Smaller U.S. ski resorts look to weather recession |

Smaller U.S. ski resorts look to weather recession

John Raby
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

Hard knocks at Marquette Mountain apply to more than just tumbling skiers.

The ski area in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has seen its share of weather-related and other challenges in recent years. And like the clients, officials are dusting themselves off for the next ride ” getting through a winter in a recession.

More than three-fourths of the nation’s 481 ski resorts are small or medium sized in terms of skier-snowboarder visits. They typically are family owned and are located in the eastern half of the country, said Michael Berry, president of the Lakewood, Colo.-based National Ski Areas Association.

Together their numbers help drive the $6 billion U.S. ski industry, which saw a record 60.5 million visits last year.

“I’m not expecting anything fantabulous,” Vern Barber, Marquette Mountain’s general manager, said of the coming winter, “just because of the economy.”

Smaller ski operations like Marquette Mountain offer same-day adventures without the four-star amenities or in-house lodging. Customers arrive, ski and leave. This year these operations are hoping the locals aren’t thinking twice about whether they can afford to ski.

“Some of the most profitable ski areas based on cash flow are some of those small and medium-sized areas,” Berry said.

This winter, the mom-and-pop places have two positives going for them.

Berry said gas prices now below $2 a gallon will result in lower operating costs and create a mind-set among potential customers that it’s cheaper to drive to the local ski area.

And forecasts for good snowmaking weather will allow smaller operations to get off to a good start. In some previous years, warm weather has pushed back opening dates well into December.

“This is the best start for the areas east of the Mississippi River that we’ve seen in a decade at least,” Berry said. “That’s a big plus, getting open and getting people excited about it.”

North Carolina’s Appalachian Ski Mountain had its earliest opening to a season since 2000.

Season-ticket sales and an annual ski shop sale showed improvements over last year and early-season lift ticket sales are up about 10 percent, said general manager Brad Moretz.

Appalachian had 125,000 skier visits last year to its 10 trails. It also has a skating rink and a snowboarding park and draws a mix of day and overnight guests, many from Georgia and South Carolina. Clients can rent vacation homes on the property or anchor motorhomes in the parking lot.

“We have a lot of reason to believe this is going to be a very good winter,” Moretz said. “We sort of think that a lot of people that didn’t travel this summer due to gas prices will say, ‘Hey, we need to go skiing this winter.'”

Wildwood, Mo.-based Peak Resorts operates 11 ski areas in Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Vermont. Most rely on traffic within a half-day’s drive and don’t offer lodging but are minutes away from hotels.

“Across the board most of us are expecting it to be a better season,” said Amity Betz, marketing director for subsidiary Hidden Valley. “They’re not going to plan these bigger destination vacations where they have to spend a lot of money. They can drive to these medium or smaller resorts.”

Marquette Mountain, with 25 trails, might see 2,000 skier visits in a day and had just under 70,000 for all of last year. It has hired about 8 percent fewer workers this year, but opening five days earlier than planned could help offset a 40 percent drop in advance lift ticket sales.

“People are hedging on the season to save money,” Barber said. “It’s a wait and see issue.”

There are no such worries at pint-sized Yawgoo Valley in Rhode Island.

Located within a 25-mile radius of 1 million people, Yawgoo will sell out all 1,800 available slots in a 5-week Learn to Ski program, and 200 available season passes will be gobbled up as well, owner Max deWardener said.

Yawgoo Valley is on the smallest end of the nation’s ski areas with 12 trails on 36 acres, a snowtubing park and a snowboarding area, but deWardener expects 60,000 skier visits this winter to go with 35,000 visits during the summer when a water park is open.

Yawgoo will have a full complement of 260 employees this winter.

“We’re the only show in town,” deWardener said.

That’s also true for Ohio’s Alpine Valley east of Cleveland, but it’s not necessarily a good thing.

The 72-acre ski area’s customer base is small by comparison ” 96,000 residents in the county ” so the prospects for a good season rest solely on the mood of the locals.

“We can’t compete with the destination resorts. We don’t have any lodging here,” said Alpine Valley office manager Julie Plickert. “What we are is a local ski area for the teenage kids to hang out at, families to bring out their little ones to ski, and then anybody who’s planning a trip out west who wants to get refreshed.”

Accessibility and casting a wide net for customers are the keys for southern West Virginia’s Winterplace Resort, which is near Interstate 77 and boasts of customers from as far away as Florida.

Buses often pack the parking lot and Winterplace, which doesn’t release its skier visits, relies on a large group business. Groups of 15 or more get an $11 midweek discount on lift tickets per person and a $6.50 discount on ski rentals.

Employment levels remain steady and reservations are up slightly at Winterplace, whose 16-lane snowtubing park is the state’s largest. It also has a snowboard park and 27 ski trails.

Economic downturn or not, “it’s a lifestyle,” said Winterplace president Terry Pfeiffer. “People are going to continue to do it. We believe we’re the affordable alternative.”

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