Editor’s note: InDepthNH.org is launching our new column today about the ski industry by Paula Tracy.
By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
BOSTON – New England’s unofficial start to the 2019-2020 ski season has begun at the annual gathering of the industry and its faithful at the annual ski show in Boston through this weekend.
And New Hampshire was well represented.
“We already got our snow-making going. The crew got going on it this past Monday night,” said an excited Thomas Prindle, director of marketing for King Pine Ski Area in Madison, at his booth at the annual Ski & Snowboard Expo at the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston.
This year finds the industry increasingly divided among ownership, with conglomerates Vail and Alterra gobbling up some of the larger resorts, leaving some of the smaller, independent resorts to figure out how to survive in an increasingly challenging environment.
The headwinds include increasing costs to provide an energy-efficient snow product for a 100-day season, changing demographics on who skis and for how much, and how to bring along new enthusiasts.
Meanwhile, consumers are scouring for deals, considering season passes whose prices are coming down with consolidation, and thinking about the weather.
New Hampshire’s 35 ski areas held a large piece of real estate in the trade show with booths for just about every ski area, raffles, giveaways, and information on what is new to help consumers select where to go this winter.
The ski show is going on through Sunday in Boston, information visit https://www.skisnowexpo.com/boston-expo.
Everyone is worried about the weather. Everyone wants snow, not rain, not ice, not slush.
Bernie Weichel, who operates the Boston.com Ski & Snowboard Expo at the Seaport World Trade Center, said about 40,000 people came through the doors last year.
Increasingly, he said the show draws young families while the industry’s “aficionados” or those who will ski regardless of falling snow, are the core of the industry and the show.
On Thursday, the first day of the four-day gathering, business was brisk, just as the cold winter wind whipped along Seaport Boulevard on Boston Harbor.
The industry is increasingly split into those who have multi-mountain season passes at the big resorts with the independent resorts who face the same costs without the economy of scale.
Some smaller resorts were joking – but somehow also seemed serious in their hopes that the Vail and Alterra groups would scoop them up into their big arms and provide a financial infusion to protect them from the winds of change.
The weather in Boston – New England’s prime market – has recently has been cold, but no snow while ski areas to the North have been firing up the guns with extended sub-freezing temperatures and some seeing noticeable natural snow accumulation.
Next week is expected to be warm.
All hope to be open during Thanksgiving and especially for the all-import Christmas vacation week when the industry picks up almost 20 percent of its revenue. No snow and warm temperatures for that week could be disastrous for some.
Already, Sunday River in Maine, Bretton Woods, Wildcat and Loon in New Hampshire have opened as has Killington in Vermont, which hosts a series of Women’s FIS World Cup races during the Thanksgiving weekend for its fourth year in a row.
More ski areas are opening daily.
The New England Ski Museum has a booth, too.
In addition to its home base at the foot of Cannon Mountain in Franconia Notch, the ski museum also has another location in downtown Conway, right next to the train station, with is free and open to the public.
Jeff Leich, the executive director, said he is hopeful for a great new ski season and has something new to offer visitors to New Hampshire.
Party time and business
In addition to blowing snow and preparing thousands of workers to welcome skiers and snowboarders, the ski industry held their annual parties to kick off the season, offering media a glimpse into what is new and different for the coming season.
New Hampshire, which has over 35 resorts dotted across the state, held a party in a swank bowling alley in the Seaport district where members of the New England media were able to discuss one-on-one with ski area representatives.
Change in ownership is one aspect, as the state now has Wildcat, Attitash, Crotched Mountain, and Mount Sunapee’s operations all under the umbrella of Vail Resorts. Last year, only Sunapee was in that group.
This represents at least 25 percent of the ski business in New Hampshire, which sees about 2 million skier visits a winter.
Vermont, with over 4 million annual skier visits, touted more than $51 million in investment over the coming season at its media gathering and talked about an alliance with the National Ski Areas Association to combat climate change to work towards a carbon tax nationally.
