It is the transitional season as winter begins to intrude on autumn. The colors of fall foliage linger as temperatures drop and leaves begin to fall from trees. Occasional snow flurries tease cold weather to come. This past weekend as early snow dusted Northeast mountains, some ski areas scrambled to be the first, and earliest, to open trails.
The ski industry is competitive and there is a marketing advantage to opening first for the season and closing last. New England resorts use snowmaking technology to extend the winter season as long as possible. When snowflakes appeared this past weekend, Vermont’s Killington Ski Resort was the first to open. It’s the earliest Killington has opened in over a decade, according to Ski Vermont President Parker Riehle. “Owing to some great wintertime temperatures here in October and the snowmaking infrastructure, the upgrades at the resorts across the state are enabling resorts to make more snow with less energy at higher temperatures. And now Killington makes Vermont the first ski state in the country to open. The other resorts will soon follow in the weeks to come. So the momentum that we have coming into the season is just so palpable.”
With so many mountains transitioning to year-round resorts, why is there a rush to the winter snow?
In Maine, Sunday River is among the resorts that opened early with limited trails and a limited schedule. Spokesperson Sarah Devlin says they open early because they want to and they can. “It’s a taste of what to expect this winter. We do typically open on or before or around Halloween so seeing that window of opportunity with those temperatures where they were, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do that. We had to open. You know resorts are opening earlier and earlier. It’s something that everyone is trying to do. And to be honest with you, what’s great about it is with everyone trying to open this early, all we’re doing is extending the season industry-wide. Whether we’re first, whether we’re not first, or whether someone else is first it all turns into options early in the season because we’re all willing to do this.”
One of the reasons ski areas can open early with light natural snowfall is the proliferation of snowmaking technology. But even with the ability to make snow, not all ski areas are scrambling to open early. The Olympic Regional Development Authority manages Whiteface Mountain and its ski slopes. Spokesman Jon Lundin says they average between 200,000 and 250,000 skier visits annually. While the mountain could open earlier, Lundin says they are planning to open on the Friday after Thanksgiving. “Ski resorts really have to find ways now in which they generate revenue year-round. And we’re no different. We found other activities and other things to do during the summertime that is crucial towards our overall operations and revenue generation. So what we’re doing right now is we’re trying to just work on some projects that have yet to be completed and then when we do open put out the best product possible.”
Last year nearly 4.7 million skiers and riders visited Vermont slopes, a record year, according to Ski Vermont. It is the top ski and ride state in the East and among the top three in the country. Over $750 million dollars was spent by resort visitors last year in Vermont with over two-thirds of the expenditures made off-mountain in surrounding villages and towns.