• Ski resorts hoping for a snowy March and strong finish
     | March 03,2013

    With two-thirds of the 2012-13 ski season in the books, Vermont’s ski areas have already rebounded from last year’s disappointing season. The only glitch so far was the hangover from Superstorm Sandy, which curtailed visits during the usual February school break.

    “Definitely on track to surpass last year,” said Parker Riehle, president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association.

    Last season, Vermont logged 3.9 million skier visits, a number that fell below the historical average of 4.1 million per season and well below the 2010-2011 season’s 4.3 million skier visits.

    How this season ends up won’t be answered until March, a month that can be fickle when it comes to the weather. Three of the last four years, March has been a snow bust of sorts. Last year, summer-like weather in March effectively put a quick end to the season for many resorts before the month was out.

    So far this season, 65.4 inches of snow have fallen on Burlington, 5.2 inches above normal, according to Brooke Taber, a staff meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

    During a normal March, the state can expect to receive an average of 13 inches of snow. Last year was an exception, with March snowfall totaling only 5.9 inches.

    And while March has a reputation for being the snowiest month of the season, January is the snow leader, averaging 17.2 inches, followed by December and February with 15.7 inches.

    Taber said one reason March has a reputation as the snowiest month is because “we can get some of our bigger storms in the month of March.”

    Riehle said how March plays out will determine whether Vermont has an average ski season or an above-average season.

    So far this season, the state’s 18 ski areas have reaped the benefit of well-timed snowstorms over the three major holidays — Christmas/New Year’s, Martin Luther King weekend and Presidents’ Week.

    Riehle said Presidents’ Week was another strong holiday “for visits and very positive numbers,” including lodging, food and beverage and lessons.

    “Certainly, much stronger than last year and what we’re hearing is on par with previous good years for the Presidents’ Week holiday period,” he said.

    A winter storm last week gave Vermont ski resorts a boost with 7 to 10 inches of new powder.

    “The mountains and ski areas are doing pretty good,” said Andy Nash of the National Weather Service. “They’re going to get the jackpot with this storm.”

    After getting off to a slow start to the season, Magic Mountain in Londonderry has seen a pickup in business with a very strong February, said resort spokesman Geoff Hathaway.

    The ski area, one of the smallest in the state with 43 trails, didn’t open until Christmas, then one of its two chairlifts was forced to shut down during the holiday.

    “Since we had the Herculean effort to get that back up and going in January, things have been really very good,” Hathaway said. “We could have used a little more snow in January, but February has been just great for us.”

    He said business at Magic Mountain is running “well ahead of a year ago,” which was an off year for the industry.

    Besides the well-timed snowstorms, Hathaway attributed the improvement to increased snowmaking and better grooming – something that skiers and boarders have noticed.

    If the weather holds up, he said, Magic should be open into April.

    Of the state’s ski areas, Mad River Glen in Waitsfield is a rarity — relying almost entirely on the kind of snow that falls from the sky. Because the resort has a grand total of three snow guns, it puts the only cooperatively owned ski area in the nation at the mercy of nature.

    Despite that handicap, Mad River spokesman Eric Friedman said business has improved over a year ago with revenues up “several hundred thousand dollars.”

    Friedman said Presidents’ Week was “decent.” He said business picked up midweek after the ski area received 18 inches of snow.

    “So we pulled it out, which was awesome,” he said.

    That was good news because after a record-breaking Christmas, January and part of February were rough months.

    “We’ve had some major thaws in January, which really set us back,” Friedman said.

    With 45 trails and two main lifts, including the only remaining single chairlift in North America, Mad River expects skier visits will total between 80,000 and 85,000 for the season.

    One area of concern for the resorts is that the midweek business during Presidents’ Week was off from historical numbers, especially for resorts in the southern part of the state, Riehle said.

    In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy some schools in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey had to make up for cancelled school days and “dialed back or curtailed their February vacation periods this winter,” he said.

    The aftereffects from Sandy were evident at Magic Mountain.

    Although both weekends during the recent holiday were strong, midweek business “is somewhat less than probably in prior years because of what happened with Sandy,” Hathaway said.

    Killington Resort, the largest resort in the East, sold out all its rooms the weekend of Presidents’ Week and the following week.

    Killington spokeswoman Sarah Thorson said skier visits and revenues were up across the board compared with the holiday a year ago.

    The midweek business that week, however, was a bit soft.

    “A lot of the kids down in New Jersey and New York that were affected by Sandy were in school,” Thorson said.

    Mount Snow Resort in West Dover, the state’s most southern resort, reported sold-out lodging over the holiday weekend with skier visits “on par with the banner 2010-2011 season,” spokesman David Meeker said in an email.

    Like other resorts, Meeker noted the Sandy effect.

    “We did notice the Sandy effect starting Tuesday with the midweek numbers not as strong as they have been in years past,” Meeker said, “but it was still a very successful holiday week overall with natural snowfall making for outstanding conditions.”

    At Okemo Mountain Resort in Ludlow, it was a similar story: strong weekends and “a little soft in the middle,” said spokeswoman Bonnie MacPherson.

    Because Bolton Valley Resort is farther north from the major metropolitan areas impacted by Sandy, that may account for the fact that it didn’t experience a decline in its midweek business.

    “We didn’t really hear much about it,” Bolton Valley spokesman Josh Arneson said.

    He said while the resort missed its budgeted targets for the holiday, skier visits and revenues were up over last year.

    The Sandy effect aside, Riehle said Connecticut appears to be moving toward rethinking its traditional February school break and other states may as well.

    “We may see school districts down-country behaving very differently with their school vacation periods in February than they have historically,” he said.

    MacPherson said prior to Sandy the Okemo resort started to see a change in February school vacations.

    “We definitely felt the effects,” she said. “And it’s entirely possible February vacation week as we know it is just something that’s changed.”

    Riehle said that’s a concern because the state’s ski areas rely heavily on Presidents’ Week, which is actually a staggered two-week holiday with some schools in Vermont and New Hampshire taking the break last week.

    It makes the February holiday the biggest of the three ski holidays, followed by Christmas/New Year’s and the Martin Luther King weekend, Riehle said.

    MacPherson said if the February school break winds up spread out over several weeks rather than one week, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    “We just have to adjust and get used to the new paradigm,” she said.

    bruce.edwards@ rutlandherald.com

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