Ski Season Melts Away, But There Were Bright Spots To Celebrate
Charles Dickens wasn’t referring to the just-ended ski season when he referred to “the best of times, the worst of times.” But, another old saw applies… “A bad day on the slopes is better than a good day at work.”
Preliminary numbers were released today as leaders in the ski industry gathered in San Antonio, Texas, at the annual National Ski Areas Association convention. Skier/snowboarder visits totaled 51 million. That’s down by 15.7 percent from the 2010-11 season. In addition, snowfall for the 2011-12 season was down 41-percent over average across the country.
But, there is a concurrent stat that points to a bit of a silver lining: Attendance at ski schools ticked upward year-over-year, with an increase in learn to ski/ride throughout a number of regions. That’s an obvious sign we were using what wasn’t an ideal snow year to become better skilled and more excited about future years.
It was the “best of times” for some ski resorts, however, and for a number of others, far from the worst of times. Here’s a sampling.
New Amenities Pay Off
Jay Peak Resort, Vt., near the Canadian border, is a prime example, as a new indoor water park, the Pump House, made its debut, as well as a new hotel. The Pump House addition may the ski industry success story of the year.
"We couldn't have picked a better year to open the Pump House. It proved to be the ‘weather-proof’ amenity we were hoping it would be in that it kept guests coming up week after week because they knew that no matter what was happening outside they were still guaranteed a great time,” Jay Peak’s JJ Toland told SnoCountry.com. “As a result, our skier visits finished slightly ahead of last year's number and resort-wide revenues were at historic highs."
Whitefish Mountain in Montana had plenty to crow about as well, finishing the season well over its five-year average, making this its fourth best season ever. January’s snow piled up to seven feet, while 20 inches dropped Feb. 26, a 24-hour record. All three 2012 months accumulated more snow than the same months in 2011.
“We’re quite pleased with this year’s results,” said Whitefish President Dan Graves. “We’re lucky to be positioned in the Northern Rockies for consistent year-in, year-out snowfall and certainly we are trending positive over the course of the past couple of years in terms of the number of people visiting.”
Despite a major league drop in snowfall (nearly 400 inches below total snowfall for last year), Jackson Hole, Wyo., still had its second best year in skier visits. That’s less than 3,000 visits off 2008 numbers, the record-setter. Jackson’s Chip Carey told SnoCountry.com, the just-ended season was the resort’s best year financially, “beating last year by a lot.”
General Manager Jody Churich of the Tahoe region’s Boreal Ridge told SnoCountry.com the “overall season went pretty well in spite of the weather, and largely because of our focus on terrain parks.” Everything looked rosy as early snows and visitors made it Boreal’s best November ever. Then the region’s weather drama began.
Boreal’s three terrain parks – Mini-Shred, Shred, and Core – plus a Bag Jump, were able to be maintained all winter. That, she notes, is difficult in a down snow season. “We were able to keep great features, plus the big snowfall for Spring Break really helped.” Boreal’s learning packages caught on and Churich said conversion rates were higher year-over-year.
Colorado’s small, but feisty, Echo Mountain, took advantage of its closeness to the huge Denver market to deliver a record year on all fronts – skier and snow boarder visits, revenues, Ski and Ride School.
“We take the view that we’re after the new demographics from the Denver market where the fact is 70-80 percent of the people don’t ski or ride. We’re after that 20-25 percent to get them into the sport here at Echo,” Marketing Director Scott Gales told SnoCountry.com. Echo Mt., in Idaho Springs, is just 35 miles from downtown Denver on I-70.
Gales said single day ticket sales were up 70 percent, but Ski and Ride School sales were up 50 percent, reflecting the demographic and the affordability for families getting into the sport. Echo’s season pass was $150. He also cited consistent snow through February.
Vail Resorts in Colorado and California persisted well, considering overall snowfall at its six resorts was down 50 percent over the prior season. Ancillary revenue from ski school was up slightly by 0.3 percent. But, the really bright spot news from those resorts came in the form of sales of the Epic and other season passes and spending habits of international guests.
“Our performance highlights the strength of our season pass program as well as our industry leading snowmaking and expertise in grooming and mountain operations, further differentiating our resorts by exceeding guest expectations in both terrain availability and quality,” said Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz.
Southern California’s Mountain High turned out the lights after running the longest ski season in its history. The ski area, high above the Los Angeles basin, opened Nov. 4 (the fourth earliest date) with solid snowmaking and good natural snowfall. Conditions were fairly consistent throughout the winter.
“The season really took off for us in mid-March,” Mountain High’s Vice President John McColly said, “when spring storms began to blanket the mountain.” Four feet of fresh powder fell between March 15 and April 15, with some 10,000 guests on the hill for closing day. Things were certainly good enough for Mountain High to produce a new feature-length film, dubbed LOS ANGELES, to debut next fall. Click for teaser.
So, what about the baseball lament, “Wait ‘til next year?”
“I’m super optimistic,” Boreal’s Churich told us. “We have expanded our snowmaking the past five years and we have the attractions that will make for a strong early opening. Our season pass offers for next year have been well received, and we’ve just added the Woodward/Tahoe training center.”
Gales, who began to market Echo Mt. last summer, said he’s “excited about next year” because he has a three-month head start on it. “We’re a close alternative to the long drives and high costs. We’re getting the word out.”
Vail Resorts’ Katz said the season pass sales for the next ski season “have been strong and will exceed our prior year total spring pass sales.”
But, still, it’s all about the snow, isn’t it? There is some cautious optimism out there about a possible return of El Niño conditions and demise of its wicked little sister, El Niña.
McColly, at Mountain High, really has his fingers crossed. “During the last El Nino season, Mountain High recorded nearly 300 inches of fresh snow, which is about 150 inches above normal.
Colorado-based meteorologist Joel Gratz of OpenSnow.com is a bit more cautious, telling SnoCountry.com that optimism shouldn’t be tied to the weather so far in advance.
"Early forecasts for next season point toward a possible weak El Niño,” Gratz said. “This could mean more snow for southern ski areas, but as skiers know all too well - it's best to forecast snow one storm at a time, as forecasts six months out can’t be trusted... too much uncertainty."
What It Means: All in all, the numbers were down, but skiers and snowboarders and even mountain managers weathered the weather. Regardless of what happens, we all know next season is, well, next season. Hope springs eternal. Meanwhile, enjoy the summer with us at SnoCountry.com – we’ll keep you posted on summer events and activities and resort plans for next winter.
Top Photo: Jay Peak's new Pump House Water Park
Bottom Photo: Potential El Nino (NOAA)