Skiers Turned Out Despite Snow, Rain Over Holidays

SAM Magazine--Boulder, Colo., Jan. 7, 2004--Weather--too much snow, too much rain--dampened visits on some days during the Christmas-New Year's period. But the longer-than-usual holiday (from December 20 through January 4) and determinedly upbeat customers made this a strong, and in some instances record, holiday season for many resorts across the country.

Among the busiest were Colorado resorts. Snow came in enough quantity to bring out the locals, but not so heavily as to make travel impossible. Crested Butte, Steamboat, Aspen, and Winter Park all reported record days or holiday periods. Indications were that the Vail and Intrawest resorts generally experienced above-average holiday volume (these publicly-held companies do not release information about visits outside of quarterly reports).

Even more importantly, Colorado areas reported that destination visits were up. At Telluride and Steamboat, expanded air service got much of the credit. But at Winter Park, a surge of local Front Range skiers and riders put the area over the top.

Utah areas were full, too. Heavy snows and some road closures kept the locals from venturing into the mountains, but hotels up and down the Wasatch were booked solid, and visits were on a par with last year's record level.

The heavy snows have also helped boost bookings for the usually slow period in January and early February, Ski Utah's Kip Pitou said. "People feel better about booking vacations further out. If we don't have a record year this year, we have to reexamine what we are doing," he added.

The Pacific Northwest saw its fortunes reverse from the disaster of 2002. Several areas reported record or near-record volume. One example: in 2002 Stevens Pass, Washington, had about 50,000 visits before Dec. 31. This year, the area had more than 50,000 skier visits between Christmas and New Year's. The area was 228 percent ahead through December and 270 percent ahead for the season. As in Utah, managers expected the strong numbers would continue to pile up.

California posted strong numbers in the Sierra, where snowfall approached 10 feet during the holiday. "We've had decent crowds, plus a few really, really good days," said Squaw spokeswoman Katja Dahl. She credited the two-week holiday for spreading out the traffic and keeping single-day visits below record levels.

Visits were only average in SoCal, where rain and mudslides dominated the local news. But conditions have been consistently good since early November, and business has remained steady.

The holidays were similarly average throughout much of the East.

Northern New England's holiday was fair to excellent, despite some warm weather and occasional rain. Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, experienced the biggest holiday week in its 30-year history, up 25 percent over last year. Whiteface, New York, equalled its previous strong holiday numbers.

In Vermont, visits were about as budgeted, give or take 15 percent, according to a spokeswoman for the Vermont Ski Areas Association. More southerly areas had the worst of the weather and visits suffered a bit as a result.

Southern New England areas were more severely impacted by the weather. "It's not one for the records," said Wachusett spokesman Tom Meyers. "Right now we're not even comparing to last year." But the area was close to its five-year average, he added. The big day was Jan. 2, which showed how having an extra-long holiday helped the overall business.

The situation in the Midwest was similar to the Northeast. The areas in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the U.P. had good to great snow and visits were correspondingly high. Further south, the weather was warmer and rain clouded a picture that had been rosy at holiday's start. Still, many areas reported strong business.

In the mid-Atlantic area, resorts also weathered the warm-up without losing much business. And the Southeast was strong. Virginia areas found visitors were not deterred by a few warm days; Wintergreen was up over the previous year. And in North Carolina, a strong holiday left North Carolina operators optimistic that the 2003-04 ski season could match or surpass last year's near-record level.

"You can't have a good year unless you start off right, and it's about as good as you can get," said Grady Moretz of conditions at his family's Appalachian Ski Mountain in Blowing Rock. Appalachian's 800-car lot was full most of the week, and local hotels were booked.

Sugar Mountain's tubing hill could not keep up with the demand; the area handed out vouchers to late arrivals before they even got in line. "Everyone is real happy and holding their breath hoping that it continues as is," Sugar Mountain's Gunther Jochl told The Charlotte Observer, "because we know two-thirds of the season is still left." \