Carbon is believed to be the leading cause of climate change which is reducing the ski industry’s length of winters, and thus viability. A tax on emitters of carbon to help encourage renewables is increasingly seen by the industry as the way to go to force change.
“It’s kind of an uphill battle,” said Molly Mahar Kerr, president of Ski Vermont, “but we hope if we keep going back (to Washington) we will finally get somewhere.” She said there are also climate change initiatives within the state.
There was also breaking news that Sugarbush in Vermont has announced its sale to Alterra.
This will allow the Denver-based company 15 resorts in its ownership and with an association of other resorts, to provide a season pass known as the IKON pass to more than 40 ski areas across North America and the world for under $1,000.
It competes with a similar product by Vail, which offers the EPIC pass.
“Sugarbush Resort is a premier East Coast mountain destination and we are excited to expand the Alterra Mountain Company family in the Northeast, with Sugarbush joining Stratton in Vermont,” said Rusty Gregory, chief executive officer, Alterra Mountain Company. “Sugarbush has been a partner on the IKON Pass since its inception and we look forward to the opportunities ahead.”
The Sugarbush Resort IKON Pass access will remain the same for this winter, with 7-day access on the IKON Pass and 5-days access with blackouts on the IKON Base Pass.
Alterra has resorts in six states and three Canadian provinces: Steamboat and Winter Park Resort in Colorado; Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, Mammoth Mountain, June Mountain and Big Bear Mountain Resort in California; Stratton in Vermont; Snowshoe in West Virginia; Tremblant in Quebec, Blue Mountain in Ontario; Crystal Mountain in Washington; Deer Valley Resort and Solitude Mountain Resort in Utah; and CMH Heli-Skiing & Summer Adventures in British Columbia.
In January 2018, Alterra Mountain Company introduced the IKON Pass, now with access to 41 mountain destinations throughout the Americas, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, including 14 Alterra Mountain Company destinations, plus 27 global partner destinations.
Vail’s EPIC Pass competes with a similarly priced product, plus a local product for New England skiers.
It closed in September on its acquisition of 17 resorts owned by Peak bringing its total number of owned and operated resorts to 37 worldwide.
The new resorts in the Northeast are Mount Snow in Vermont; Hunter Mountain in New York; and Attitash Mountain Resort, Wildcat Mountain and Crotched Mountain in New Hampshire.
They join the family with Stowe Mountain Resort and Okemo Mountain Resort in Vermont, and Mount Sunapee Resort in New Hampshire.
The 2019-20 EPIC Pass, EPIC Local Pass, EPIC Australia Pass, and Military EPIC Pass now include unlimited and unrestricted access to each of the 17 ski areas, in addition to the access provided to some of the world’s most well-known resorts including Vail, Whistler Blackcomb, Park City, and Breckenridge.
Guests with an EPIC Day Pass are also able to access these 17 ski areas as a part of the total number of days purchased. For the 2019-20 season, Vail Resorts will honor all Peak Resorts pass products and continue to sell them through the fall. Current Peak Resorts’ pass holders now have the option to upgrade to an EPIC Pass or EPIC Local Pass.
Just what all this consolidation of the industry will do to the current way things are run in New England has some independent ski areas concerned.
John Nelson, owner of Magic Mountain resort in Londonderry, Vermont, said he thinks all this consolidation is really good for a lot of reasons for a lot of these resorts to be sustainable. “We are going to try like heck, on our own, with this wallet,” he said waving his billfold before a room of 100 ski writers and industry officials, “to try to do it ourselves.”
He noted a $2 million investment in Magic this year, but Magic faces headwinds.
“It is not easy. The environment has got a lot tougher,” Nelson said. “My emotions are really high right now because we are really excited about what is going on at Magic… But we’ve got to do it on our own.”
Also of news note is the fact that the Saddleback Ski area in Maine will reopen after a few years of dormancy.
Located in Rangely, Maine, the ski area boasts 2,000 vertical feet of skiing and some of the most difficult terrain in New England to challenge skiers and riders. http://www.saddlebackmaine.com/