Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff File Photo A snowboarder carves down the Organgrinder trail at Sugarbush Resort in Warren. Vermont resorts recorded their third-best season last winter after a slow period at midseason.
KILLINGTON — With skier and rider visits off by double digits in January, Parker Riehle wasn’t sure whether the state’s ski industry would bounce back. But it did.
By the end of the 2013-14 season, the state’s 19 resorts had tallied 4,503,269 skier and snowboarder visits, making it the third-best season on record and just behind last season. The Vermont Ski Areas Association released the figures at its annual meeting Wednesday at Killington Resort.
Riehle, president of the association, said the season got off to a strong start with ideal snowmaking conditions, so nine downhill and three cross-country areas were open a week before Thanksgiving.
However, that strong start ran into a rough stretch of warm weather and rain.
“As of January, I wasn’t sure we’d come in as strongly as we did because at that point we were 15 percent behind the previous year’s number to date,” Riehle said after the meeting at the Killington Grand hotel.
“But with those winter storms that we had ... as well as the Valentine’s Day blizzard, that really made for an incredibly strong finish that made up the difference,” he said.
Vermont continues to rank first among Eastern states in skier visits and third in the country behind Colorado and California, based on preliminary figures from the National Ski Areas Association.
The number of Vermont skier visits this season was down less than 10,000 from the 2012-13 season, the second-best season on record.
The best season was 2000-01 with 4,579,719 skier visits.
Riehle said skier visits across the country this season were down 3 percent to 56 million skiers and snowboarders.
He said those who come to Vermont open their wallets, helping to fuel the state’s economy.
In 2011, the state Department of Tourism and Marketing estimated that visitors spent $577.4 million between December and March.
The VSAA said winter rooms and meals tax revenues were up 6 percent from a year ago, while sales tax receipts were flat.
Tourism Commissioner Megan Smith said the strong finish to the season was a testament to hard work, snowmaking and “a little bit of luck” with several big storms.
While Vermont doesn’t have the marketing budget of larger ski states, Smith said, it does have something other states have a hard time matching. “We provide a great experience and we depend on repeat visitations,” Smith said in her opening remarks at the meeting Wednesday. “You get them here once, they come back … and every one of our resorts creates evangelists.”
If there is an industrywide concern, it’s attracting more skiers and snowboarders to a sport that has remained flat or — in the case of boarding — showed signs of decline.
Riehle said baby boomers are “aging out.” To counter that, he said, the state’s resorts are being “incredibly aggressive in our learn-to-ski and snowboard month efforts” and other programs “to get people into the sport and hold them into the sport for a lifetime.”
Riehle said snowboarding accounts for 30 percent of the industry and in Vermont “that’s been relatively flat.” Nationally, there has been a bit of a decline, he said.
Christina Miranda from Redpoint Marketing PR Inc. gave the keynote address.
She ended her talk by introducing a one-time-only Ben & Jerry’s flavor made and served specifically for the event: Vermont Powder, a coconut-flavored ice cream topped off with two large chunks of Vermont chocolate shaped like a ski boot and a snowboard.
The annual meeting also honored several ski industry veterans:
Bob Mulcahy, retired president of Smugglers’ Notch resort in Jeffersonville, was presented the Industry Achievement Award.
Former longtime chairlift inspectors Al Barber and Joe Devenow received Friend of the Industry Awards.
Career Employee Awards were presented to three longtime employees at Okemo Mountain Resort: Larry Abelman, Dan Boyer and Doug Devereux.
The annual meeting had a record attendance of more than 300 industry members and marketing partners.
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