Ski Areas Evolve to Meet Challenges

Sunday, December 22, 2013
At the base of Jay Peak Resort in remote northern Vermont, it’s hard to find a parking space. Visitors cram into the ski mountain’s tramway, which runs to the summit and gives guests access to many of Jay’s 77 trails.

These guests aren’t here to carve tracks in the year’s first snow, though, because this is just another Saturday in August.

“People will come here not knowing it’s a ski resort,” said Travis Nutting, who works at Jay Peak’s Pump House indoor waterpark, a 50,000-square-foot attraction that opened in 2011 and features slides and chutes, indoor and outdoor hot tubs, a river for floating and a wave tunnel for surfing, among other activities.

Nutting said the water park can get up to 1,500 visitors a day.

The waterpark is an example of how the region’s ski resorts are diversifying their revenue streams in the face of the lingering effects of the Great Recession. At the same time, they’re ramping up their snowmaking capabilities in an effort to counter the challenges posed by climate change.

Inside the Jay Peak water park, a song by the pop music star Rihanna plays through the sound system, as families surf and swim and slide and even clamber up a rock-climbing wall. An enormous video screen hangs from the ceiling. An expansive bar overlooks a promenade and the mountain.

“Before we had the water park, it was horrible up here,” Nutting said. “It’s definitely helped with (providing) jobs.”

Jay’s golf course attracts visitors, Nutting said, but golf appeals to fewer guests and only for a few months. The water park stays open all year. And that’s because the resort couldn’t rely on skiing alone. Without adaptation, Jay Peak co-owner Bill Stenger told The New York Times in 2011, “the ski operation by itself might not survive.”

Jay Peak hasn’t added just a water park. The resort has new restaurants, hotels, condominiums, conference centers and an ice arena.

And it’s not the only resort looking to other seasons to attract guests.

At Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire’s Franconia Notch State Park, visitors can rent bicycles, hike trails or take the resort’s iconic tramway to the summit, where they’ll find a restaurant and bar, and more walking trails. The tramway, which costs $15, can get more than 1,000 visitors a day.

Anna Rioux, who works at the New England Ski Museum at the base of Cannon, has been skiing the mountain since the 1950s. A resident of nearby Littleton, N.H., she can remember when the snow was waist high, every year.

Over time, she said, that kind of snowfall has become more rare — a reminder of the challenges posed by climate change to the ski industry. And perhaps no resorts are in greater jeopardy than those in New England. A 2004 study in the Journal of Climate found that 11 of 21 sites across the region reported significantly decreased snowfall over the second half of the 20th century.

Resorts have countered the lack of snow by blanketing their trails using artificial snowmakers. And before last week’s welcome storm, skiers at resorts across New England made their first runs of the season with the hiss of snowmaking machines in the background.

“You can look out your window in Littleton and think, there’s no way I’m skiing today,” said Rioux. “You get to the mountain and the snow’s great.”

But snowmaking has a downside. The more resorts have to spend on purchasing, powering and maintaining snowmaking equipment, the smaller their profit margin.

Jeremy Davis, a meteorologist and founder of a website that tracks abandoned New England ski areas (, estimates that it can cost larger resorts thousands of dollars an hour to make snow. “It’s definitely not cheap,” said Davis, who lives in Glen Falls, N.Y.

As a result, ski resorts have looked to less-erratic sources of revenue — whatever they may be.

Sugarloaf in Maine, which claims to be the largest ski area east of the Rockies, provides Segway tours.

Smugglers’ Notch offers zip line tours, disc golf and a skate park.

Okemo Mountain Resort has a roller coaster.

Jon Erickson, a professor of ecological economics at the University of Vermont, said the economic model for resorts is changing. And even the largest ski mountains in the East are not immune. Stowe, for example, “had to go full bore into creating a resort model year round, with a golf course,” he said. Resorts that weathered bad skiing seasons did so because skiing is only a percentage of their revenue.

Each resort is different, of course, but Davis said weather plays a large role. Small resorts that can’t afford the best snowmaking are especially vulnerable. “If you have a few winters in a row with a lack of snowfall, or a lot of thaws, they’re crushed,” Davis said.

One smaller resort that went under was Mount Ascutney in West Windsor, which closed its doors in 2010. Similar in size to nearby Okemo Mountain Resort, it actually sits slightly farther north. But Okemo has two golf courses, a summer music series and even an annual beer festival. Ascutney Mountain Resort offered a handful of biking and hiking trails, but little else.

And simply having seasonal attractions doesn’t guarantee financial success. Whaleback Mountain in Enfield closed this spring a million dollars in debt, despite having a paintball course and a skate park. (A nonprofit organization, the Upper Valley Snow Sports Foundation, has been raising money to save the ski mountain with plans to reopen it on Dec. 26.)

Resorts have had to battle the economic climate as well.

The Great Recession drove many away from the sport, said Erickson, the UVM professor. But people continue to ski despite the cost, though they may not fly to the Rockies to do so.

“People will still go on ski vacations,” he said, “but they’ll go locally.”

New England resorts, which don’t attract skiers from across the country the way their Rocky Mountain counterparts can, have to rely on skiers and snowboarders from the East Coast.

The good news for these resorts is that many area residents remain fiercely loyal to them. To paraphrase Daniel Webster, they may be small mountains, but there are those who love them.

That love, combined with inventive new ways of generating revenue, might be enough.

“I’ve skied all over the world,” said Rioux. “I love Cannon. My ashes are going on that mountain.”

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