May 5, 2017

Snow sports providers thank heavens for ‘average’ winter

The skiing season at Killington and other Vermont resorts wound down slowly this year, concluding a satisfying if unremarkable season for people and industries in winter sports. Robert Layman / Staff Photo

After a dismal 2015-16 season, Vermont’s ski areas are breathing a collective sigh of relief.

Skier visits for this season look to be on par with a more normal season, said Parker Riehle, president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association.

While the final numbers won’t be released until June, Riehle said he’s expecting the final tally for the season to be in line with an average year.

“I’m reasonably optimistic we should hit our 10-year average, which is 4.1 million skier visits; hopefully higher than that, but it’s still too early to tell.” Riehle said.

Last year, faced with the worst snow season in memory, the state’s ski areas reported just 3.2 million skier visits. That number was in stark comparison to the 4.7 million skier visits of 2014-15.

The return to a more normal winter weather pattern helped boost business this season at the state’s 20 downhill ski areas.

Riehle said there were timely snowstorms, with the VSAA issuing 21 “powder alerts” this season, compared to the previous record of 16.

He said late-season storms in March helped prolong the season — something that was missing the last few years.

Not to be overlooked is the enormous snowmaking capacity of the state’s resorts, which Riehle said is especially a godsend during times of adverse weather conditions.

He said the state’s 30 cross-country ski areas also enjoyed a far better season than in 2015-16. That’s critical, because unlike their downhill cousins, Nordic areas (with few exceptions), are entirely dependent on a snowy winter to operate.

At Okemo Mountain Resort, skier visits were up significantly from a year ago and were close to average, said Bonnie MacPherson, director of public relations.

“We didn’t break any records in terms of skier visits on any specific days,” MacPherson said. “I think this was a nice average winter, but we were due for a nice average winter.”

The Ludlow resort enjoyed a higher yield, or profit margin, per skier this season, with an increase in other activities including snow tubing, ice skating and the Mountain Coaster ride.

She said early season-pass sales for next season are also tracking ahead of estimates.

The turnaround from last season is reflected at Jay Peak, which is enjoying the best season in the resort’s history, helped by 500 inches of snow, according to resort spokesman JJ Toland.

He said revenue at the northern Vermont resort was 9.5 percent above budget projections.

“It’s like last year never existed,” Toland said.

He said lodging for the season averaged 93 percent of capacity.

“People just started coming at Christmas and it really never let up,” he said.

Toland said well-timed snowstorms in out-of-state markets also helped, putting people in a skiing frame of mind.

Jay Peak has been at the center of an ongoing EB-5 (immigrant investor) fraud case. The resort is in the hands of a court-appointed receiver, but the adverse publicity and financial repercussions apparently have had little or no effect on the ski season. “We could not have scripted a better scenario for our first winter under receivership,” Toland said.

As of late April, Jay Peak was one of two resorts that remained open. The other was Killington.

Toland said a recent court-approved $150 million settlement earmarks a portion of the proceeds to Jay Peak, so it can move forward with a recreation and entertainment center. The resort will also move ahead with completion of the Stateside townhouse complex.

Like skiing, snowmobiling enjoyed a rebound.

“We had a very good year,” said Cindy Locke, executive director of the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers. “We had trails open from the very beginning of the season to the very last day.”

There was excellent snow cover over the higher elevations, while trails in the lower elevations struggled a bit, she said.

The organization saw its seasonal membership jump from 16,000 during the 2015-16 season to 21,000 this season. Half of VAST members live out of state, with Connecticut at the top of the list.

Locke attributed the increase in members to an abundance of snow this season. An early-bird pass is priced at $100 and goes toward maintaining the 4,700-mile trail network.

VAST, with a staff of six, has an annual budget of $4 million. According to Locke, snowmobiling’s annual economic impact in the state is $550 million. That includes everything from snowmobile sales and repairs to lodging and restaurants.

For those yearning for a taste of adventure, backcountry skiing enjoyed a resurgence, said Greg Maino of the Catamount Trail Association.

The Catamount Trail corridor of 31 sections runs from the Massachusetts border to the Canadian border.

Maino said there are any number of other backcountry trails, including those in the Rochester and Brattleboro areas, as well as the Northeast Kingdom.

He said the there is no firm estimate of the economic impact of backcountry skiing, but said it’s fair to say participants in the sport frequent restaurants, convenience stores and buy equipment.

He added that participation in the sport is growing rapidly, attracting hikers and those who may be bored with the usual routine of cross-country or downhill skiing.


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