Ski report: Deals and dumps trump tough times

Image: Joe Nelson
A snow covered Joe Nelson from Toledo, Ore., makes his way back to the lodge after snowboarding through the the fresh snow at Willamette Pass, east of Oakridge, Ore., last week.Chris Pietsch / The Register-Guard via AP

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

For those still dealing with the fallout from last week's crippling blizzards, Sammy Cahn’s classic lyrics may sound more frightful than delightful. For skiers and snowboarders, however, it’s more like meteorological music to the ears.

Call it a perfect storm of sorts, but thanks to the three-pronged combination of early snow, good deals and a rebounding economy, snowsports enthusiasts are once again heading for the slopes.

Think globally, ski locally
While few would call the ski industry a leading economic indicator, the sport survived the recession surprisingly well. People may have held off on major equipment purchases and skipped their annual ski week, but many still made their way to the mountains. According to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), the industry tallied 59.7 million skier visits last year, a 4.2 percent bump over the year before and just 1.2 percent below the 60.5 million record set in 2007/2008.

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“It was the second best year on record,” said Ralf Garrison, director of the Mountain Travel Research Program (MTRiP), which monitors lodging reservations at western resorts. Local and regional resorts accounted for much of the bump, he added, as many skiers and snowboarders stayed closer to home rather than splurge on a major vacation.

This year, the pendulum is showing signs of swinging back the other way — despite the challenges of rising airfares, stubbornly high unemployment and continuing economic uncertainty. “Most consumers don’t necessarily feel there’s a recovery going on,” said Garrison, “but skiers are proving to be very loyal.”

According to Garrison’s latest data (through November), lodging reservations at western resorts are up 3 percent over last year. More to the point, perhaps, the pace of reservations for future arrivals was up 14 percent, thanks to rebounding consumer confidence and good, early snow in much of the country.

“It’s the third year of a tough economy,” said Garrison. “After two years, it’s like the same song, third verse, but people are figuring out how to dance to the beat.”

Cost-conscious but committed
Kristina Wegscheider of San Jose, Calif., will definitely be among them. Flying to Park City, Utah, with a friend later this season, she could almost serve as the poster child for the efforts skiers and snowboarders will make to satisfy their need for snow.

Among her cost-saving efforts: Using the two-for-one companion airfare that came with her Delta credit card, seeking out discount coupons for their rental car and ski gear and taking advantage of Park City’s Quick Start program, which lets travelers turn in their boarding passes for lift tickets on their day of arrival. “We actually keep a spreadsheet with all our costs on Google Docs,” said Wegscheider, “and realized, hey, we could do this more than once a season.”

At the same time, resorts are hoping to attract other skiers and snowboarders with generous discounts and package deals. “Three years ago, a fourth night free was the best deal you could get,” said Dan Sherman, director of marketing for tour-operator Ski.com. “Now we’re seeing third night free and, in some cases, buy two nights and get two nights free.”

At Ski.com, for example, packages at Capella Telluride offer a third night free and two-day lift tickets starting at $614 per person double occupancy (available through Feb. 11, book by Jan. 31). In Park City, guests who rent a two-bedroom condo at the PowderWood Resort for two nights can get another two nights free plus three-day lift tickets for $452 per person (based on quad occupancy, good through April 15).

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Resorts are also ramping up major social-media campaigns in an effort to win friends and influence travel decisions. Whistler Blackcomb, for example, recently launched a new social-media page called The Movement, which aggregates ski and snowboard news, provides access to contests and connects potential guests to the resort’s presence on nearly a dozen social networks.

Then there’s EpicMix, the latest offering from Vail Resorts, which lets riders track their on-mountain activities and connect digitally with friends and family through location-based software. “Skiers and snowboarders love to tell stories about their day on the mountain,” said spokesperson Kate Lessman. “This lets them capture and share their experiences.” Currently available at EpicMix.com, mobile apps for the iPhone and Android devices are expected to go live later this month.

Resorts reach out
If EpicMix and the like speak to social media’s growing influence, other industry efforts speak to another demographic reality. To counter an aging population and ensure continued growth, resorts are going to have to attract new visitors, including people who may not want to ski or snowboard at all. “Skiing used to be a chairlift, a bar and a hotel,” said Sherman. “Now you’ve got world-class spas, fine dining and all sorts of other activities.”

Increasingly, those activities include alternative ways to play on — and, apparently, above — the mountain. This year, visitors to Breckenridge (Colo.), Okemo (Vt.) and Attitash and Cranmore (both in N.H.) can hop on new mountain coasters, riding two-person sleds along elevated steel tracks. Okemo’s Timber Ripper ($9–$13), for example, whips along 3,100 feet of track, traversing waves, camel backs and banking loops at up to 25 mph.

Other resorts, including Kirkwood (Calif.) and Smugglers’ Notch (Vt.) are setting their sights even higher with new zipline/canopy tours. At Smuggs’, the ArborTrek Canopy Tour ($100) rolls nine ziplines, two skybridges and two rappels into a 2.5 to 3-hour eco-adventure — no skis or snowboard required.

And more on-mountain improvements are probably in the wings, especially in light of recent business deals. In October, Vail Resorts added Northstar-at-Tahoe to its portfolio; in December, KSL Capital Partners bought nearby Squaw Valley. Both are expected to make substantial investments in their new properties, some of which will likely be rolled out as early as next year.

In the meantime, this season is shaping up to be one of epic snowfall (more than 20 feet in Tahoe by Christmas, 18 in Utah), good deals and pent-up demand from cost-conscious, but committed skiers and snowboarders.

“The demographics are there; the economy’s not the negative that it was, and people have a passion for the sports that we sell,” said NSAA President Michael Berry. “By my reckoning, there’s every chance that we could set another record this year.”