Even for representatives of the eternally optimistic ski industry, there’s just no sugar-coating it: This winter stinks.
“It’s friggin’ horrible. It’s been an epically bad year,” said Eric Friedman, marketing director for the Mad River Glen ski area in Waitsfield, Vt. “We get snow and then it rains. It’s below zero and then it’s 60 degrees. We just keep getting beaten down.”
At ski areas, resorts, and related businesses across New England, revenues and visits have slumped amid a winter that has been unusually warm and snow-starved, especially during critical holiday weeks when the companies earn most of their money.
It’s too early for final numbers, but industry representatives and tourism officials in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont acknowledged business had shrunk substantially.
Business at Mad River Glen is off more than 40 percent from last year. At Killington Resort in Vermont, fewer than half the trails were open Monday; two hours north, Stowe Mountain Resort’s business is down 15 to 20 percent. Closer to Boston, Wachusett Mountain is down 20 percent — and the list goes on.
Blame the decline on a strong El Niño weather system, which occurs when Pacific Ocean water temperatures are above average for long periods, driving wet but warm weather systems across North America. It’s a sharp contrast to a year ago, when colder temperatures and a series of large storms helped to bury much of the region in snowfall.
The frustration of ski operators was exemplified by a week of wild weather during the February school holiday, in which a drenching rain was bracketed by wild temperature swings from arctic cold to spring-like balmy.
“It got into the 40s and the snow softened up, and it was pleasurable if slightly thin skiing,” Friedman said. “Then it gets cold, the snow stiffens up, and suddenly you’re on ice.”
Many ski areas said that, after a disastrous December, they enjoyed stretches of weather that allowed them to lay down artificial snow. Even so, it’s been hard to lure skiers from population centers like Boston and New York where mild temperatures and bare ground hardly inspire a trip up north.
“Mother Nature acts as a marketer,” said Jessyca Keeler, executive director of resort trade association Ski NH .
“If it’s snowing down where most skiers come from, that’s a huge beacon for people. But if it’s sunny or raining, skiing is not the first thing on their minds, even if we have fabulous conditions up here.”
Killington cut back sharply on its marketing and advertising efforts in December, when it was mild and dry, said Rob Megnin, the resort’s director of sales, marketing, reservations, and snow sports. Executives decided that no amount of money could counter what its customers were — or were not — seeing out their windows.
“You can’t fight the psyche of the marketplace,” he said. “It’s about momentum and consistency, and we just didn’t have that this year.”
Resorts and ski areas have turned to a variety of strategies in response to nature’s indifference.
Waterville Valley Resort in New Hampshire offered customers a steeply discounted “El Niño Pass.”
Others such as Sunday River Resort in Maine aggressively made snow, which helped to keep the decline in business to just 5 percent so far.
Other resorts have expanded other winter offerings, such as zip-lines, mountain coasters, bungee trampolines, skating rinks, snowshoe tours, spas, and kids’ activity centers. And some have been building up their offseason businesses for years as a hedge against warm winters.
“We’ve dedicated a lot of resources to making this a resort that works year-round and can adapt to variable weather conditions,” said Gabriel Porter-Henry, the director of marketing at Berkshire East Mountain Resort, which built mountain-biking courses and a white-water rafting operation to keep money coming in during summers. “A shorter ski season can turn into a longer biking season for us.”
Still, there’s no undoing weeks of mild weather. Restaurants and other businesses that rely on the spillover effect from nearby resorts and ski areas are suffering. And much of the pain is being felt by employees, many of whom worked fewer hours this winter.
“One of the real motivating factors to grow our business is that there are very limited economic opportunities for people [in Berkshire County],” Porter-Henry said. “The length of our season was shortened, and obviously that’s difficult for lift attendants and other seasonal workers.”
Despite forecasts that March temperatures will be above average, ski operators said they were still optimistic the weeks ahead could bring saving snow. In the meantime, they will make the best of a bad hand.
“You want to leave the guest thinking, ‘they had the best skiing conditions they could manage, there were other things to do, and we’re going to come back next year,’ ” said Mike Colbourn, Stowe Mountain’s vice president of marketing, sales, and communication.
“We’re going to put our best foot forward. And it’s going to snow.”