For ski resorts: ‘Best season ever’
By Scott Nicholson
The fortuitous timing of holidays, a healthy smattering of natural snow, and improved snow-making technology all combined to make one of last winter’s ski seasons the best on record.
Mike Doble, whose Boone-based SkiNorthCarolina.com tracks industry conditions, said all reports show increased skier traffic in the High Country, even though some of the larger ski resorts on the Eastern Seaboard struggled because of the economy.
“As far as North Carolina resorts, without question it was the best season ever,” Doble said, noting that it topped the 2002-03 season that set the standard for success.
Doble said Appalachian Ski Mountain and Sugar Mountain had the most skier traffic ever, while Seven Devils reported hundreds of tubers during the weekends, with Beech Mountain also having an increase this year over the last few years. While Seven Devils switched from skiing to snow tubing, Doble said those skiers simply went to other local resorts, even though Seven Devils also reported success in its first year of tubing.
Doble estimates as many as 550,000 people visited the state’s six ski resorts and two snow-tubing parks. That was comparable the numbers that turned up in a study by Appalachian State University faculty. The economic impact was estimated at about $150 million for the 2008-09 season.
Though Doble said he’d put the dollar figure a little lower than that, because people weren’t spending as much while away from the slopes, he acknowledged it was a successful year by any measure.
“I deal a lot with the rental people, and a lot of them said ‘blue-collar’ cabins were down but higher-priced luxury cabins were up,” he said. “It was certainly not one of the top three snow seasons ever, but changes in technology and the ability to crank out snow made a difference. Weather-wise, it was eight-and-a-half out of 10 and an awesome year for visitor numbers.”
About 40 percent of skiers from North Carolina slopes come from inside the state. That fit other tourism sectors that showed travelers and vacationers were tending to take shorter trips because of the economy.
However, Doble said people always seem to have a few dollars available for fun and recreation.
“The ski industry is pretty much bombproof when it comes to recession,” Doble said. “People are going to find a way to make a ski trip or two during the season.” While there were no significant snowfalls, it was unusually cold and snowy, with few dry and warm spells during the season.
“This year, there were four important holiday periods in which conditions were at least decent, and for Presidents Day and the Martin Luther King holiday, conditions were absolutely phenomenal,” Doble said.
Ski season usually starts Thanksgiving and runs through most of March, weather permitting. Extended cold allowed ski slopes to build up deep bases of artificial and natural snow.
“This year, there really hasn’t been a general thaw that lasted 10 days or so like we usually have,” Doble said.
The N.C. Ski Areas Association estimates that the slopes and lodges provide work for about 1,800 full-time and part-time employees.
“I think people are always going to find a way to entertain themselves,” Doble said.
“I’ve seen a trend this past season where people would normally come for Friday and ski and stay through Sunday, but unquestionably this year it was one- or two-day stays. While lodging might have been down, the number of lift tickets and skiers made it a record season.”
Doble offered no predictions for the coming season besides “I know the slopes will be open.”