What does a winter resort do when winter barely arrives?
Last winter was reportedly the fourth warmest on record since 1896. It had the lowest national snowfall in two decades, and saw a 15% dip in visits to ski areas by snowboarders and skiers. The 2012-2013 season is also getting off to a slow start, with minimal snowfall throughout most of the country. The big concern isn’t just that ski areas are having a bad couple of years—it’s that conditions for skiing, and for the ski industry as a whole, may be bad indefinitely.
A ski resort can be a difficult business to run even during the best of times, and it becomes far less economically viable as temperatures rise and snow is less predictable. A New York Times piece offered some grim insights about state of the industry, including the forecast that by the year 2039, the majority of ski areas now open in New Hampshire, Maine, and New York would have to close. Not a single ski hill in Massachusetts or Connecticut is expected to be open by then either.
While there’s only so much individual ski areas can do to counter huge global climate trends, in the short run, resorts are taking action by cranking out more fake snow than ever—and it’s reportedly better quality than ever too. For decades, big mountains in the East have felt the need for powerful high-tech snowmaking equipment in order to fill in the gaps when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, and recently, reports the Los Angeles Times, resorts in the West have started following suit. And whereas in the past, artificial snow looked and felt just like that—artificial, usually like tiny granules of ice—modern equipment can produce soft, light snow that’s perfect for carving smooth turns:
“The snow is more consistent with the new machines,” said Jim Larmore, director of mountain operations at the Northstar resort in Lake Tahoe, which added nearly 100 new snow guns last summer. “The product is so much better. When you ski on it, the snow is soft, and when you push your edge into it, it carves.”
If the snow is bad or nonexistent, resorts can lose millions, which is why they’re shelling out millions on high-tech snow guns. At up to $50K apiece, these “snow-blowers” have built-in computers that measure on-site temperature and humidity and can be programmed to turn on automatically when conditions are ideal. Colorado’s Breckenridge, for instance, usually averages 300 inches of snow annually, but because snow has become less reliable, the resort has added 150 high-tech snowmaking guns over the past three years. California’s Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, which each are traditionally the beneficiaries of 450 inches of powder annually, were concerned enough about inadequate snow that they together dropped $4 million on new snowmaking equipment last summer.
In addition to make more snow, resorts are trying to allay skier concerns about trail conditions with the introduction of “snow guarantees” on visitor packages. It’s common for resorts to offer guests a voucher for another day of skiing if the guest turns in a lift ticket within an hour or so of purchase due to icy conditions or just not enough snow. According to USA Today, resorts this year are extending that concept with guarantee of good snow or your money back on a package that includes lodging and lift passes. One example:
In Lake Tahoe, Heavenly provides a refund or change of dates between Dec. 15 and March 31 if less than 50% of the resort’s 97 runs are open between two and seven days before arrival.
The Denver Post recently noted that, curiously enough, Colorado’s ski resorts have actually been exhibiting faster business growth during the summer than they do in winter, though winter is still a more lucrative period overall. The fact that resorts are putting more emphasis on summer (special events, festivals, lodging deals) explains the trend to some extent. Weather has also surely been playing a role, with warm temps and bad or inefficient snow keeping many skiers and boarders away. And considering how dire some predictions are regarding the long-term prospects of winter resorts, no wonder they’re trying to shift some of the focus onto summer!