SAM Magazine—Jeffersonville, Vt., Aug. 10, 2018—Resorts are investing bigtime in their summer operations. It seems to be paying off: Despite wildfires and wet weekends, summer business levels across North America seem to be steady. Many resorts have reported slight growth, and those who are off target are only shy by a small percentage. In both the East and West, resort operators are heaping praise on tent-pole events that attract out-of-town and local visitors alike.
Many eastern resorts had a slow start to the summer, but a busy July and promising August have boosted numbers. Killington, Vt., finished its early season deadline with season pass sales outpacing last year by 7 percent. Sales of the new Beast 365 All Seasons Pass have been particularly encouraging—the pass accounted for almost 20 percent of early pass product sales.
The resort’s mountain bike business continues to grow as well, up 46 percent from last year’s early season. Killington communications and public relations manager Kristel Fillmore credited the summer gains to a concentrated development effort and the success of events such as its free summer concert series, Cooler in the Mountains, and the US Open of Mountain Biking.
Peek ’n Peak, N.Y., also saw success hosting events, namely the golf National Junior League Championships and an important PGA Tour qualifier, which landed the resort 16 hours of television coverage on the Golf Channel. That coverage helped make up for wet weather in the early summer. The resort experienced rain nearly every weekend in June, so its ropes course business, which is only open on the weekends, took a hit. But director of mountain operations Brad Gravink said strong July and August numbers have Peek ’n Peak about even with last year.
Greg Goddard, general manager of Gunstock, N.H., says the resort experienced more than its fair share of thunderstorms and extreme heat this year. Still, its summer business remains strong. The resort reported being four or five percent off of last year’s numbers, but sales of its zip tour and other activities were doing very well.
Guests have been thrilled to play in the climate-controlled Fun Zone 2.0 at Smugglers’ Notch, Vt. The air-conditioned indoor facility offers families a much-needed respite from the heat and humidity to enjoy adventurous activities such as a ninja course and climbing walls, or just chill in the arcade.
Smuggs’ destination business has picked up, too. Public relations director Mike Chait said, “We saw some hesitation when it comes to booking far in advance, but people are booking closer to their trips, and we are very pleased with those numbers.” Smuggs’ is also seeing success in the day market with a special “Vermonter” rate that allow locals to pay a flat rate for unlimited use of many of the pay-to-play activities. And the Fun Zone has become a popular spot for local rec departments, summer school camp programs, and adaptive programs to take “daycations.”
Smuggs’ anticipates its numbers will reflect growth this summer, but, like many of the other resorts, it had a sedate start to the season. Weather was undeniably a factor, in more ways than you may think. Chait’s theory: the school year was extended into June because of all the snow days this winter, and parents may have been reluctant to pull their kids out of class when summer vacation was just around the corner. So, eastern resorts may have rain and snow to blame for the slow summer kick-off.
Out west, Snow King, Wyo., also saw a lukewarm start to the summer, but director of skier services Brian Maguire said, “We’re busy!” The resort eclipsed last year’s summer business levels sometime near the end of July and is up about six to eight percent. Maguire noted that, in general, “We do more summer business than winter business.”
Snow King pulls a fair amount of that summer activity from Yellowstone-bound visitors who are staying overnight in Jackson Hole. It appears that in addition to the frequent regional and international visitors the resort often sees, Snow King also has a lot of “drive-vacationers” this summer. Domestic visitation is notably strong in the area this year, although Maguire said, “We haven’t seen a real change in yield.”
Much of the west has been affected by natural disasters this season. Recently, Snow King experienced two weeks of heavy smoke from the Grassy Ridge Fire in eastern Idaho. But the air finally cleared a few days ago, and the Jackson Hole region avoided the bourgeoning air quality issue.
The wildfires raging in Southern California have had an indirect impact on Big Bear, Calif. The resort experienced a slight downturn in visitation numbers this summer, and marketing manager Justin Kanton said the wildfires “do affect people’s ability and eagerness to travel.” Kanton also noted that “one of our biggest strengths during the winter—our proximity to the Southern California market—is also a challenge in the summer given the sheer number of entertainment options available to people in the region.” He said that the early opening of Mammoth’s bike park might also have been a contributing factor.
Big Bear sees lots of summer growth potential, though, and is focused on expanding summer offerings, renovating facilities, and investing further in its feature summer events such as the Fourth of July fireworks show, Above the Boom.
At Schweitzer, Idaho, festivals and events have been a highlight this summer. Sales and marketing director Sean Mirus said, “We continue to see people actively incorporating a Schweitzer event into their vacation plans.” Visitation is just slightly behind last year’s record numbers, but “the delta between this year and last could easily be made up or lost in a single event day,” said Mirus, and lodging is up eight percent in revenue. Revenue is generally slightly ahead this season, and Schweitzer continues to experience growth, which it attributes to a booming wedding business, the rise of mountain biking and festivals, and the success of its mountaintop restaurant, Sky House, which was new last summer.
Cynthia Thomas of Canada West Ski Areas Association (CWSAA) said that in western Canada, “Relatively strong economies are still propelling investor confidence” and summer resort visitation is expected to see continued growth.
Whistler, B.C., continues to invest in new summer experiences, such as the Cloudraker Skybridge, a 130-meter suspension bridge linking Whistler Peak to the West Ridge. Big White, B.C., is seeing summer success with events like the Slopestlye FMB Gold, an invitational Freeride Mountain Bike event (the only FMB World Tour event in North America). And Silver Star, B.C., welcomed thousands of visitors from the local community for its gondola opening party.
Government Policy Impacts?
We were curious as to whether resorts saw any correlation between business levels and the recent U.S. tax reforms. But the jury was very much out. As Gravink put it, “The tax cuts may be helping, but [comparing this summer to last summer] is a bit like comparing apples to oranges because of the weather.” And it does seem that any correlation between summer visitation and tax breaks is vague at best.
Guests are definitely spending on summer activities, though. Even with the sometimes-extreme heat (and the extreme infernos), July boasted strong numbers and August looks to offer more of the same.
If summer business is a hot topic at your mountain resort, then SAM Summer Ops Camp is where you can learn how to make the most of it. Join us Sept. 4-6 at Aspen Snowmass for this year’s Camp. Registration is filling quickly. Get all the info at www.summeropscamp.com.
This report was compiled and written by Katie Brinton, a 2017 SAM 10 Under 30 profilee.