The press release was urgent and terse, sent via telegram by the New Hampshire Division of Economic Development: “Send skiers up. We need the money.’’
Although the gist of that message resonates across northern New England as resorts struggle through a less-than-stellar ski season, that plea was actually penned 47 years ago this month, when the region was similarly snow-starved in the winter of 1964-65.
“Don’t you write us off!’’ the Granite State ski boosters wrote in a separate release. “Let the record show nobody claims he’s got powder up to his ears, but let it also show . . . that hills are not 100 percent denuded.’’
It’s a common lament that the “backyard effect’’ keeps skiers off the slopes every year right about now, even if conditions are good. The theory is that once grass begins to go green in suburban Boston, casual skiers abandon boots and parkas to turn to warmer-weather recreation. This year in particular, a blizzard-less winter coupled with record-high early March temperatures is accentuating the mental migration away from the mountains.
If you’re a diehard, you don’t need to be sold on the blissful virtues of spring skiing. In fact, you’re probably glad there are fewer skiers in the lift lines and on the trails. You’re the type of customer the mountains can count on from March through May, regardless of conditions.
Resort operators, however, are increasingly under the gun to lure in those more casual skiers and families for spring-fling day trips and one last weekend before closing day. Although marketers today have far more tools available and can send out more nuanced messages than the Division of Economic Development could with its impelling telegrams, overcoming the backyard factor remains a daunting task.
“It’s always been a challenge,’’ said Ethan Austin, the communications manager at Sugarloaf. “No matter how hard you try to beat people over the head with the message that we have snow, it’s tough to go up against [it being] 70 degrees in Boston, when people are gardening or going golfing.’’
Letting skiers know there are still decent conditions in the mountains has been a spring challenge since the advent of the industry in New England, when the Boston & Albany Railroad ran ski trains through April and added extra cars if a late-season snowstorm was forecast.
On March 24, 1939, the Globe reported 133 inches of snow in Tuckerman Ravine and at Cannon Mountain and predicted that “New England skiers can look forward to almost two more months of good sport before they swap their skis for tennis rackets.’’
On March 17, 1941, Globe skiing correspondent Robert Allen reported the “flying hickories of the legions were out in full force,’’ and “there wasn’t a schusser in the bunch who would have wanted to trade positions Saturday or Sunday with a baseball player down South in spring training camps.’’
In 1942, Cranmore Mountain was at the cutting edge of snow preservation, using rollers, similar to the contraptions used on roads, on its ski runs after each snowfall. Other resorts copied this practice into the 1950s, and some even advertised “packing crews’’ that tromped up and down the slopes in snowshoes. “We can stand a great many sunny days with normal weather because we have rolled and packed all our slopes until they are solid,’’ Cranmore manager Phil Robertson told the Globe in March 1957, when his mountain was blessed with eight feet of natural snow.
In years with deep cover, outdoor enthusiasts might pack a fly rod with their ski gear for a unique daily double. Roger Peabody, who took over managing Cannon in 1950, had a particularly vivid memory of that spring, when trout season opened May 1. That morning, Peabody rode the aerial tramway to the summit, skied to the base through dry powder, swapped ski boots for hip boots at the edge of Profile Lake and caught his limit of trout within an hour. “And those weren’t stunt runs picking my way through bare spots,’’ Peabody said in a 1969 Globe feature.
By the late 1960s, the exaggeration of self-reported conditions was becoming an adverse issue for the ski industry. On March 22, 1968, Globe ski editor Mike Beatrice wrote that some thinly covered resorts reported truthfully, but “others, absorbed in their own tearful woe, have forgotten all about responsibility and have cut off communications.’’
Decades later, technology and the Internet have evened the score regarding the veracity of snow reports. Ski areas today post up-to-the-minute conditions backed by daily photos and videos, and if a marketer does try to fudge, it won’t be long before the resort gets called out by followers via social media and online message boards.
Myra Foster, the communications manager at Stratton Mountain, said feedback is instant when she posts the daily conditions.
“Almost immediately, within a minute or two, we’ll have comments like, ‘I’m in the office, and I’m dying to get up there and ski,’ ’’ Foster said. But she acknowledged that the enticing spring skiing visuals don’t always translate into motivated customers. “Even when you have decent snow into April, interest tends to wane,’’ Foster said.
Austin, at Sugarloaf, agreed. “Constantly bombarding them with images does help, but is it the solution to the age-old ‘backyard’ problem? Probably not.’’
Another factor changing the landscape of spring skiing is increasing corporatization. Larger New England resorts are trending toward becoming “four season’’ properties, so there is less of a reliance on milking the ski season until the latest possible date. In some cases, neighboring mountains that were once rivals - Attitash and Wildcat, or Sugarloaf and Sunday River - have merged under common ownership. To cut costs, they no longer compete against one another for late-season business.
Austin said the two Boyne Resorts properties in Maine try to play off each other’s strengths: Sunday River is known for its early-season openings, and the more northern Sugarloaf has a reputation for keeping the lifts running well into May.
“If you can ski from the top of the mountain to the bottom, we’re going to be open,’’ Austin said of Sugarloaf, which currently has no official closing date.
At Stratton, 125 miles south, the last day of the season has been set for April 8.
“Easter falls on April 8, and that’s a good date for us to wrap it up on a high note,’’ said Foster. “You don’t want to be the last one at the party.’’