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Snow Sports

Snowmaking upgrades helping local ski resorts

The snow guns are firing at Sunday River, a resort known for opening early, which requires a deep base.

courtesy sunday river

The snow guns are firing at Sunday River, a resort known for opening early, which requires a deep base.

The mantra out of the north country is all about starting the 2012-13 season guns blazing, with the aim of reassuring snow-starved customers that everything — especially the trails — will be covered this year.

Coming off an abysmal business season thanks to last year’s winter-that-wasn’t, New England resort operators didn’t simply slink into hibernation over the summer praying that skiers and riders would robotically flock back once the calendar hit November. Instead, the region’s mountains have invested a staggering amount of money in snowmaking infrastructure and upgrades.

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This is the time of year when ski resorts roll out capital improvement press releases touting what’s new and exciting. For the past few years, there’s been a focus on strategic alliances, mergers, corporatization, and social media. This season, “snowmaking” is the lead item on almost every single scrap of marketing material, ranging from the $4.7 million in enhancements at destination-vacation kingpin Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont to the $500,000 invested by far smaller (but no less scrappy) Black Mountain in New Hampshire, which relies on day-trippers and locals.

No official estimate exists, but a quick calculation based on press releases shows that New Englanders can expect at least $15 million in snowmaking improvements. Throwing around that large a chunk of change doesn’t guarantee Mother Nature will cooperate (it still needs to get consistently cold before those thousands of new high-efficiency, low-energy tower and fan guns can be fully fired up). But the attitude displayed by mid-sized Burke Mountain in Vermont pretty much sums up the region’s cautious preparedness:

“We’d pay $1 million to open the day after Thanksgiving,” reads the attention-grabbing headline that greets online visitors to Burke’s home page. Underneath, in smaller script and with a wryly hopeful tone, it continues, “Now that we have, it’s up to the weather.”

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On Tuesday, Tim McGuire, Burke’s general manager, had just finished overseeing the final system inspection on “Marge,” the resort’s 14,000-pound electric compression engine that will be the driving force behind an arsenal of new snowmaking lines and guns. In May, Burke was acquired by QBurke Mountain Resorts, LLC, a company that owns significant land in the Northeast Kingdom and has ownership ties to Jay Peak Resort.

“This brings it up to the next level for Burke,” McGuire said, adding that the revamped technology will replace equipment that dates to the 1980s. “Last year was obviously a terrible winter. These are upgrades that have been needed, but last year really accentuated it.”

Smugglers’ Notch in Vermont and Ragged Mountain in New Hampshire are two other resorts that reported spending at least $1 million to boost snowmaking (numerous other ski areas listed snowmaking upgrades but did not report dollar figures).

A seven-figure investment is a massive outlay for any mid- or small-sized mountain, especially coming off a bad business year. But larger resorts, especially those with corporate backing, have the luxury of formulating master plans that extend 5, 10, and even 20 years into the future. So when you see New England’s top-tier properties stepping up to make snowmaking investments at an even higher scale, it’s a safe bet that those large expansions are related to a long-term plan and are not just a knee-jerk reaction to a single season of snow drought.

“I would say almost none [of the widespread upgrading] is a direct reaction to last year,” said Karl Stone, marketing director for the industry trade group Ski New Hampshire. “It’s more of a result of the competitive environment in New England. If anything, last year just reinforced the idea that a modern ski resort has to have an impressive snowmaking infrastructure.”

A good example of that is in Maine, where the two dominant resorts are Sunday River (known for opening early) and Sugarloaf (a stalwart of late-season skiing). Both are owned by Boyne Resorts, and filling each of those mountain-specific niches requires laying down a deep base as soon as possible. To that end, Boyne supplied each property with 300 state-of-the-art snow guns as part of the company’s master plan.

“Snowmaking is what we do,” said Darcy Morse, director of communications at Sunday River. “It’s part of our DNA. It’s something that our pass holders and guests expect from us. And every year we reinvest back into it because it’s that important to us.”

The good news for resort operators is that every dollar spent on snowmaking technology today brings additional savings through more efficient use of resources. So not only is the quality and quantity of the snow better, it’s becoming increasingly cheaper to produce while being easier on the environment.

“You can look at the long-term energy savings and compare them to the actual costs, and there’s a value proposition there,” said Jeff Wise, marketing and communications director at Stowe. “This summer’s improvement alone will eliminate the need for 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel.”

But Wise doesn’t stop there with the benefits. He reasons that better snowmaking pays for itself in terms of marketing, because we live in an era when skiers utilize the immediacy of social media to broadcast from a chairlift how awesome (or not) conditions are.

“A customer testimonial like that is a lot better than a resort-generated daily snow report,” Wise said.

Or, as McGuire put more bluntly, “Ski areas can’t fake it anymore.”

Sifting through spreadsheets of statistics, Stone offered an optimistic prediction as to what might happen this season, regardless of whether Mother Nature or high-tech artillery provides the white stuff. Last year, he said, New Hampshire registered only 1.88 million downhill skier visits, the lowest number since 2006-07. But on each of the previous three occasions that number dipped below 2 million, “the following winter produced phenomenal business.”

It’s anybody’s guess which, if any, sectors of the snow sports industry will have a banner season in 2012-13. But Burke’s GM has a hunch.

“It’s a great time to own a snowmaking equipment company,” said McGuire. “That’s a pretty good line of business to be in right now.”

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