America's Ski Resorts: Saved by the Snow

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Mike Powell / Corbis

The early-March snowstorm that creamed the Eastern seaboard largely missed Vermont's big skiing areas. But resort operators were delighted nevertheless, because the storm whetted the appetite of all those coastal skiers. The industry calls it the "backyard syndrome," and it can either feed or starve the sport in a given year. The backyard syndrome stipulates that if you can't see snow in your backyard, you won't think of going skiing, whatever the economy. If the flakes are falling, however, you'll get silly for the slopes. "Snow makes skiers act irrationally," says Ralf Garrison, director of the Mountain Travel Research Program, which compiles lodging data from ski resorts in the Western U.S. "When there's soft powder, skiing is no longer a discretionary activity. It becomes a birthright." (See 50 authentic American travel experiences.)

During a brutal recession, you'd think a $90 lift ticket and two nights at a lodge would be a luxury. But luckily for ski-resort operators, the flakes have been flush this season. Most U.S. resorts are reporting above-average snowfalls. (Northstar-at-Tahoe, in the Sierras, clocked in with 3 ft. of new snow March 4-5.) So while revenues have slipped — particularly at retail shops and restaurants — fewer people are fleeing skiing than you'd think. Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, an industry trade group, projects that total lift-ticket purchases will decline 5% to 6% this season. (See pictures of Bode Miller, the renegade Alpine skier.)

After a bust-out 2007-08, that's not so bad. Last winter, skiers and snowboarders bought a record 60.5 million lift tickets. A 6% drop would translate to some 57 million tickets sold, a figure that would beat the 55.1 million total in 2006-07, a season when the economy was still frothy but the snow was lousy. Further, in the 30 years the National Ski Areas Association has tracked such data, the industry has sold more than 57 million tickets during just six seasons, each occurring in this decade. "At the end of the day, there's an adage among operators," says Berry. "They'd rather have good snow in a bad economy than bad snow in a good economy." (See pictures of the science of snowflakes.)

The powder has really propped up Eastern operators, who have been bopped with a series of big storms. "East of the Mississippi, we're seeing [snow] levels at or above record levels," says Berry. New York and New England resorts have several advantages during a recession. First, they're cheaper than the higher-end destinations like Aspen and Vail in Colorado. Second, they're within driving distance of huge metropolitan areas such as New York City and Boston. Mount Snow in Vermont, for example, is a four-hour trip from New York City and a two-hour trek from Boston. Its "skier days" (number of people visiting the resort, multiplied by the number of days they ski) are up 3% this season. (See which businesses are doing well despite the recession.)

The Wachusett Mountain Ski Area in Princeton, Mass., has access to some 7 million people who live about an hour away in the Boston; Hartford, Conn.; and Providence, R.I., regions. And skiers are staying local: skier days at Wachusett have risen 4%. "We are drawing the people that make a spontaneous decision to go skiing," says Tom Meyers, the marketing chief at Wachusett.

The East's gain is the West's loss. According to the Mountain Travel Research Program, through Jan. 31, occupancy was down 18% at the Western ski areas, while lodging rates dropped 8%. Vail Resorts, a public company that runs four ski areas in Colorado and one in California, reported a 5.8% drop in skier visits through early January and a 7.5% decline in lift-ticket revenue. The Aspen Skiing Company, which operates the Ajax Mountain, Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass ski areas, predicts skier visits will drop between 5% and 15% this year. (See the top 10 sports moments of 2008.)

Total revenues at the resorts will decline more steeply than lift-ticket sales, as skiers are spending less on private lessons and at retail shops. Aspen is offering free nights and restaurant discounts during traditional peak periods like spring break. "That's something we haven't done in the past," says Aspen Skiing Company spokesman Jeff Hanle.

Through Jan. 31, March reservations were down an alarming 29% for the Western resorts — traditionally a period of great snow and warmer temperatures. "Good snow helped fuel a slew of last-minute bookings around Christmas," says Garrison, the Mountain Travel Research Program director. "Who knows if the snow will save the day again."

See pictures of a London snowstorm.

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