Ski resorts can turn out fake powder all day on the slopes, but they have little control over what really drives visitors from major cities to book long, expensive ski weekends.
The record storm that dumped 2½ feet of snow on the streets and suburbs of southern New England and New York last week has primed the ski resorts of northern New England for the President’s Day holiday that could help erase memories of last year’s dismal season.
In the ski industry, it’s a truism that the weather events that drive skiers to the mountains, isn’t heavy snow on the slopes but snow on city streets and suburban backyards that gets potential customers thinking about heading north, where they’ll buy lift tickets, stay in lodges and inns, rent skis and eat in restaurants.
“When everything is bare down country, it’s hard to persuade people that the skiing is good. That’ll always be the case. It’s a psychological thing,” said Don Fowler, an avid skier and lawyer in Kingfield, Maine, not far from the Sugarloaf resort.
“Intellectually, people might know that there’s snow in the mountains when their backyards are bare but they’re not thinking about skiing,” he said.
At Vermont’s Killington ski resort, lodges and inns near the resort were mostly full for the weekend before President’s Day on Monday, but rooms were available for the week following, when winter vacation is under way for many school children in parts of southern New England, said Killington spokeswoman Sarah Thorson.
The week of President’s Day is the single most important holiday time for the industry, providing about 20 percent of the revenue resorts expect to generate. Christmas week and the Martin Luther King holiday follow President’s Day week as revenue generators. Combined, the three account for about half of the season’s revenue, said Sarah Neith, a spokeswoman for the Vermont Ski Areas Association.
Snows during Christmas week gave way to a January thaw before cold temperatures returned, which made it possible for resorts to make snow. So far the season is on par to match or exceed the record 2010-2011 season, Neith said.
The Institute for New Hampshire Studies estimates that about 750,000 out-of-state visitors will spend about $115 million over the nine-day period beginning Saturday.
Tony Vazzano, a meteorologist at North Winds Weather who provides forecasts for 17 northern New England ski areas, said ski area operators are singing a much happier tune this year than last.
“I’m sure when the numbers come in this is going to be one good season compared even to average, let alone last year,” Vazzano said. “The timing of the weather has just been terrific for them.”
Vazzano said the next couple of weeks look good, with some light accumulation and enough cold weather to hold the snow. “It’s a whole different feel this year,” Vazzano said. “There’s so much terrain open.”
But the optimism isn’t being universally felt across the region.
Doug Holler, general manager of New Hampshire’s Dartmouth Skiway, north of Dartmouth College in Hanover, wasn’t effusive about the season.
“It hasn’t been fantastic, but it hasn’t been terrible either,” Holler said. The snow the blizzard dumped on his area last week was blown away by high winds that shut down lifts last Saturday, he said.
But Ski New Hampshire’s Karl Stone said ski areas in the Granite State report increased guest visits of between 4 percent and 37 percent over last year.
“We’re coming into a crucial two-week period and we’re optimistic, given the winter storm we were just blessed with,” Stone said. “The forecast looks good.”
Business on Hunter Mountain in New York’s Catskills has rebounded to nearly normal from the relatively snow-free 2011-2012 season, said Trista Chiarulli, the resort’s marketing and communications manager.
It’s helped that snow has fallen during some of the big holidays, she said, something also possible this weekend as a storm moves up the East Coast.
“We’ve been doing very well. It’s definitely better than last year,” Chiarulli said. “There was a lot of pent-up excitement.”
Arin Ellis of Toronto was spending the week snowboarding at Killington with her husband. They arrived last Sunday, and once weather conditions improved earlier this week so did their fun.
“We’re having an awesome time,” Ellis said.
Associated Press reporters David Sharp in Portland, Maine, Lynne Tuohy in Concord, N.H., and George Walsh, in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this report.
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Photo Credit: Kids play with the camera at Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont. Stowe Mountain Resort