S'no joke: New England resorts say they've got the white stuff

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BOSTON -- As the Boston area marked its 300th day without snow, making it the area's driest year on record, New England ski resorts are struggling to communicate that there is, in fact, snow in them thar hills.

"It has been dry, and snowfall has been below normal, but it is hardly record-breaking [in ski country]," said Russ Murley of Portland, Maine-based Precision Weather, a forecasting and weather research company.

Agents least affected are those who book ski well in advance, said Eric Ardolino, president of A & S Travel Center in Wallingford, Conn., and national treasurer of ASTA.

"Skiing is a funny bird because [our clients] don't plan skiing in January; they plan it in August," he said.

"They roll their dice and take their best shot."

Ardolino touted conditions in the West, particularly at Whistler Mountain in western Canada, which offers glacier skiing, as well as in the Rockies and in Europe.

He stressed, however, that New England should not be overlooked, even in dry spells. "People need to realize that snowmaking has come a long way in recent years. I was just at Okemo [in Ludlow, Vt.], where the skiing was good, for example, and we have a group of 400 people skiing at Sugarloaf [in Maine] right now."

"Conditions are good, particularly at the areas that have made major investments in snowmaking," said Skip King, vice president of communications for the American Skiing Co. in Newry, Maine.

The company made a splash in early December by guaranteeing snow for Christmas and New Year's at its six New England resorts -- Killington, Mount Snow and Sugarbush in Vermont, Attitash Bear Peak in New Hampshire and Sunday River and Sugarloaf/USA in Maine -- or else visitors would receive 25% off their next visit and a $500 voucher good at the company's Rocky Mountain resorts, the Canyons in Utah or Steamboat in Colorado.

Such guarantees are no longer needed, as conditions have improved since the early part of the season, King said.

"Many of our resorts are 70% to 90% open," said Alice Pearce, communications director for Ski New Hampshire.

"We don't really need snow, just cold weather, and we have gotten enough of that to make a lot of snow."

Vermont ski areas did generally well over the recent holidays, said Molly Mahar Kerr, marketing director for the Vermont Ski Areas Association, adding that what downturns did exist could have been as much a result of Y2K phobia as the weather.

"Looking ahead to Martin Luther King Jr. weekend and Presidents' week, Vermont resorts have not had to drop prices to encourage bookings," Kerr said.

As for the Rockies, conditions range from "improving to excellent," according to a spokeswoman for Ski Tour Operators Association (Skitops).

"In general, the snow conditions are much better from central Colorado going north," she said, with southern Colorado and Utah "suffering."

Vail's long-awaited Blue Sky Basin recently opened unaided by snowmaking, and Montana and, particularly, the Canadian Rockies are offering good conditions, she said.

"We do have snow," confirmed Kristin Rust, spokeswoman for Colorado Ski Country, admitting, however, that area resorts got a late start.

"Everyone was open by December but with limited terrain, and even now, only a few are 100% open," she said.

What the Rocky Mountain resorts have lost in advance bookings many may recoup in last-minute bookings, according to the spokeswoman for Skitops.

To entice visitors, resorts are offering "tons of deals," she said, even for such peak periods as Martin Luther King Jr. weekend and Presidents' week.

Agents can look for shorter minimum-stay requirements, free nights, free lift tickets, free ski lessons or activity passes, she said.

But are these tactics working? That depends on whom you talk to.

"If anything, our bookings for February and March to the west are record high," said Robert Freibaum, president of Sea & Ski Travel in Bethesda, Md.

"In terms of [East Coast] skiing, though, bookings have fallen off significantly."

Freibaum, who generally prefers conditions in the West to New England anyway, said warm, dry weather does nothing to deter his clients from booking vacations to the Rockies.

But even with improving conditions, resorts may have their work cut out for them to convince some folks that the lack of snow in their own backyard is not indicative of a lack of snow at the resorts

"We haven't booked too many ski vacations at all [for Martin Luther King Jr. weekend and Presidents' week]," admitted Susan Hochhalter, travel counselor at the Beckerich Travel Expedition Co. in Indianapolis.

"We usually book a lot in the Denver area and in Wyoming," Hochhalter said, but the unseasonably mild weather in her area may be influencing people away from even the thought of hitting the slopes, she said.

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