Now that winter has finally given way to the croci, the ski industry is breathing a collective sigh of relief. For the first time in more years than anyone wants to count, it snowed coast-to-coast, long and deep.
That means fewer banks will have to sell lift tickets next season than was previously feared. But at this point the reprieve via the snow clouds may be more a stay of execution than a commutation of sentence.
The fact remains that American skiing has been in a no-growth, even a declining phase for several years, despite all the capital being sunk in snowmaking, lifts, and luxury condominiums. The numbers of ski and binding models, cross country ski imports, and ski areas have shrunk remarkably.
With a declining market and increasing costs, not to mention the demand to maximize the profits (or at least minimize losses), the ski industry has continued to raise prices each year, and ''skiers'' have continued to drop out each year.
This winter the snows returned but the people didn't -- at least not in the numbers many marketing directors had expected. Some of the hardest hit were the big Rocky Mountain super-resorts, a number of which were down over 20 percent from the record winter of two years ago. A lot of New England motels and inns had empty rooms too, even during a snowy February vacation.
There are some exceptions, of course. Ski resorts that have done well generally are those within reasonable proximity of major population centers offering lots of good skiing at rates at least some of which are competitive. A good example is Keystone/Arapahoe Basin in Summit County, Colo.
Keystone marketing director Jerry Jones says the United States ski industry has been ''forcing a lot of people out of the market'' by pushing things on them they don't want. Although skiing has never been known as a province for minorities, he adds: ''We might again open up the sport to minorities and the underprivileged and others who don't want to spend a half-week's pay just to go skiing.''
All of which brings us to the American concept of a wintertime holiday, in particular a holiday when the economy is down and travel is expensive. It's not too farfetched to say that in the US, get-aways from wintertime drudgery are generally perceived as the domain of committed skiers and those who can afford either a tropical beach or a luxury mountain resort.
That's not so true in Europe, where you find people from many walks of life renewing themselves in the mountains for a week or two. They spend widely varying sums of money to ski a bit or just take alpine walks or try some skating , a toboggan run, a sauna, or a swim in an indoor pool.
Although the experts say American skiing will belong increasingly to the affluent, a case could be made for exploring the European wisdom of many people taking a midwinter break from urban gray and slushy streets. Most Americans might never take a ''ski week,'' but they might see advantages in, say, a three-day, two-night ''winter holiday'' if the price were right.
Interestingly, a spokesperson for the National Ski Areas Association says that a key force in stabilizing prices at small and mid-sized ski resorts would be attracting more midweek vacationers, not just ''weekend warriors.''
So where is the enterprising marketing director who could approach a forward-looking urban school system and say in effect: ''Look, there are many kids, teachers, and families in your school system that would delight in a mini-winter vacation if they could afford it. Well, we need midweek business so we'll give you a very low package price if you will work with us and stagger your midwinter vacation so that everyone isn't taking one week off in February when there's no room anywhere and prices are at their peak.'' People get away; the resorts get guaranteed business.
It wouldn't be easy, but one person who says the idea would work is the director of one of the nation's most successful programs in getting inner-city youth into the mountains. ''Slowly but surely, in the 14 years we've been doing this, more schools have been looking for ways to work this kind of thing into their curriculum,'' says Richard Williams of Boston's Youth Enrichment Services. He thinks new school boards and administrations like Boston's now contain people who might look favorably on such an experiment. After all, it works in Europe.