CONCORD, N.H. — Ski resort operators in northern New England are looking past their zip lines and water parks to the winter ahead and they like what they see: The pent-up demand for skiing after last year’s snow drought producing brisk “early-bird” season’s pass sales.
In Vermont, advance ski pass sales are matching or surpassing last year’s sales, said Sarah Neith, director of public affairs for Ski Vermont.
“People are looking forward to a better season,” Neith said. “It’s got to be better.”
Last winter was the toughest on ski areas since 1976, said Jennifer Rowan, publisher of SAM (Ski Area Management) Magazine.
“Anybody’s who’s in the business knows you have to brush off the last season because the next will be totally different,” Rowan said. She’s predicting a great season ahead but readily acknowledges that “we’re eternal optimists. We think we’re going to be shoveling snow starting in October.”
New Hampshire’s Loon Mountain reported sales up 20 percent over last year. Gunstock and Granite Gorge were hovering near the 15 percent mark of increased sales over last year.
Maine’s Sunday River reports season pass sales are 10 percent above where they were at this time last year.
Vermont’s Magic Mountain in the month of April alone sold half the passes it had sold the entire previous season.
“The last few times we’ve had subpar winters, the following winter has been incredibly successful,” said Ski New Hampshire’s Karl Stone. “The pent-up demand does come to the front.”
Greg Sweetser, executive director of Ski Maine, says season ticket sales typically don’t drop following a rough season because those buying them are an area’s “core skiers.”
“The core skier is loyal. They’ve made their purchases,” Sweetser said.
But season pass and daily ticket revenues are no longer the make-it-or-break-it barometer for New England resorts. Many are still counting their returns on investments to cultivate summer visitors, including attractions that offer sports enthusiasts an alternative all year round.
New England resorts largely pioneered the trend of expanding operations beyond the whims of winter weather, into bungees, zip lines, ice hockey arenas, water parks, mountain coasters and treetop adventure parks. Drive a Segway scooter up your favorite ski trail. Moose tours at Maine resorts are part of the repertoire as well.
Rowan said it was unheard of until recent years for a ski area to glean 10 percent of its revenues from summer traffic.
“Now it’s not uncommon for ski areas to have 10, 15 or 20 percent of their income coming from summer,” she said.
Rowan said Vermont’s Bromley ski resort was the first in the nation to feature an alpine slide in 1976. Others followed suit. But the real trend toward summer features began at Park City, Utah, a decade ago, with the first ski area zip line.
“It’s such a no-brainer for ski areas,” Rowan said. “We’ve got the gravity. We’ve got the means to get people up the hill. It’s taken off like gangbusters.”
New Hampshire’s Gunstock Mountain Resort in the past year added a network of zip lines to lure some of the 3.5 million summer visitors to nearby Lake Winnipesaukee.
“We shied away from water parks,” said Gunstock marketing director Bill Quigley. “It’s difficult to compete with a lake like Winnipesaukee and its 44,000 surface acres. We focused on gravity-based activities.”
“Only 3 percent of the U.S. population skis,” Quigley said. “The real goal is to give people a place to play.”
At Vermont’s Jay Peak, the day after Thanksgiving last year dawned with only one ski trail open. But Jay Peak president Bill Stenger said the mountain had the best Thanksgiving weekend in its history, thanks to the grand opening of its $25 million indoor water park and a hockey tournament in its NHL-class ice arena.
“They allow us to reduce the dependency on winter that we’ve always had to face,” Stenger said. “We love our ski business, but having a sustainable resort in spring, summer and fall takes the pressure off.”