Ski business is off, but Capital Region operators looking ahead

Last week ski areas finally opened for the season, but the iffy forecasts could mean spotty business
At West Mountain in Queensbury, children learn to ski on the Melon Patch trail with instructors on Saturday morning, Jan. 9, 2015.
At West Mountain in Queensbury, children learn to ski on the Melon Patch trail with instructors on Saturday morning, Jan. 9, 2015.

Last week ski areas finally opened for the season, but the iffy forecasts could mean spotty business in the days ahead.

For holiday travelers in December, the view from Northway Exit 18 said it all. The slopes at West Mountain were bare: no snow, no skiers.

Snow sports can be a tough way of making a living. Think of it like farming: A lot depends on the weather.

While things have been looking up lately, being closed — or at best, being very limited — over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays was a blow to the snow sports industry throughout the Northeast this winter.

“The two weeks around the holidays can account for as much as 25 percent of our annual business,” West Mountain co-owner/operator Spencer Montgomery said recently.

“In our case, it has been especially daunting since we are just beginning to build momentum as a ski area with new investment in infrastructure, trails and our new lift.”

West has been a part of the

area’s ski scene since 1961. Montgomery and his investment group have been making progress modernizing and improving the area over the past two years. It is a costly process: some $4 million recently, including the new triple chairlift from the base area in front of the main lodge to the top of the mountain.

Montgomery, a Glens Falls native, is beginning his third season in day-to-day management of West.

He’s disappointed in the winter to date. But he knows he’s not alone.

“You couldn’t drive to good skiing in the East in December,” he said.

The snow sports business is seasonal. Sure, many areas have added features like mountain biking and zip lines to bring people in during the warm months, but areas make their major revenue from December through March. And if you miss the important Christmas through New Year’s period, you are keeping fingers on both hands crossed for the equally important school break week around Washington’s birthday in February.

Optimism can be rewarded: It is not unprecedented to see a major turn of fortunes as the winter goes on.

Kelly Davis, the director of research for Ski Industries America, a major trade organization, points to 2010 with low snow totals early season. “Starting in February, the season turned epic. It was ‘snowmageddon’ for the next month. Ski areas rallied for what turned out to be a great season.”

The snow drought hasn’t played favorites in the East this winter. Large, medium and small operations were all effected. Sugarbush resort owner Win Smith told the Ski Industry Letter that the first week of winter vacation that ended Dec. 27 “was a disaster” for the Vermont ski resort. The second week through New Year’s weekend was better, he said, but overall, skier visits were down 47 percent and revenue was down 42 percent from the same period last year.

Longtime Catamount marketing Vice President Rich Edwards is hoping for that strong winter rally for his resort on the New York/Massachusetts line in the Berkshires. “December is usually a momentum building time for us. This year we were closed all month. Our business over the holidays was nil.

“What we need now is snowfall in the cities and good temperatures for snowmaking at the mountain, and the sooner the better!”

The same is true for the smaller areas like Royal Mountain in Caroga, Fulton County.

“While we are not a destination, we still need snow to operate,” noted longtime owner Jim Blaise, whose area didn’t open until Jan. 1.

“We create the interest in skiing at the local level that spills over to the larger drive-to places. This year we are just a month behind.”

Recurring snow sports-related revenues comes from three major sources: Ticket sales and related costs like rentals and cafeteria purchases; retail purchases like skis, snowboard equipment and clothing; and employment.

Certainly, ticket sales and at-area revenues are down, and if you miss something as important as an extended holiday period, it is very hard to make that up in full over the remainder of the winter. Big snowfall in February and into March will help. That can be very important as season tickets for next year go on sale in the spring and memories of great skiing stir patrons to take advantage of early sales.

The retail business tends to heat up in the early fall when stores bring out their snow sports gear for the coming season. Still, as SIA’s Davis points out, the period from Thanksgiving to Christmas typically accounts for 40 percent of annual sales.

And this year? “When people are shopping wearing shorts, buying for winter just isn’t happening so much.”

But, Davis warns, waiting for late season and summer clearance sales may not be a wise strategy this year. “After several spotty seasons recently, the Western United States has been having a great year so far.”

Jamie Georgelos, director of retail sales for Alpin Haus, confirms that: “The East certainly hasn’t given up. Sales are good. But we are getting inquiries from shops in the West and there is online sales interest, too.”

A major blow to the economy around ski areas is the loss of part-time work and wages in the early part of the winter. Most ski areas are staffed by part-time seasonal workers: No snow, no work.

At West Mountain, for example, the year-round staff of approximately 20 ramps up to some 175 at full operation. If the mountain is closed, people who work in the cafeterias, as lift operators, as snowmakers, groomers, ski instructors and other front-line jobs have no work, thus no pay.

As with farming, the winter sports industry is weather dependent, and some years are just better than others. And while there has been progress in weatherizing it — improvements in snow making, for example — good conditions are not guaranteed. Who would have guessed it would be 70 degrees on Christmas Eve?

In the year of the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid, there wasn’t any appreciable snowfall until February. More recently, 2010-11 wasn’t good either. But remember last winter? The second half of the season was much better than the early weeks.

Despite the industry’s ups and downs, the overall results are remarkably consistent. If skier days is an accurate measure, last year the total nationwide was 53.6 million. The all-time high was 60.5 million in 2009-10. A decade ago, the number was 56.5 million.

That’s what keeps the industry alive.

Ski writer Phil Johnson can be reached at [email protected]

Categories: News, Schenectady County, Sports

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