BOSTON -- "Even the artificial snow is melting," lamented Gerry Korten, owner of East West Travel in Natick, Mass. With temperatures climbing to the 70s in Northeast ski areas, Korten and other agents are losing business as winter sports enthusiasts spend more time holiday shopping than skiing.

Normal holiday and weekend bookings to New England ski resorts have fallen off drastically, Korten said.

Tom Keefe, owner of Addison Travel in Andover, Mass., agreed. "We are booking February vacations, but the weather has affected impulse travel," he said. "I like to joke that after the first storm, people are still dickering price, but after the second and third storms, they open the door and throw the credit card in." Ski bookings are being directed to the West, Keefe said, an area that is experiencing plentiful snowfalls.

Korten said sales of upscale family packages in ski-in/ski-out condominiums in the Rockies every year are less hurt by warm weather because many clients book far in advance.

While air fares make packages to the Rockies and west more lucrative for New England agents, the higher cost can scare off clients. "When there is air fare, it becomes a money issue, and, therefore, too expensive for some people," Keefe said.

So far, that hasn't been a problem for Irene Ross, owner of Ross Travel in Boston. "We have a family from San Francisco going to Switzerland to ski and a local family of five going to Park City, Utah," she said. Ross, who handles a tony clientele in Beantown, said that weekend jaunts to Vermont and other New England winter destinations are the first to suffer during unseasonal heat waves.

But while some retailers are gloomy, the situation is far from irreparable, according to suppliers. At press time, resorts already were predicting a cold snap, according to Skip King, vice president of communications for the American Skiing company. "We expect to be making snow by tomorrow, and we should have all major trails open by the holidays," King said.

Thanks to state-of-the-art snowmaking equipment, it only takes a foot of snow and two or three freezing nights to open more than half a mountain, according to Steve Hewins, owner of Portland, Maine-based Best of New England Vacations. The company packages and sells ski to the American Skiing Co. resorts in New England, which include such well-known resorts as Killington, Vt., and Sunday River, Maine.

In fact, the situation can turn around so quickly that sports enthusiasts may find themselves in an unusually good position for the upcoming holidays. "There is some availability for the Christmas vacation period, and that is unusual for this time of year," Hewins said.

Noting that people tend not to book ski unless there is snow in their own backyards -- regardless of what may be optimum conditions in the mountains -- the lag to buy ski vacations might continue well into the early season, he said. If so, agents might have more accommodations to offer during what usually are tough-to-book peak periods.

Hewins noted that late-season thaws are less damaging than early-season meltdowns because by then resorts have accumulated several feet of base snow to fall back on. "March is becoming more popular than ever in New England because the sun is higher and the days are longer," he said. "Because there is a good base by then, you don't get the bare or icy spots that used to characterize New England skiing."

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