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Improvements, snowmaking the focus for area ski centers

Friday, March 22, 2013
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Pond skimming is a rite of spring. The ski area creates a large puddle, usually close to the base lodge, and intrepid skiers and boarders — often in body paint, maybe in costume, and sometimes in no more than a pair of shorts — come down the hill and try to make it across the water. Most don’t and the dunking (and post-dunking) is part of this spring ritual at many areas.

With Easter just a week away, we’ll start to see the pond events soon, and that is a sign that the ski season is nearing an end. Fresh snow earlier this week means there are still a lot of quality turns left in our area. But already, the people in charge are focusing on plans for next year.

Every area has its particular circumstances to consider, but there are themes common to all. For a look at what’s driving the agenda for next year and beyond, no one has a better view than James Chung of Delmar, whose consulting firm Reach Advisors is an industry leader in strategy research and predictive analytics. He has been working with ski and recreation clients since he founded the firm in 2002, and he is a frequent speaker to national groups.

Chung is upbeat about ski areas in the Northeast. The focus now, he said is “improving operations and efficiency.

“Energy cost increases have forced mountains to invest in infrastructure. The areas that will survive are the ones with access to water and efficient snowmaking. Fortunately, there are a number of area operators who understand that game.

“Slow and steady progress is what we’ll see. That means more of what we’ve got, and that’s pretty good.”

Mt. Snow is an example of Chung’s point. The area was bought by Peak Resorts five years ago. Peak was primarily a Midwest-based ski operator, so its location required an expertise in snowmaking. That core competency has been backed up with recent investments at Mt. Snow and that will become espec­ially important if predictions for warmer winters with less nat­ural snowfall hold true.

And it is not just happening at the big areas. Locally, Jim Blaise at Royal Mountain has been ahead of the curve. His investments in holding ponds and new snow guns have allowed him to routinely stretch his full area coverage from early Dec­ember through March, no matter what weather comes in between. He’ll have four new tower guns in place next season.

What isn’t in the cards in the reg­ion right now is large-scale real estate development, at least not in the short and intermediate term, said Chung.

With the exception of Jay Peak, which has tapped into EB-5 foreign investment funding, there is very little major real estate development under way. Stowe and Sugarbush in Vermont have completed large base area developments recently, but Killington’s long-planned base area village is still on the drawing board. The condo-second home boom of the 1990s and early 2000s throughout the region now seems to be a re-sale market, not new construction.

“Dependency on real estate by ski areas is not going to work in the next five years,” said Chung

That observation is especially interesting, given the large projects planned in our region. While these are not ski company developments, skiing is a major part of the appeal of plans at Belleayre in the Catskills, the Front Street Project adjacent to Gore at North Creek and the Tupper Lake development approved by the Adirondack Park Agency but now stalled in the courts. Are these projects whose time has passed?

An intriguing question raised by Chung is what plans does Vail

Resorts have for our area.

Vail, west of Denver, is the largest ski area in the United States. But now it is more than just a single area. Vail Resorts also owns, or partners with, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Eldora and Arapahoe Basin in Colorado; Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood in the South Lake Tahoe area of California; Mt.Brighton in Mich­igan; and now Afton Alps near Minneapolis in Minnesota.

It does not own an area in the Northeast.

So what?

Well, the Epic Pass is what.

An Epic Pass is an interchangeable season’s ski pass that is good, without blackout dates, at all Vail Resorts areas. And it includes five days of skiing if you choose to go to Verbier, Switzerland. The cost for 2013-14, if you buy this pass before April 14, is $689 for an adult, $359 for a child 12 and under.

So what? The closest area is Mt. Brighton, and most likely you are not planning a trip to Mich­igan to ski an area with 230 feet of vert­ical.

But what if Vail Resorts buys a ski area near here? And all of a sudden, you can not only ski there, but at all these other areas on one pass. Would that be appealing? Would it make other ski areas in our region re-think their pass pricing?

You bet it would!

There is nothing to report on Vail’s plans for our region right now. But the acquisition of Mt. Brighton and Afton Alps suggests that expansion plans, so far, are not limited to large resorts in the West. In fact, it suggests that the idea is to acquire popular areas that can feed skiers to bigger partners. After all, if an Epic Pass holder has plans to go on a ski week vacation, choosing a place in the Vail Resorts system will save several hundred dollars in lift ticket costs alone, more than enough to make up for the cost of a season pass.

For fun, think of areas in our region where Vail Resorts ownership would make a season’s pass purchase more attractive. Now one factor in Vail’s thinking is access and ease of flying, at least to the Denver gateway. Also important would be an area with an established market where there is potential for the number of skiers to grow. Let me know what you think.

It is an interesting question for James Chung and his Reach Ad­-v­isors’ group. And it could be a very interesting development for all of us.

SOCHI NEXT

I am a great fan of the Winter Olympics, dating back to wonderful highlights like Franz Klammer’s always-on-the-edge downhill run for the gold medal in 1976 at Innsbruck. The 1980 Winter Games have made Lake Placid a household name among sports fans for a hard-to-believe 33 years now.

Next February, Russia will attempt to pull off similar comp­etition miracles. Americans who stand to become household names include moguls skier Hannah Kearney, Alp­ine champions Ted Ligety and Mik­aela Shiffren, cross country skier Kikkan Randall, bobsled driver Steve Holcomb and woman’s ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson.

There are always heroes who come from general obscurity to at least one shining moment like Saranac Lake’s Bill Demong, the gold medalist in Nordic combined at Vancouver in 2010 who will be back to try again in Sochi. Lake Placid’s Andrew Weibrecht has battled adversity in the past couple of years, but can ski fast as he did in earning a bronze medal in the super-G in Vancouver. A pair of darkhorses who could cap careers with medals are veteran biathletes Tim Burke from Paul Smiths and Lowell Bailey from Lake Placid. Both have been on the world circuit now for years, and both have medal-winning potential.

Much of the early talk will focus on Alpine skiers Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller, both past Olympic medalists who are coming back to race after injuries.

As always, it will be an exciting competition for winter sports enthusiasts.

DEAL OF THE WEEK

This is the time to buy season passes for next season at a discount. Stratton Mountain has announced a menu of very attractive options for 2013-14. If you buy before April 22, the pricing is as low as $399 for the season, no limitations. Other pass deals for younger skiers, or with limitations, are cheaper. This is $300 less than a comparable Stratton pass purchased last fall.

Ski LINES CLOSED

This will be my final weekly column for the ski season. I will continue to post blogs on the dailygazette.com website as topics of interest pop up, so check in once in a while. And keep in mind, there are just a few months of bad sliding until I see you again weekly in Ski Lines.

 
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