Skiing minus snowfall

ANNOUNCER: "And now the latest ski report from the Northeast. . . ." (A blast of air, not unlike that of a DC-10, coming in for a landing, greets listeners' ears.) ANNOUNCER: "That's snow! Manmade snow! Over 20,000 people have skied in New England this winter without a major snowstorm. The reason is snowmaking!"

That particular radio commercial is just one of many attempts by Eastern ski resorts this winter to get their desperate message across to the urban masses. to wit: "Don't believe the "horror stories" in the papers and on the 11 o'clock news weather reports. The lack of natural snow has not produced an alpine disaster -- yet. There is skiing! It may not be the greatest, and it's limited to those trails covered by snow guns. But there's snow, and people are having fun skiing on it."

The latest tack by New England resorts to overcome what on area operator calls "tremendous negative publicity" was a snowy barrage on Boston Common last Friday. First, Sunday River ski area in Bethel Maine packed 10 tons of machine-made snow onto a truck and brought it into Boston. Then the New England Regional Commission (NERC), a federal-state economic development organization, staged a snowmaking demonstration. Ski are representatives made a case for today's improved snowmaking equipment. Said a NERC spokesperson: "People discount man-made snow."

A look at business through the highly important Christmas week is all that's necessary to explain the ballyhoo. Waterville Valley, New Hampshire, one of the East's larger snowmaking areas and sponsor of the radio commercial noted above, says it was $400,000 behind last year's revenues through Dec. 30.

Sunday River was doing about "35 percent of normal" through the holidays, said marketing director Tom McHugh. Stowe in northern Vermont normally does 20 percent of a season's business over the holiday, and this year it lost "maybe 30 percent" of that, according to spokesperson Polly Rollins. But Stowe would not have had any of that business had it not been for a massive seven-mile snowmaking installation this year, part of a $4.5 million investment in new facilities.

In the Massachusetts Berkshires, however, Jiminy Peak reported being off only some 15 percent. Marketing director Beverly Stein laid that to "the big difference" made by a new "40 percent more efficient" snow gun developed by the ski area.

To the casual or non-skier, machine-made snow may seen as superfluous as a swimming pool at the beach. But to hard-core skiers and, most significantly, to ski resorts looking for longer seasons and more traffic to beat rising costs, snowmaking has become almost a necessity.

Until last season Stowe held out with only a modest snowmaking installation. After a rainsoaked spring and without a deep base of manmade snow to fall back on, the resort had to shut down in mid-March for a record early closing. This year, though at a tremendous cost, Stowe's Mt. Mansfield Company has had skiing on 10 trails off five lifts, summit-to- base, so far entirely on man-made snow.

The company may still be losing money, but shops, bowling alleys, and indoor tennis centers at stowe are doing a booming business as vacationers tire of the limited skiing and spend more time at other diversions.

Besides laying off or not hiring employees who normally would be working full time now, ski areas must decide whether to "chase skiers" with expensive promotional campaigns or "pull back" and wait for it to snow.

Waterville Valley, a classic destination resort and also a day-hop ski area for Greater Boston, is both an aggressive snowmaker and promoter. Even so, general manager Robert Saltonstall admits that even with good snowfalls for the rest of this season "we're really scrambling to break even."

Asked whether it might not be more profitable in the long run to shut down and wait for snow, Saltonstall answered: ". . . Major areas and minor ones too have such horrendous fixed expenses they can't afford to just sit there. Besides, we had 3,900 people last Sunday, 1,000 today, more yesterday. One thousand skiers is $20,000 in the bank tonight. That's not bad cash flow."

King Ridge in southern New Hampshire has kept costs and prices down by thus far avoiding snowmaking while emphasizing trail grooming.But manager Bill Bardsley, still not having opened yet (for an all-time record), says he's about to make the costly leap into snowmaking. "I was over at Killington (one of the nation's biggest snowmakers) Saturday, and they must have had 5,000 skiers! They've got to be making money."

Bardsley says his principal motivation, though, is not to boost profits but to satisfy season ticket holders and the local community that depends on skiers' dollars. Also, he says, "the skiing public is beginning to be wary of the area that doesn't have snowmaking."

As one skier told me after a recent weekend at Waterville Valley: "I fell on the icy patches, spent a lot of time on the bunny slope, and fought my way through a line of novices paused at the top of a funnel of artificial snow. But some of the trails had good cover and each day it got better. Of course, it was limited skiing, but it was summit-to- base; and when you realized there wasn't a natural flake anywhere, I was impressed with what they had done."

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