Economy down…. Apres up!

This is a great forward from Apres liaison Mans. Mans, thanks for sending this along and thinking Apres. We definitely think the economy may play a role in this years turn out at the mountain, but that doesn’t mean that the Apres lifestyle should slow down at all.

Ready for liftoff?

Ski-resort operators eye a new season with cold economic realities

By Eric Wilbur Globe Staff / November 14, 2008

One year after a season that saw a record number of skier visits nationwide, New England skiing and snowboarding industry officials are keeping a close watch on the global financial crisis, as well as the weather forecast.

“Everything is all doom and gloom with the economy,” said Bonnie MacPherson, spokeswoman for Okemo Mountain Resort in Vermont. “We’ve all been on pins and needles.”

While skiing, may be a luxury that is now out of reach for many, resort operators say they have some reasons for optimism this year: Gas prices have fallen sharply since the summer, making travel more reasonable, and some resorts are reporting promising early season interest. At Okemo, for instance, there has been a 17 percent increase in the sale of season passes compared with the same period last year.

“Skiers and riders are very resilient,” said Tom Horrocks, spokesman for Killington Resort in Vermont. “Skiing and riding is a lifestyle. It’s what makes your identity. You’re a skier.”

But that doesn’t mean resort operators are overly confident. They are already promoting discounts to help draw crowds during the crucial holiday vacation period.

At Sunday River in Bethel, Maine, and Sugarloaf in Carrabassett Valley, Maine – both operated by Michigan-based Boyne Resorts – skiers can save $75 on two-night packages if they book by tomorrow, and trim $50 off bookings made by Dec. 15. To celebrate its 50th anniversary, Killington is offering 1,958 medallions worth $50 and good for two days of skiing, Dec. 13 and 14. And New Hampshire’s Tenney Mountain is trying to lure locals and day-trippers with a $150 Sunday afternoon and nonholiday season pass.

Even the high-priced Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont – owned by American International Group, the insurer at the center of the national financial crisis – is dropping prices 30 percent on any condominium rental with a three- to five-night midweek ski package.

Some hardcore enthusiasts have already tested the snow this season – Sunday River operated a limited number of lifts and trails for a few days starting Oct. 30, and Killington followed suit three days later. Each welcomed about 1,000 skiers. Operations have since been suspended because of mild temperatures, but Killington hopes to be running again next week. Sunday River plans to reopen with a food bank fund-raiser this weekend.

“We were the first resort to open in the East for a second year in a row, so if that’s any indication of what’s to come, it was very encouraging,” said Darcy Liberty, a Sunday River spokeswoman.

At Killington, while season pass sales are off slightly, sales of the resort’s $24 Express cards, which feature discounts on daily lift tickets, are up 400 percent, and prebookings for overnight packages are 25 percent ahead of last season, according to the resort. Meanwhile, officials at Sunday River and Sugarloaf say season pass sales are keeping pace with last year’s numbers.

Out West, resorts are bracing for a winter with fewer visitors due to high airfares by offering special promotions that are transferable between ski areas. For example, the Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, and Keystone resorts in Colorado, as well as the Heavenly Mountain Resort in Lake Tahoe, Calif., are selling a $579 pass that allows users access to any of the ski areas for the entire season. By comparison, a one-day ticket at Vail cost $81 last season.

According to the National Ski Areas Association, a trade group, there were an estimated 121 million skier visits nationwide during the 2007-’08 season, a record in a year blessed with an abundance of snow from the Rockies to the Maine coastline. The East alone enjoyed 14.26 million skiers and riders, the most in two decades.

Historic data show that recent economic downturns did not severely hurt the ski business. In the midst of the recession of the early 1980s, the 1980-’81 season saw just 8.95 million ski visits in the Northeast, but 11.47 million skiers took to the slopes the next year.

Seven years ago, after the dot-com bubble burst, ski areas nationwide posted a then-record 114 million visits, said Michael Berry, president of the national ski association. But there was more in play than the economy that season – there were record snowfalls, too.

“In general, if we look back in history, the thing that determines whether you’re going to have a good season or a bad season is snow,” Berry said. “Even in the best of economic times, if we have an off-weather year, we don’t do as well.”

No matter how much snow falls, Berry isn’t predicting that the 2008-’09 season in the Northeast will be a record-setting one, but he expects a good showing – anywhere from 11 million to 13 million ski visits – despite the deepening recession.

And while the economy might not heat up as temperatures drop, industry reps like Liberty at Sunday River are counting on skiers and riders being more interested in checking daily snow depths than their falling 401(k) statements.

“I think it’s as simple as people love to ski and snowboard,” she said. “If it means a day of not thinking about what the stock market is doing, it’s an opportunity to create a memory with friends and family and relax and enjoy the day.”

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