Western Skiers Slide Past Recession

Foreign tourists take to the Rockies, while snow machines help East deal with hard times

IF a recession is hiding somewhere in the snow-capped, sun-splashed Rockies this winter, you can't tell from the numbers of skiers flying and driving in to slide down.

After the "triple whammy the ski industry's epithet for last winter's confluence of the Gulf War, recession, and warm, snowless weather in much of the United States - some resort operators are even venturing to smile again, if very tentatively. The reason: good snow.

In the Rockies, business is up at virtually all the major destination resorts. Colorado is estimated to be 15 percent ahead of last season, which was its second best (it was one of the few places that had decent snow in 1991). This past November, with the best early snows in weather annals, was followed by a snowless December, then a January with more snow and good crowds. Not a few skiers are coming from abroad. Ask somebody a question at this sprawling resort, and the answer may come in Australian-acce nted English.

In the snow-starved East, after a "marginally successful Christmas," most ski areas "haven't lost ground but haven't gained ground, either," says Tom Meyers of the Vermont Ski Areas Association.

"It's gotten to the point that if it doesn't rain on Saturday, I don't complain," quips one ski association official. The reference is to another Eastern winter of strange weather: 50-degree F. rain storms followed by below-zero chill factors, then back again in the span of only a few days. Earlier this month, southern Vermont ski areas had to clear skiers from the slopes because of a torrential lightning-and-thunder storm. By nightfall, it was 20 degrees and snowing.

Through all this, the thing that's made skiing not just passable but often quite good is modern snowmaking and grooming, plus enough cold weather to let it work. I skied Okemo, Vt., after a downpour-turned-deep-freeze in December and Loon Mountain, N.H., in January, when there hadn't been any meaningful natural snow. In both cases the snow was remarkably good. Both resorts have invested millions of dollars in state-of-the-art snowmaking and grooming. It's part of the fiercely competitive - and expensive - wars that Eastern ski areas have waged to capture their share of a static, if not shrinking, skier market.

And why isn't it growing? How about more than a decade of puny midwinter snowfalls, and escalating expenses, as ski areas scamper to keep skiable snow on the slopes and otherwise please an increasingly demanding public?

Committed skiers have learned what today's snowmaking can do and have been willing to pay the price. But marginal skiers have fallen by the wayside, especially when they look out the window and see grass instead of snow. The economy hasn't helped, especially in the Northeast. Yet despite recession and unemployment, just let it snow and look and feel like winter - as it did over the Christmas holidays - and people have come out to ski in droves.

SKIERS may skip the fancy lodges and restaurants, stay only one night or just "day hop," but they will find a way to get to the mountains and have some fun, if the weather only cooperates. And more than ever before, skiers are looking for deals: midweek discounts, two-for-the-price-of-one ticket days, off-site discounted lift tickets - like those sold by all Colorado Front Range ski areas through Greater Denver supermarkets and gas stations. People are shopping, and ski areas are being forced to deal.

(See accompanying article.)

Resorts are scrambling for skiersdiscretionary dollars accommodating a public that books its ski outings on increasingly shorter notice, catering to families with expanded children's programs and facilities, trying to attract a new generation of snowboarders (and their skiing parents), and especially working hard to serve anyone willing and able to go first-cabin.

North American ski resorts also have keyed in on a new and growing source of potential growth: foreign skiers.

The trade association Colorado Ski Country USA says that last season, 5 percent of the state's 9.8 million "skier visits" (a day or half day of skiing per individual) belonged to international skiers.

Britain has the lion's share (1.7 percent), followed by Canada (.8 percent), Australia (.6 percent), Mexico (.4 percent), New Zealand, Germany, France, South America (.2 percent each) and Japan (.1 percent). The Japanese tend to ski the West Coast, Utah, and especially the super resorts of Whistler/Blackcomb in British Columbia, Canada.

Exact numbers of foreign skiers are hard to pin down because Europeans tend to stay longer (and spend more). All told, foreign skiers in the United States have more than doubled to 100,000 in the past two or three years, according to the Ski USA marketing organization. Several poor snow years in the Alps (until last season), plus new American marketing efforts, have stimulated the migration.

"What's interesting is that despite the expense and hassles, the numbers keep growing," says John Hill, publisher of Britain's "The Good Ski Guide."

Unless Britons can get on Continental airlines, which has the only direct flight from Britain to Denver, getting to US ski country can be a 14-hour trip. Brits on charter flights must deplane in Bangor, Maine, and go through customs before flying on to Denver.

On the other hand, those on direct flights can ski the same day they leave at a night skiing area like Keystone, Colo. Either way, Mr. Hill says British skiers are enjoying Rocky Mountain snow and skiing so much that some French resorts reportedly have begun giving employees English lessons in an effort to lure back British skiers.

Such a drastic response could not be confirmed by a spokeswoman at the French government's travel office: "We're aware of the surge of European skiers going to the States," she said. "But if it's incited English classes, I'm completely unaware of it."

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