While there have been mild temperatures the last couple days, overall it’s been a cold and snowy start to the winter season. Local ski areas are experiencing a much better start to the season than last year, when record low snowfall occurred. WAMC’s North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley looks at the importance of this holiday week for the region’s ski industry.
Ski resorts fired up snow machines to make powder early this year, allowing some to open seven weeks early, according to Ski Vermont, the trade association for the industry. Killington opened on October 25th with other large resorts following suit at Thanksgiving. The remaining ski areas have gradually opened throughout December in anticipation of the Christmas to New Year holiday week. This seven-day period is the time when ski resorts typically make about 20 percent of their annual revenues, according to Ski Vermont President Parker Riehle. “It’s one of the three major holidays and it’s the kick-off really to the season of holidays, the next one being MLK Weekend in January followed by Presidents’ Week in February. So with the early start to the season that we’ve already had you know going back into October with the opening at Killington, with a lot of natural snowfall, getting resorts going even by Thanksgiving, and that’s always sort of a bonus holiday with Thanksgiving you can never really count on it, but in the years like this year when several of the major resorts were open for Thanksgiving that’s a real bonus. That always helps with bookings for this Christmas holiday as we’ve seen around the state. And also coming off of last year much of our market’s taking a wait and see approach with the weather.”
I Ski New York, formerly Ski Areas of New York, is the trade association in the Empire State. President Scott Brandi concurs that this is a major week for ski resort revenues. “Christmas week is critical. It’s the longest holiday that we have and it really kicks off the season. And if we can pull together a strong Christmas as far as skier visits it sets up the rest of the season. For some ski areas the Christmas season could generate 20 to 25 percent of their skier visits and revenues so it’s a significant holiday.”
According to data from the Mount Mansfield Summit Station collected by the University of Vermont, total snow depth at the marker stake on the mountain last year was the lowest since 1962. Some ski areas in the Northeast reported their worst season in nearly five decades and relied on snowmaking to make it through the 2015 season. Riehle hopes last year was a fluke and says the snowfall so far is a harbinger of a great 2016 season. “Our 10 year average is about 4.1 million skier visits and we’ve come off of 2 years that saw a record high and a near record low. So with that kind of topsy-turvy business level coming off of last year it’s all the more important, of course, for our market to see winter return as we normally see it in Vermont and really confirm everybody’s sort of ongoing belief that last year was truly an anomaly.”
Brandi has been out skiing and says there’s optimism that this winter will be more normal than last year’s snow drought. “New York’s a huge state with more ski areas than any other state in the country, 4 million skier visits – 4th in the country. Our 50 plus ski areas develop about a $1.1 billion economic impact which has been verified by independent studies. So the ski industry is quite a player when it comes to tourism and economic impact.”
As more snow falls and skiers anticipate a possible storm later this week, Riehle reports that bookings are filling in. “Just seems every year folks are booking later and later, you know, closer to their arrival time, waiting for real time conditions to show up. We’re excited for a really strong Christmas-New Year’s that’s rolling out with a big Nor’easter coming this weekend that will have I think 3 or 4 days of snow in a row heading right into the New Year’s Day holiday. So it couldn’t be better timed for such a critical holiday period for Vermont.”
Three holidays are considered critical to ski resorts’ bottom line: the week between Christmas and New Year’s, the Martin Luther King Day holiday and Presidents’ Week.