Greg Sweetser, executive director at Ski Maine. “All areas have expanded their systems and are pumping more water with less energy, and in many cases at higher temperatures.”

“If it wasn’t for snowmaking, there would have been no season at all,” Keeler echoes.

According to Sweetser, another bright spot was group and conference business, which held strong at major areas. Preseason sales were also strong, and there were some extremely busy single days here and there.

Jay Peak, Vt., saw the strength of its weatherproof amenities. Business at the resort’s water park and ice rink helped offset a decline in ski and snowboard visits. “Coming out of Christmas, we were 25 to 30 percent off where we wanted to be,” says JJ Tolland, Jay Peak communications director. “If those trends held, it would have been borderline cataclysmic.”

When rain moved in before the MLK holiday, Jay’s ice rink director made some calls and brought in five additional last-minute hockey tournaments. (The rink hosts tournaments 45 weekends a year.) That business, combined with the water park, helped the resort claw back to within six percent of last year.

“If our business model solely relied on lift ticket sales (down 18 percent), we’d be in a deep, deep hole. As it is, we’re only in a shallow trench,” Tolland says.

Strong Canadian visits at Jay also helped, fueled by the resort’s policy of accepting the loonie at par, which offset an unfavorable exchange rate for Canadians.

Mont Sainte-Anne, Que., which celebrated its 50th season this winter, benefited from the favorable U.S. exchange rate as well as consistently colder temps than northern New England, and that offset a slow start. Through the end of March, business was off about 10 percent from last year, says spokesperson Lisa Marie Lacasse, but she hoped “April madness” with good spring skiing and weekend festivals would shave off some of that deficit.

The Mid Atlantic and Southeast got off to very slow starts. Many resorts didn’t open until after New Year’s, but dodged a bullet when several storms, including blizzard Jonas, hit them.

Snowshoe, W.Va., was one of many that went with the flow. It opened its golf course, mountain biking trails, and other summer attractions over Christmas since there wasn’t any snow. Then, on Jan. 21-22, Jonas brought 36 inches of snow in 36 hours, which fed one of the resort’s best Februarys ever. “We were able to talk a lot of Christmas cancellations into coming in February,” says Shawn Cassell, PR specialist at Snowshoe. “January and February were good months. We’ll be down, but not as much as we thought coming out of December.”

Cataloochee, N.C., had a similar season: good January, February, and even March, after the green-grass Christmas. “Once we got to Jan. 2, we had a good season the rest of the way,” says general manager Chris Bates. “It looks like we’ll be off about 25 percent, but it was all December. Honestly, I’m not really down on this year. It sure was a tough year with a lot of challenges, but it could have been much worse.”

Midwest areas also had a short season, with many not opening until Jan. 10, and most were closed two months later. Not surprisingly, the more northerly areas had the better (and longer) seasons, including Cascade, Wis., Lutsen Mountains, Minn., and resorts on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

At the other extreme, Hidden Valley, Mo., was open for only 53 days. But those 53 days included some bright spots, such as the resort’s single-day attendance record (Saturday of MLK weekend). “We ended up not too far off,” says Hidden Valley general manager Bill Brandes. “We were able to get people in here on weekends. On President’s weekend [and] MLK weekend we drew from 17 states. Our average draw is 13 states. Some days we were fighting to get another car in.”

Even without much snow and short seasons in the eastern half of the country, interest in winter sports remains high. Just think what would have happened if El Niño had been nice to everybody.