Skiers and snowboarders who endured the stingy snowfall of last season are hoping for better things this year.

So are the resorts that saw skier visits — and revenue — drop off in 2011-12, one year after most western resorts in the United States reported record- or near-record snowfall.

“That made it tough, having a bad snow year right after such a great one,” said Craig Bannister, spokesman for Colorado Ski Country, a trade association that represents 22 ski areas in Colorado, including large ones like Winter Park, Copper Mountain and Crested Butte.

So what’s the best-case scenario?

“We’ve talked to a number of meteorologists who think it’s going to be an el Nino year, and the late season is going to be very good,” Bannister said. “Come January, February, March, it looks like we will get plenty of snow.”

Then, Bannister hedged. A little. Being a snow-predictor in Colorado “is very difficult,” he said. Two feet of powder might fall at one resort, while a neighboring mountain 15 miles away gets little more than a dusting.

The resorts have no control over how much snow falls, so they spend the offseason making improvements and upgrades in areas they can control. With revenue and skier days down last year, many of them spent less in the offseason months of 2012 than they had in previous years. Upgrades were spread out across all areas of many resorts.

At Winter Park, Colo., that meant adding a tubing run. Vail marks its 50th anniversary this year with a new 10-passenger gondola — complete with heated seats and Wi-Fi access. Copper Mountain added a zipline ride that takes riders over a lake in the summer and an ice skating rink in the winter. And some resorts boosted their snowmaking equipment, figuring what Mother Nature won’t provide, man will.

At Copper Mountain, for example, the annual average snowfall is 282 inches. Last year? Only 160 inches. No wonder they started making snow on Oct. 2 — the first Colorado resort to fire up the snowguns.

“Of course the forecast is that the snow will be better this year,” said Katherine Bush, communications coordinator for the resort that sits just off Interstate 70, 90 minutes west of Denver. “But we want to make sure we do everything we can to make every guest experience a good one.”

The season got started — at least officially — on Oct. 17 when Arapahoe Basin won the annual race to be the first resort to open with one lift and one trail available. A Basin, which averages 350 inches of snow a year, measured far less last year. And many resorts closed earlier than usual because of the low snowfall and warm spring.

Colorado isn’t the only western state with world-class skiing. Four Colorado resorts earned spots in Ski magazine’s annual top resort rankings this season — Vail, Telluride, Snowmass and Beaver Creek. But Utah claimed the No. 2, 4 and 10 spots with Deer Valley, Park City and the Canyons, respectively, while Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, Canada, took top honors, and Jackson Hole, Wyo, and Sun Valley, Idaho, also finished in the top 10.

Getting to any of the Western resorts is the biggest battle for most St. Louis area skiers and riders. Many of the Colorado resorts can be reached via a very long one-day drive. When you start talking Utah and Wyoming, flying is usually the choice, which adds big bucks to the cost of a ski trip. And after last year’s dismal snow, some Midwesterners might hesitate before plopping down so much money for something that’s not a sure-deal.

So some resorts are offering special deals to entice people out. At Keystone Resort, there’s a “kids ski free” deal for families who stay at Keystone-owned hotels or condos. All season long, including weekends, kids 12 and under get free lift tickets. At Winter Park, the resort decided to offer early season visitors a guarantee — if the early season (up to Dec. 20) snow is not to their liking, they can reschedule their visit for later in the season. The Winter Park promotion, Bannister said, is meant to give guests the versatility and options they might find appealing.

“I think after last year, everybody is just looking for different ways and different promotions to attract visitation,’ he said.

Elsewhere in Colorado, Telluride has improved its on-mountain dining, as did Crested Butte.

Vail Resorts, which owns Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone and Beaver Creek in Colorado, along with Northstar, Heavenly and Kirkwood in California, saw a drop in skier visits last season just like most resorts. But that couldn’t stop them from spending big to celebrate Vail’s 50th anniversary this season. Sure, there’s the new gondola. But Vail will also hold a red carpet premiere on Dec. 14 of a commemorative film by Roger Cotton Brown — on the eve of the resort’s Dec. 15 anniversary.

Up until about Dec. 20, the prices are low mostly because the snow can be dicey. Prices skyrocket at the holidays, regardless of the snow.

So skiers and riders looking for the best deals should avoid the Christmas break, President’s Day weekend and spring break season in March; snowhounds looking for the best powder should check each resort’s snow report on their websites. Even then, though, some resorts seem to take an optimistic approach in their measurements.

“We are an optimistic industry,” Bannister said. “After all the difficulties last season, it has to be better this season.”

OPENING DATES FOR SOME COLORADO RESORTS

Nov. 2: Keystone, Copper Mountain

Nov. 9: Breckenridge

Nov. 14: Winter Park

Nov. 16: Vail

Nov. 21: Crested Butte, Steamboat Springs

Nov. 22: Telluride

SAMPLING OF LIFT TICKET PRICES–

Breckenridge: Adult $80 to $104; Child $50 to $62

Keystone: Adult $70 to $104; Child $48 to $62

Copper Mountain: Adult $70 to $84; Child $49 to $55

Jackson Hole, Wyo.: Adult $65 to $105; Child $39 to $63

Deer Valley, Utah: Adult $102 to $106; Child $64 to $68

Vail, Colo: Adult $80 to $109; Child: $47 to $79.

–Ticket prices vary by date for 2012-13 season ___

(c)2012 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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