How’s the weather up there? It’s a question with a unique impact on ski resorts’ bottom lines, and after a rough couple of years Mother Nature has blessed North America, particularly Colorado and Utah, with a bounty of snow that is driving bookings through the first half of the season.
“The weather is pretty much right on track from last year,” says Susie English, director of communications at Ski Utah. “Two years ago we had a small snow year. Historically our biggest snow months are the end of February and March, so it could turn around quickly.”
Visits were up 22 percent during the first half of the ski season at the 21 member resorts of Colorado Ski Country USA (CSCUSA) as compared to last year. CSCUSA defines the first half of the ski season as opening day (October 13, 2013) through December 31, which includes the important holiday travel period. Additionally, this season’s first half skier visits exceeded the five-year first half average by 6.7 percent, according to CSCUSA.
Early snowfall is key because it can allow resorts to open early and to open more terrain to draw skiers. Increased visitation translated into increased occupancy at CSCUSA member resorts. Occupancy at resort lodging properties increased 11.6 percent during the season’s first half over last season, and in late January CSCUSA was reporting that the booking pace for January and February 2014 was up 1.8 percent over last year.
Vail Resorts, which is not a member of CSCUSA, reported similarly positive numbers. While as of January 5 total visitation at the company’s eight mountain resorts was down 0.7 percent compared to the same period last season, visitation at the company’s five Colorado and Utah resorts was up 7.4 percent. Additionally, total lift ticket revenue at the company’s eight mountain resorts was up 3.9 percent as compared to last year. At the company’s five mountain resorts in Colorado and Utah, lift ticket revenue was up 11.7 percent.
That increase in visitation translated to an increase in visitor spending. At Vail’s eight mountain resorts, ski school revenue was up 4.5 percent, dining revenue was up 2.3 percent and retail/rental revenue at resort stores was up 2.1 percent. The numbers were even better at the Colorado and Utah resorts: ski school revenue was up 7.5 percent, dining revenue was up 13.1 percent and retail/rental revenue for resort store locations was up 7.7 percent.
“Our snowfall started early and has been consistent—providing a great on-mountain product all season long,” says Chris Romer, president and CEO of Vail Valley Partnership. “Mother Nature’s cooperation certainly helped boost our November and early/mid-December lodging occupancies.”
The way the holidays fell on the calendar this year also helped drive bookings, Romer says. “The holiday schedule worked against us last year and was normalized this year, helping spread demand over a longer period over the Christmas and New Year’s holiday season,” Romer says. “The remainder of the season looks strong, likely thanks to continued snowfall and snow messaging. Overall lodging occupancy for both Vail and Beaver Creek exceeds last year’s pace, and we’re seeing positive momentum in bookings as well as actual occupancy.”
“The pattern was interesting this year because Christmas fell on a Wednesday, so we had a nice pre-holiday week and then really great skier visits after Christmas,” says Emily Summers, communications manager at Deer Valley Resort in Park City, Utah. “We sold out December 28, 29, 30 and 31 and came close the days before and after this period. School breaks went well into the first week in January so we had great visitation then too.”
In British Columbia, snowfall numbers have been below-average, but tourism numbers remain strong. “Our 10-year average for snowfall in November and December is 15.4 feet, and this season we received six feet of snow over the months of November and December,” says Michelle Leroux, PR and communications manager at Whistler Blackcomb. “Long-lead reservations for visitors from destination markets help to mitigate the threat of weather impacting visitation.”
Snowmaking Fills the Gaps
Artificial snowmaking can help resorts stay open in seasons when the weather is uncooperative. “This season snowmaking was the star of the operation—transforming 265 million gallons of water to date into snow,” says Leroux. “Many resorts that don’t have snowmaking simply cannot operate in a dry season.”
When the weather is uncooperative, product diversification can also help resorts continue to draw tourists in. “Whistler, as a resort town, also offers a lot of attractions outside of skiing and snowboarding that make it an ideal place to visit that isn’t just relying on one activity,” says Leroux. Likewise, with activities at Adventure Ridge such as snow tubing, nighttime ski biking, zip lines and kids’ snowmobiles, Vail offers a well-rounded winter destination experience.
At the same time, natural snow continues to play an important role because snowy weather can be key to building buzz around a destination. “The problem is, when the weather is warm, people don’t book ski vacations,” says Ski Utah’s English. “Natural snow is really important to our resorts’ bottom lines.”