Ski profits plunge downhill

The ski ads on television or in magazines always seem to show two or three skiers gliding blissfully through an idyllic landscape: a pristine slope of snow , each flake sparkling, reflecting sun from a blue, cloudless sky, the skiers' tracks marred only by the plumes of white powder tossed up by the tails of their skis. This may be the perfection afficionados carry in their heads, but on a good snow day skiers have to concentrate on negotiating around other skiers as much as they concentrate on the mountain.

On a downhill straightaway, hotdoggers shout, "On your left, on your left," and if your tape-pack headphones are tuned into Fleetwood Mac that's your fault.

Alpine skiing, after all, flirts with speed and has attracted such a following that the pace of the industry is as fast as the sport itself. But depending on the weather for your livelihood is a risky business.

Over millenia farmers have learned to anticipate and compensate for the over-or underabundance of rain. Still, crops are ruined. The livelihood of a ski-resort town is even more weather specific: if there is no snow there is no skiing. And if the snow doesn't show for the biggest weeks of the ski- revenue year -- Christmas vacation -- ski corporation executives hatch plans for a Las Vegas night, pie-eating contests, and the like.

All this may seem rather silly; after all, no matter how fancy or expensive the equipment, skis are still only a variation of the boards miners and other backcountry types strapped on for fun a century ago. However, the industry that has grown up around skiing is more than mere sport and to its investors especially it is anything but silly.

After a mere quarter-century of widespread skiing consciousness, the US may need a few more years and a more fanatic commitment to produce consistently good world- class skiers. In terms of ski-related dollars, though, we hold our own. In 1978-79 gross revenues for ski areas totaled $654 million. That includes such things as lift tickets, equipment rentals, and lessons. If you add in the cost of accommodations and equipment, you have revenues that easily pass the billion-dollar mark.

If a couple from, say, Kansas City plans to indulge in a one-week ski vacation, equipment -- new boots, skis, bindings and poles -- will cost about $ 450 for each of them. If they want to avoid the low-rent look, the ski outfit -- from goggles to powder pants -- will cost another $150 each. Once they get to their resort, lift tickets and accommodations (including meals) for a no-frills week can easily run $1,000. So starting from zero, these two people will plenish ski-industry coffers with $2,200 -- and that's not including travel expenses.

There are 14 million skiers in the US (8.3 million are classified as "alpine only") and approximately 90 ski areas in New England alone. A place like Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire brings in enough ski revenues to support 36 state parks and beaches. With all this incoming money, ski resorts obviously couldn't wait a century or two to develop ways of compensating for weather patterns: if the clouds won't produce snow, we'll make our own. The snow that fell during the winter Olympics at Lake Placid may have added that natural look, but the games could not have gone on there without the man-made stuff.

So far, Vail Associates in Colorado have spent $750,000 on snow-making equipment and pipelines; that takes care of under 1/10 of Vail's total ski acreage. To help the other 9/10 along, Vail has invested $16,000 a year in weather modification. Western Weather Consultants seed recalcitrant clouds, forcing them to form snow crystals. Vail estimates a 7 to 15 percent increase in snow.

Obviously weather modification still cannot replace a healthy low-pressure front. Besides, no one knows what effects tampering with the weather might bring, and the process can sometimes backfire. Last winter the combination of heavy natural snows and cloud seeding produced such a huge accumulation of snow in Silverton, Colorado, that the state Department of Natural Resources proscribed cloud seeding from that area lest more roofs collapse.

This year ski-resort owners and townspeople in both the East and the West became panicky when Christmas vacation approached and the slopes were still bare. Many resorts figure 20 to 25 percent of their ski revenues come in that two-to- three-week period and this year millions were lost during the dry holiday season.

Depending on the weather is certainly not the smartest way to run a business, so many marketing directors are plugging their places as four-season resorts, complete with tennis courts, racquetball courts, golf courses, swimming pools, horse stables and convention facilities (Aspen got the jump here with its renowned Aspen Institute and summer music retreat). This approach brings some of New England's resorts full circle: winter resorts began in this country in the early '30s when owners of summer-resort inns brought over European ski directors to expand their one-season business.

By far the biggest money-making expansion in the industry, especially in the West, is real estate; comparatively, everything else is but a drop in the bucket. In these times real estate is a smart, safe game and in ski resorts it is lucrative beyond belief.

Bel Aire has nothing over Aspen, where an in-town condo changes hands now for at least a million dollars -- if you can find one to buy. Vacation homes (and the lots they are built on) can run well into six figures at major resorts in the West. There is a real estate agent under every rock and the market continues to rise astronomically.

There are signs, though, that the ski industry is slowing down, will have to cut back. The older Eastern resorts, which depend on expensive heating oil, are already beginning to feel the pressure. People are thinking twice before packing up for the odd ski weekend.

Marketing directors don't seem extremely worried: when times are tough people may cut back on the short trips, but they'll still save money for that once-a-year, two-week vacation blowout. And promoters will be leaning hard on distinguishing features.

A place like Telluride, Colorado, may be remote, hard to get to, but because it looks like the ideal of a mountain ski town, Telluride Company's Jim Davidson is confident: "I think the people we're appealing to are the ones who want a small, high-quality town where the people are reasonably genuine. If we had to do this job [marketing] with Copper Mountain I think it would be tough. Because how is Copper Mountain different from Keystone, Breckenridge, or Winter Park?"

If Mr. Davidson knows his market, so do others who depend on their accessibility to big cities; or Aspen, Squaw Valley, and many Eastern resorts who depend on name recognition and skier loyalty. What all resorts are counting on is that skiing has become a habit for millions of skiers, not just an expensive fad to be dropped at the first squeeze of recession. Some people are habituated to the sport, some to the ambiance, the conviviality and torch-lit ski parades down the mountain. There may be New Yorkers who decide to stick it out and wait for the ski touring in Central Park or Midwesterners who figure the snow-covered flats must be good for some kind of skiing. The people who can't break the habit will still ante up those millions of dollars for a chance to go fast down mountains.

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