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Local ski areas not ready to end season

Promotions target extending season

Mount Snow’s “Sink Or Skim” challenge is one of many wacky spring promotions by ski areas across New England.

photo courtesy of mount snow

Mount Snow’s “Sink Or Skim” challenge is one of many wacky spring promotions by ski areas across New England.

Take your pick of what to blame it on: the elimination of competition through corporate consolidation, the trend of ski areas shutting down around Easter to transition to four-season adventure parks, the high cost of energy to keep lifts spinning, or a simple lack of cooperation from Mother Nature. If you’re an aficionado of spring skiing, it has not been difficult to make the case that late-season skiing has been deemphasized by New England resorts over the last decade.

But even as families are enjoying vastly improved natural snow cover this week, marketers across the region are busy plotting a return to the glory days of deep-season skiing into March and beyond.

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“There is a big push this year to get people excited for spring,” said Dave Meeker, communications manager at Mount Snow. “In the middle of winter, it’s all about snow. In March, we try to give people other reasons to come up. With spring comes the big festivals and a whole lot of quirky events. People come out and play, and everything just kind of gets kicked up a notch.”

For the next eight weeks, New England’s collective promotional schedule will include reggae concerts, craft beer tastings, wacky downhill races, pond skimming contests, snow golf, and outdoor barbecues. If you need financial incentives to hit the slopes when the days get longer and warmer, brace yourself for an onslaught of spring pass deals, discounts for locking in next year’s season pass early, and oddball individual ticket specials on St. Patrick’s Day and April Fools’ Day.

But diehard spring skiing enthusiasts know the best reward of all is the annual thinning of the herd at lift lines, when the “reverse backyard effect” kicks in and on-the-fence skiers and boarders opt for other activities as soon as the snow melts in Greater Boston, even though there’s a glacial base up north.

“Spring skiing has always been a big deal and really important to us,” said Darcy Morse, director of communications at Sunday River. “We make a concentrated effort with pictures and video on social media to get the word out that there’s still a ton of snow up here.”

Had social media been around 30 years ago, it might have documented the advent of New England’s fierce annual battles to be the last mountain standing each spring.

On June 6, 1982, the Globe reported that Killington had finally cracked the calendar for lift-serviced skiing into June “despite repeated attempts to accomplish the feat,” while boasting “1 to 5 feet of mushy white stuff along a half-mile stretch of Cascade.” A target closing date of June 1 soon became the gold (or, more accurately, white) standard for the region’s major players, with competition from Sunday River and Sugarloaf quickly entrenching Maine’s mountains as late-season threats to Killington’s spot at the top of the totem pole. Even more southerly ski areas that didn’t have the snowpack to last that long got creative with spring promotions, such as Mount Snow’s “Daylight Skiing Time” ticket in 1988, which offered an additional three hours of sunset skiing beyond the traditional 4 p.m. closing.

This “later the better” trend began to fall out of favor from a practical standpoint after 2000. When a wave of mergers and acquisitions made corporate partners out of former competitors, the one-upmanship rivalries of Sugarloaf vs. Sunday River (or, to a lesser extent, Attitash vs. Wildcat) were rendered obsolete. When some snow sports properties became rooted in a multi-use vision of golf courses, canopy tours, zip lines, and lift-serviced mountain biking, skiing beyond March became expendable. Even in years with above-average cover, it is now common for resorts to close with ample snow on the hill. Such a business decision is no longer seen as leaving money on the table.

June skiing looks like a stretch this season in New England, but some resorts are making a renewed effort to maximize March through May by beefing up incentives and activities.

“There are a few resorts in the East that have always had that reputation,” said Meeker. “The cost–effectiveness for a lot of mountains that don’t have that type of late-season following make it not feasible for them to pursue staying open later or loading up on promotions.”

Last year, Mount Snow decided to brand its slate of spring initiatives under the name “Vernal Eternal.” But when the 2011-12 winter-that-wasn’t led to a dreadful spring, the program never had a chance.

“Last season was scarring,” Meeker said. “Rather than slowing down, this season we’re ramping things up with positive expectations. The push is to try to drive more visitations through cooler events.”

Eighty miles north at Killington, a similar strategy is underway. The “Nor’Beaster” celebration includes two months of diverse activities extending into May, including the return of the iconic Bear Mountain Mogul Challenge. The resort had scrapped that signature event last season after 31 years — it had become known as much for raucous tailgating as outlandish bump skiing — but is bringing it back April 6-7, complete with slopeside partying.

Last March, the trade magazine First Tracks Online opined that “Killington has struggled to regain its title as New England’s ‘King of Spring’ in recent years.” The article cited an outcry on social media over the cancellation of the mogul challenge, and reported that the resort had not stayed open beyond the first week of May since 2005.

Rob Megnin, Killington’s director of sales and marketing, said the hefty promotion schedule for this spring is neither a reaction to last year’s poor conditions nor the unfounded fear that Killington has to make up late-season ground against the competition.

“It’s not about reclaiming anything,” Megnin said. “And I don’t think [last season’s lost spring] has anything to do with it, frankly. Killington kind of enjoys a certain position in the marketplace. We’ve got a lot of snow lying around, and we want to use it.”

But if an old-school bragging rights brouhaha does happen to break out over which New England mountain offers the latest and greatest conditions in months without an “r” in them, it’s a safe bet that deep-season skiers will be the true winners.

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