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Ski areas across region see boost from recent snowstorm

Last modified: 2/2/2015 12:23:03 AM
Garrett Kelly has just cruised down the mountain on his sixth snowboard run at Suicide Six Ski Area in South Pomfret, Vt., and is taking a “hydration” break. An assistant front desk manager at the Woodstock Inn & Resort, Kelly said it’s only his second time on the slopes this season, but it’s an ideal Thursday afternoon – crisp air, powdery snow shimmering under the sun, runs neatly groomed and blissfully quiet before the weekend onslaught of visitors.

“It’s not 10 degrees, it’s like 20s,” said Kelly, his face reflecting a ruddy glow. “The snow’s really good, there’s no line and it’s affordable,” he laughs.

For Kelly and thousands of other winter sports enthusiasts, it feels like the snow season has finally arrived in Vermont and New Hampshire, where ski areas and resorts are looking forward to a boost in customers following a frustratingly warm December when temperatures hovered above freezing. Last week’s winter storm, which fell far short of its hype but still dumped a mass of snow across Massachusetts and blanketed New England, was seen as the turning point.

“Year to date, we’re off a little bit, and it’s truly a little bit,” said Dartmouth Skiway Manager Doug Holler, citing a warm December and “some nasty rain storms on the weekends, which dissuaded people from coming out. . . . You’ll find most of the day trip (ski destinations) are off probably.”

The same is true at Whaleback, where General Manager Dick Harris said the nonprofit ski mountain, which is largely dependent on upon fundraising to keep running, didn’t get a chance to open until Jan. 10 because of “the antiquity of our snowmaking equipment.” A warm December prevented Whaleback from opening earlier, although on Wednesday, the day after Tuesday’s storm, “people were pouring in here.”

Still, compared with the previous January, when there were several “really good snowstorms,” the month will be “way down” for Whaleback this season, Harris said.

And a warm and wet December dampened city-funded Arrowhead Recreation Area in Claremont, where volunteers “had to hustle to make enough snow for our New Year’s Eve functions,” said Chuck Allen, the operation’s vice president, via email. “The following weeks still didn’t bring much snow, so we did some patchwork snowmaking with our single snow system fan gun. . . . (Last) week’s snowstorm wasn’t as large as we had hoped for, about seven inches, but it will help us with cover in all areas.”

Big mountains pinched

It’s not only the small, day-trip ski destinations that were affected by the late season start.

Mount Sunapee Resort in Newbury, which is owned by Tim and Diane Mueller but operated by Florida-based CNL Lifestyle Properties, also felt the pinch.

“Despite the weather in December and early January we are only slightly behind last winter year to date,” responded Bruce McCloy, director of marketing and sales, in an email. “The biggest thing affecting our business was the lack of snow in eastern Massachusetts, which is Mount Sunapee’s primary market.”

Ski industry veterans are fond of saying that, even if there is snow on their mountain, it’s often not until skiers – especially last-minute weekend skiers – see “snow in their backyard” that they will get in the car for the hour or more drive to the slopes.

Boston’s first real snowfall, Jan. 24 triggered Sunapee’s second-biggest day of the season, McCloy noted. “All the snow in Boston from (last week’s storm) will help us well into February,” he said. February is typically Sunapee’s busiest month, he noted, and “over the next few weeks it looks like the skiing will be just about as good as it can get.”

Even if the season ends on a high note, with more visitors and higher revenue, the ski industry still faces significant challenges in the years and decades ahead, according to experts. From aging baby boomers who have accounted for a good percentage of the skiing clientele to climate change that is making the weather more volatile, snow-sports resorts are under pressure to find new segments of the population to appeal to, and to invest in technology because they need to rely more on machine-made snow.

For starters, the number of visitors nationally to snow-sports destinations has remained between about 50 million and 60 million since the late 1970s, even though the population as a whole has swelled by more than 90 million, according to the National Ski Areas Association. In the Northeast, the number of visitors has fluctuated between about 11 million and 14 million annually.

And the number of places to ski is shrinking. The ski areas association estimates that there are 470 ski areas operating in the U.S., down from 546 in 1991. The drop is even more startling in Vermont and New Hampshire, according to Jeremy Davis, founder of the New England Lost Ski Areas Project.

Davis, a Glens Falls, N.Y., marine meteorologist and Lyndon State College graduate who has researched the history of ski areas that have gone dark, said 125 ski runs – including commercial and private ski slopes formerly operated by schools or clubs – have closed in Vermont since the 1930s, while 175 have shut down in New Hampshire over the same time.

The peak number of operating ski areas for both states came in 1969 to 1970, Davis said, only a few years after the first wave of baby boomers graduated from college. The trajectory to that point hadn’t been a continuous upward curve, he noted, but the number of ski areas steadily began to fall off as young men were drafted into the Vietnam War and the gas shortages of the 1970s curbed car travel.

Today, Ski Vermont, the state’s ski tourism promotion office, said it has 19 alpine ski members, while Ski NH reports 17 alpine ski members. Not all ski areas belong to their respective state promotion offices, although most do.

Market changes

Analysts debate the reasons why the snow-sports industry has not held up with broader population growth, with explanations ranging from the cost of equipment, travel and hospitality to the rise of Sunbelt resorts competing for family vacation dollars. Some also cite a poor job by ski resorts to diversify their cultural appeal beyond a narrow segment of consumers.

This is especially the challenge among snow-sports resorts in the Northeast, which are in a region of the country that “tends to be older and more white than the national average,” while at the same time drawing participants “more white than the national average,” said Dave Belin, a ski industry consultant with market research firm RRC Associates in Boulder, Colo.

“The future for them is trying to grab a more diverse market,” Belin said.

At the moment, the snow-sports industry in Northern New England, although not growing by leaps and bounds, appears to be holding its own.

New Hampshire’s alpine ski and snowboard resorts attracted 2.3 million visitors during the 2013-14 season, 0.2 percent below the prior year’s figure, according to Ski NH. Nonetheless, the tally was still 3.5 percent above the running 10-year average, helped in part by consistent cold in November and December and then a long tail of below-normal temperatures extending into the spring.

Vermont, the country’s No. 3 ski destination, reported 4.5 million ski visits last year, which was “very similar to the season prior,” said Sarah Wojcik of Ski Vermont in an email. She said the two previous years were the second and third best seasons in the state’s history by number of visitors, and the industry “recovered quickly from the Christmas thaw due to low temps.”

The worrisome vulnerability of the snow-sports industry in Vermont and New Hampshire, of course, is climate change – although not necessarily the warmer temperatures associated with global warming.

In perhaps the most distressing scenario, a 2012 study led by the University of Waterloo’s Interdisciplinary Center on Climate Change in Ontario, Canada, predicted that more than half of the 103 ski resorts in the Northeast will be unable to maintain the traditional 100-day season by 2039, leading to more than half of New Hampshire’s areas no longer being economically viable.

The authors concluded that Vermont’s ski industry will weather the change better, with only two areas — Suicide Six and Cochran’s Ski Area in Richmond – vulnerable.

Davis, the meteorologist, said the issue facing New England ski resorts is not so much consistently warmer temperatures but greater volatility in temperatures, in which the season is marked by greater swings between unusual highs and unusual lows.

New England’s winter climate, he said, has always been characterized by variability, and it appears to be growing more volatile under climate change. “Last March was one of the coldest ever, nine to 10 degrees below normal,” he said. At the same time, “overnight lows have not been as low as they used to be either. There’s been lots of ups and downs for a long time, but there’s more evidence of it,” he said.

The ski industry can mitigate against the changes to some extent through snow-making technology, Davis said, “but it costs money.”


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