Dry winters change the economics of New England ski weekends

It was a Friday night following two rainstorms, followed by two rock-hard freezes; and the number of loaded ski racks on car tops heading out of Boston for northern New England was astounding. The sight said something about what skiers are doing in hard times.

This winter's meager snowfall in much of North American ski country comes on the heels of last winter's leanest-ever snowfall in the Northeast. Yet skiers still are skiing, if not on all the trails they'd like nor in the big numbers the ski and resort industries would prefer.

What is heppening is that skiers are gravitating to the big destination resorts, ones that have invested heavily in costly snowmaking apparatus in recent years, along with such recreational alternatives as indoor tennis, racquetball, squash, swimming, health clubs, and saunas.

The net effect has been that big and rich destination resorts are getting bigger -- if not richer -- while smaller remote ski areas are in serious trouble. They are limited in their capacity to invest in huge snowmaking plants , vacation amenities, and marketing promotion. With some exceptions, they find themselves in unsuccessful competition with the giant ski resorts for available skiers.

The entire snow-scarce, expensive-cost-of- energy scene has pushed up prices further than they otherwise might have risen. But it also has helped a modest but well-capitalized and managed resort like Loon Mountain in New Hampshire to broaden its share of the skier market.

Loon, whose venerable president and founder is the onetime Eisenhower White House chief of staff and former Granite State governor, Sherman Adams, has had more midweek ski vacationers on its slopes in this snow scarce winter than it did back in the days of the 1978 blizzard.

Until the recent rains descended, Loon had not sold less than 1,000 lift tickets a day midweek this season, compared with between 400 and 500 a midweek day somewhat earlier, according to general manager Phil Gravink.

The reason for such growth at Loon and other major resorts, despite meteorological adversity, has been their relative ability to provide dependable skiing. Massive and costly investments in summit-to-base snowmaking systems and new snow grooming equipment have been the key.

At a cost of about $200 an hour, Loon made snow for 1,700 hours last season. Management hoped to make way less snow this season but was already at 1,300 hours when the rains came, Mr. Gravink reported. The electric bill for January alone was deep into five figures. And Loon is a small area compared with big snowmaking resorts like killington, Sugarbush, and Stowe.

At the same time, many of the major destination resorts are expanding services, even as they hike prices. A growing number, either through mergers or new efforts at cooperation, are offering vacationers reciprocal lift privileges at more than one resort while providing new gas-saving shuttle-bus systems between resorts. three examples are Loon and Cannon in New Hampshire, Stranton and Bromley in Vermont, and the Ski the Summit resorts in Colorado.

Still, the future for ski rsort profit-and- loss statements looks clouded at best unless yearly snowfall patterns return to the norms of the 1960s and early 70s. And the outlook could be particularly grim in regions such as parts of the mid-Atlantic states, where lack of rainfall has seriously curtailed water supplies that might otherwise be used for snowmaking.

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