SkierDrought-like conditions in the Western U.S. are chipping away at North American ski-resort demand that had shown initial gains from the combination of a resurgent economy and early-season storms.

Despite the fact that some Colorado resorts late last month received their largest single- and two-day snowfall amounts in more than a decade, well-below-average snowfall at Lake Tahoe and California’s Mammoth Mountain threaten to pull overall numbers down as prospective skiers shift their sights to warmer-weather destinations.

With lift-ticket sales down by as much as a third from last year because of dry conditions, it will be “virtually impossible” for North American resorts to meet the 2012-13 season total of almost 57 million skier days this season, said Ralf Garrison, director of DestiMetrics (formerly MTRiP).

Moreover, 2013-14 activity will be far below the record 61 million North American skier days in 2010-11, when many resorts received record snowfall.

Fortunately for ski-resort operators, advance reservations going into the season had been strong, as wealthier tourists, spurred by an improving economy and last season’s fairly consistent weather conditions, booked ahead.

Because of such bookings, as of last week, winter-resort lodging revenue was still up about 12% from a year earlier on an 8% increase in occupancy and a 4% uptick in room rates, according to Garrison.

And while East Coast resorts in states such as Vermont are “holding their own” compared with typical years, Garrison said, Colorado and other Rocky Mountain states are benefiting the most from early bookings.

Through Jan. 5, Vail Resorts’ lift-ticket revenue from its eight mountains rose 3.9% from a year earlier, as a 7.4% increase in Colorado and Utah ski visits more than offset the effect of a 23% plunge in visits to Lake Tahoe resorts such as Heavenly Mountain and Kirkwood.

What’s more, conditions in the Rockies have since improved somewhat.

Vail Resorts’ Colorado mountains, such as Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone, each received more than 2 feet of snow during the 48-hour period ended Jan. 31, marking the largest powder dump since the 2000-01 season, Vail Resorts reported.

Still, even in Colorado, inconsistent conditions have shaken up booking patterns this winter. That means the momentum of increased bookings is unlikely to continue from last season, when winter-resort lodging revenue rose 8.8% from a year earlier, while skier days rose 11%, to 56.6 million, DestiMetrics said last May.

“We had a great beginning to the season, but after the holidays, when the snow stopped for most of January, reservations became more last minute,” said Brian Harris, owner of the Aspen, Colo.-based agency Destination Site Selection. “When the winters are dry in certain parts, we certainly see people change locations to ‘chase the snow.’ I’ve also had a few clients go to Europe, but far more go to the beach, usually in the Caribbean.”

For resort operators, that’s meant, as usual, season results that have been dependent on snow conditions and geography. For the East Coast resorts like Vermont’s Stowe Mountain, cumulative snowfall totals are about 15% ahead of last year, enabling bookings to keep pace with 2012-13.

In New Mexico’s Taos Ski Valley, snowfall is about 20% behind year-earlier conditions, but because of early-season storms, ski visits are still up about 5%.
In California and on the West Coast, though, the drought has spelled disaster.

Last season, Tahoe-area resorts such as Squaw Valley and Mammoth Mountain in California’s Eastern Sierras benefited from storms that dumped more than 10 feet of snow in December 2012 alone. This season, Squaw had a base-area snow depth of just 21 inches as of Feb. 6, and only 32 of its 177 runs were open, according to OnTheSnow, a Vail Resorts-owned ski-report website.

Still, Vail Resorts as of last week remained optimistic that conditions at its Lake Tahoe resorts, which also include Northstar-at-Tahoe, would improve.

The company said in a statement Feb. 6 that forecasts called for as much as four feet of new snow in the Lake Tahoe area for the weekend.

And despite the 20 inches of snow that fell on nearby Heavenly Mountain on Jan. 30, that slope’s cumulative seasonal snowfall of 85 inches is less than half its 207-inch year-earlier total, according to OnTheSnow.
Mammoth’s 66-inch cumulative snowfall as of Feb. 6 was just a quarter of its year-earlier total.

All of which has killed drive-up traffic from feeder markets such as the San Francisco Bay Area for Heavenly and Los Angeles for Mammoth, Garrison said.

“When the snow is good, those people like powder and face shots,” Garrison said. “But they’re fickle.”

Or as Mike Estill, Oregon-based COO of the Western Association of Travel Agencies, put it more succinctly: “We had a ski season?”

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