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Ski areas look to keep momentum through spring

After disappointment of last year, resorts have gone off the deep end

It’s not that snow sports marketers have forgotten all about questions of climate change and winters of dwindling intensity in New England. Nor has the quest for technology that allows snowmaking in warmer conditions been abandoned.

But there’s no question that the blizzard of Feb. 8-9 that blanketed the Northeast with huge snow depths was met by a sigh of relief for skiers, boarders, and winter marketers alike, who ended last season feeling desperate.

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At this point, few areas are ready to declare record attendance this season. But almost every ski resort in the Northeast is performing well above last season, and hoping for a strong close as March finds huge stockpiles of snow nearly everywhere.

According to New Hampshire’s ski bureau, this February was the third snowiest in history, with the blizzard playing the leading role. And the snow was so widespread, all questions of “backyard syndrome” disappeared.

“All the doom and gloom talk about it never snowing in New England again, I think it’s safe to say this winter has come through for everybody,” said Karl Stone of Ski New Hampshire.

Most regions of ski country are reporting good numbers of skiers and riders, but when all the numbers are crunched, “I don’t think we’re going to break any all-time records or anything like that,” said Stone. “But the season does have a solid feel to it.”

Over the New Hampshire school vacation week, four areas reported increases of 13-40 percent over the same week a year ago, according to Stone. For the Massachusetts school vacation week, which was the week before, “From seven areas, all but one was up over last year, with some as much as 12 percent ahead,” Stone reported.

‘It’s safe to say this winter has come through for everybody.’

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One of New Hampshire’s large players, Bretton Woods, enjoys the reputation for making and grooming snow in years of low natural snowfall. So, when few areas can boast good snow, areas such as Bretton Woods seem to thrive.

“But then in winters when all New England has good snow, it gets kind of scary,” said Bretton Woods spokesman Craig Clemmer. “But this season we’re experiencing double-digit growth over last year. We’re pretty happy with that. We’ve performed well in all parts of the business this season.”

Bretton Woods markets to skiers and riders who may like the tough glades built over the last few years, but who choose the resort because of its predictable, groomed cruising.

“Our skiers know what they’re looking for,” said Clemmer. “We may get people who are coming into the sport, and those who are leaving the sport. But our brand here helps us because people know they can depend on what they’re going to find.”

Another resort built on its reputation for snow production is Maine’s Sunday River, whose onetime owner, Les Otten, was fond of saying, “It’s about the snow, stupid,” which has remained a rallying cry.

To combat the “backyard syndrome” of the early ’80s, and to show Bostonians that there really was skiable snow at his resort, Otten had truckloads of snow brought to and dumped on Boston Common.

Dana Bullen, who once worked for Otten, is now general manager of Sunday River, and says the resort remains true to its quest for making, grooming, and preserving excellent snow.

Bullen added that because of Sunday River’s snowmaking reputation, last year was far from a downer. In fact, it was the second-best financial year the resort has ever posted. Both destination trippers and more casual skiers gravitated to the Western Maine resort, making it a strong countertrend.

That said, Bullen said this season is running well ahead of last in the weeks following the winter school vacations.

“We did OK last year compared to a lot of areas, but on top of that we’re up 20,000 visits this year,” said Bullen, who projects a 7-8 percent improvement over last year when all is said and done.

“One reason for that is that season pass-holders are really skiing this year because the snow has been so good,” said Bullen. “There are some people skiing all the time.”

Bullen also compared notes with friend John Diller, his counterpart at Sugarloaf.

“Diller’s been at this 35 years and I’ve been here 25, and we agree that we’ve never seen the snow set up so perfectly for the three vacation periods as it happened this year. Having the snow at just the right time and having snow down in the market [backyards at home], it just couldn’t have been better. What a year to run a ski area, everyone’s smiling.”

But every ski area and resort also now shares the same concern: how to keep skiers through March and into the spring. Many have noted that snow lovers begin to drift away from the slopes as the weather gets warmer in the cities, even though March and April can be the best skiing months of the season.

To Bullen, the formula began decades ago at Sugarloaf: “Lots of events. Reggae. Bring the spring parties to the slopes.”

Closer to home, the blizzard arrived with a driving ban on state roads.

“It was a real tricky situation,” said Tom Meyers of Wachusett Mountain in Princeton. “We actually had people here ready to ski, even though the driving ban was in place. But by midday when it was clearing up, we could have had a big afternoon with all the snow.”

When the blizzard blew through, it left what Meyers called “the greatest ski day of the season — a beautiful bluebird day after 2½ feet of new snow. You don’t get those very often.

“So, that kicked off for us what was a very good February vacation, though it was not a record. There was some wind and cold, but all in all, that storm started some real momentum for what is really an average season this year.”

Though Meyers said Wachusett will be marketing its snow as much through March as it can, the fall months “make the difference between a good and great season.”

For Wachusett, early pre-holiday storms setting up the first vacation period are crucial to the rest of the season close to the Boston day market. “But now, the other big variable is March,” said Meyers. “We have to now keep the fire burning for another month.

“Right now, we are absolutely in mint condition for this final month, and we have March pricing. It looks like nothing drastic is going to change very much [weather-wise]. The event calendar for March is the busiest of the season. So, now it’s just hoping people keep the incentive and fire to keep on skiing and riding.”

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