KILLINGTON, Vt. — Forget the Rockies. With the economy in a tailspin, eastern skiers may be staying closer to home this winter.
Destination resorts out West are reporting slower-than-normal reservations, while New England ski areas say their business appears to be benefiting from the downturn — although resort operators everywhere are nervous.
"We were going to (go West), but this year, I don't think we're going to, unless the market turns around,'' said 49-year-old Sue Martin, of West Greenwich, R.I., who was skiing Friday at Killington.
With lift tickets $40 to $80 a day, plus the expense of lodgings and meals, although deals can be had, ski areas are particularly vulnerable as discretionary income falls. University of Vermont economics professor Art Woolf predicts it'll be a rough year for the industry.
"You can save a lot of money by not going on vacation,'' Woolf said. "It's a discretionary expenditure that's kind of lumpy. If you decide to go skiing you're going to pay $1,000, $2,000, whatever it is for the trip, so you can save a lot of money by not undertaking that activity.''
Maine's Sugarloaf is promoting a four-day midweek ski-and-stay deal starting at $199 per person, packaging it as an alternative to a vacation in the West.
Other resorts in the East are hearing from first-time customers who might normally fly to Colorado or Utah but are booking with them instead.
"As far as the economy goes, we're kind of seeing a reverse effect, and I think it's because people are staying home rather than taking trips out West or to Europe or something,'' said Luke Stafford, a spokesman for Mount Snow in southern Vermont.
At Vail Resorts, bookings were down 17 percent (in room nights) at the end of September at its five resorts — Breckenridge, Beaver Creek and Keystone, Vail resorts in Colorado and California's Heavenly Mountain.
With the bleak economy, the company is touting a new $579 unrestricted season pass good at its five resorts, compared to last winter's $1,800 for its four Colorado resorts. It's also giving out food vouchers for kids who stay overnight and a free night's stay for a five-night reservation on a holiday.
"I think what we're doing differently this year is making it easier, providing different packages, promotions and discounts so that people feel more comfortable in making the decision to come out because we know that ... these are tough and uncertain economic times,'' CEO Rob Katz said.
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Intrawest Corp., a Canadian resort operator, said this week the poor economy will force job cuts, although it did not say how many or where. Intrawest has three Colorado ski areas.
Resorts that rely on drive-in traffic are cautiously optimistic despite the financial turmoil. Going into the season, some have seen a jump in season-pass sales — 18 percent at Sugarbush, in Vermont — and record skier visits nationally last winter.
Lower gas prices could also pay off, making close-to-home ski trips more affordable.
"I do believe that skiing and boarding and winter sports are such a lifestyle decision and those tend to be things that people give up sort of last,'' said Ed Stahl, executive director of the Stowe Area Association in Vermont.
Ski areas have weathered economic uncertainty before, said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, in Lakewood, Colo.
"The one thing we know about our sport is that good snow kind of trumps all of our ills,'' Berry said. "Not to say the ski industry is recession-proof, but at the end of the day, it really has to do with the snow and if the snow is great, we have cold weather for snowmaking, quite honestly we do very well.''
Killington skier Jim Hamilton agrees.
"I think real skiers are going to ski,'' said the 65-year-old Hamilton, of Woburn, Mass. "I think the people who come once or twice are going to have second thoughts. But if you're a real skier, you're going to ski.''
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