Skiing: Dealing With Weather

No matter how many technological advances the ski industry makes, the biggest factor in deciding the success of a ski season is, and always will be, Mother Nature.

This past ski season clearly reflects that point. The general consensus for the 1997-'98 season is that it was good, not great, according to Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association. The deciding factor in most cases: Extreme changes in weather patterns caused by El Nino. Warm weather, gusty winds, not enough snow, so much snow that access to resorts was blocked -- you name it, and El Nino can take the blame. All in all, however, alpine resort visits increased this year by about 2.5%, up from 52.5 million visits in 1996-97 to 53.8 million in 1997-98.

The areas hardest hit by the effects of El Nino were the southern Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic, which had much warmer temperatures than usual throughout the winter. This region posted a loss of 17.3% over last year, with only 5.9 million visits, the lowest since such records have been kept.

California had a good season, as did Utah and Colorado. Totals for the Rocky Mountain region were up 1.9% over 1996-'97 to 19.3 million visits, which is a record for the area and represented almost 36% of U.S. total visits. However, Vail Resorts reports that its numbers were down about 3.5% overall, with only Beaver Creek recording an increase in skier visits. The company's other three resorts, Vail, Breckenridge and Keystone, were all down slightly in skier visits.

The Pacific West reported a 13.1% increase over 1996-'97, with 11.1 million visits.

In the Northeast, things started off great with snowfalls at ideal times (holiday weekends had great weather with a lot of snow). However, an ice storm in January made access to some of the resorts difficult, and then spring rains and an early meltdown ended the season prematurely. Overall, the Northeast, with 13.1 million visits, and Southeast, with 4.4 million, both reported modest gains of 5.9% and 3.7 % respectively.

Steve Hewins, whose company, Best of New England Vacations, a division of Hewins/Carlson Wagonlit Travel in Portland, Maine, represents ski resorts in the Northeast, says the whole region felt the effects of the weather.

"Skiing was superb for much of the winter, but it ended pretty quickly," he notes, adding that skiing sometimes goes into June in the Northeast and this year it ended in mid-April. Though advances in snowmaking virtually guarantee good skiing conditions, one thing that will almost always create a shorter ski season is heat, he says.

Molly Mahar-Kerr, marketing director for the Vermont Ski Areas Association, says the state finished up 5% in skier visits, with a total of 4.2 million skier days. The area managed to ride out a January ice storm, and in the end was not affected as severely by that storm as upstate New York and parts of Southeastern Canada. Even in February, when the region didn't have a lot of snowfall, the weather held out with one of the area's longest sunshine streaks. Again, the only downside was that a few areas had to close earlier than expected, Mahar-Kerr says.

Mont Tremblant in Quebec, Canada, finished with 620,000 skiers, 2,000 more than last year. "Considering we had to close a month early and had the ice storm, it was a good year," says a spokesman. He reports that though their day market went down, their destination market (room nights) went up. Visits from American skiers also went up this year, he says.

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