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August 1, 2014

Summer, “hot trend” for mountain resorts nationwide

By Karen D. Lorentz

Mountain resorts across the nation are increasingly adding more activities, events, festivals, and attractions to entice visitors to their areas in summer.

“Summer business at resorts nationwide is growing and has been trending upward for the last decade,” said Michael Berry, president of The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA). “Summer business currently represents about 12.2 percent of total revenues for resorts nationwide.”

Berry explained that this trend is partially a result of recent legislation that relaxes restrictions, “For resorts operating on USFS lands under special US permits, summer activity had been limited. With the passage of legislation in 2011, these resorts have now started to develop many more on-mountain summer attractions.”

More than 121 ski areas operate on public lands in 12 states, including Vermont and New Hampshire in the East. The new law allows for a wider array of activities in summer, including zip lines, mountain biking and mountain bike parks, ropes courses and Frisbee golf courses. These activities require additional approvals/permits for summer, Berry noted.

“The industry views the growth of summer revenues as a critical component of their future. There are multiple benefits to evening out the revenue stream. The ability to provide year-around employment to a greater number of employees; the reduction of the amount of borrowing required to bridge from winter to winter; and the ability to take advantage of costly infrastructure on a year-around basis are just a few of the advantages we see benefiting the mountain resorts industry,” Berry stated.

Colorado is growing

Colorado is the top state by skier visits, followed by California, then Vermont. Patrick Byrne of Colorado Ski Country USA (CSCUSA), the state’s trade association for ski areas, said, “Summer activities are a significant source of growth for Colorado’s ski areas and resorts. The most high-profile investments have been made in downhill mountain biking infrastructure. Other popular summer activities include go-karts, bumper boats, bungee jumps, climbing walls, golf, mini golf, disc golf, zip-lining, and more,” he said.

Summer became significant, Byrne said, after Congress passed the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act, sponsored by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colorado), in 2011.

“The act made a small change to the National Forest Ski Area Permit Act of 1986 to allow the Forest Service to permit ski areas to host activities beyond Nordic and alpine skiing using infrastructure already in place. As almost 100 percent of Colorado’s skiable acreage is on USFS land, this act was critical to expanding opportunities for summer recreation. Forward-thinking ski resorts in Colorado are taking this opportunity to diversify their revenue streams in the Climate Change era by opening their scenic and rugged terrain to a diverse array of summer activities for their guests,” Byrne noted.

Given Colorado’s record of 12.6 million skier visits last winter, he said that winter operations continue to constitute the areas’ “core business,” adding, “We expect that resorts will continue to develop and expand their summer opportunities in the future. Each year, more Colorado ski areas and resorts are offering summer activities, adding trails, programs, and festivals.”

Summer in Vermont

The focus on summer has also been heating up in Vermont over the last five years and is contributing to the bottom line for several Vermont mountain resorts, notes Parker Riehle, president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association.

“While summer is a significant season for Vermont’s overall tourism economy, which is essentially split into thirds between summer, fall and winter, I would put the overall ski resort business percentage at 10-15 percent, while individual resorts like Smuggs and Jay Peak would see a higher percentage with their summer park infrastructure,” Riehle said.

“Smugglers’ Notch truly led the way on the summer business angle in Vermont’s ski industry, with others like Bromley and Jay Peak coming on line in the years since with summer park attractions aimed at boosting visits and business in the off-season.

“In addition to the golf courses at seven of our state’s ski resorts, the ski areas have constantly been on the move to expand their summer offerings with mountain biking, disc golf, zip lines and canopy tours in addition to pushing hard for wedding business.

“Canopy tours have seen the biggest growth in recent years, with Smugglers’ Notch, Bromley, Okemo, and Magic Mountain offering these tree-top ropes courses for our warm-weather thrill seekers,” Riehle added.

Asked about the return on summer investments, Riehle said those who have made investments seem to be very happy and he hasn’t heard about any regrets. “We don’t track returns but it would seem continuing growth supports that the potential of summer business is there. The plans for Stowe definitely show the zipline and mountain biking popularity and how they can spread out the bottom line from winter.”

Riehle noted that Tough Mudder, Wanderlust Festival, Spartan races, concerts, beer and wine festivals, localvore events, and weddings are also growing, and, as they do, they “expand the revenue base for stability of the bottom line as well as provide year-round employment.”

The summer audience has some overlap with the winter one, but “we know it’s not exactly the same crowd,” Riehle noted, adding that the attractions can also help to introduce guests to winter sports. Jay Peak is using the waterpark as “a conversion tool with learn-to-ski/snowboard packages tied in with room stays in winter,” he noted.

Summer tourism is seen as a market to tap into and the potential room for growth is there, but while summer and fall already are tops in statewide visitation, people actually spend more in winter, Riehle observed.

Where resorts also have a second-home/real estate scene, summer activities and year-round attractions augment the interest in home ownership and rentals, further enhancing the overall business picture, he added.

Summer at Smuggs

Smugglers’ Notch Resort has one of the longest continuing successful summer resort programs in the state and in the nation. The scope of children’s programs, variety of activities for all ages, and pool and waterslide complexes have resulted in an active scene that has just buzzed in summer for several decades now.

Karen Boushie, Smugglers’ public relations director, explained that once the area launched summer programs in the 1970s, “it was all about looking forward and continuing to grow in terms of offerings for our guests.”

The focus on summer began with amenities like pools in the village and some warm-weather activities, but programs “really began taking off after 1976 when we launched our children’s programs to offer kids fun activities and give our adult guests the freedom to head to Montreal for the Summer Olympics knowing their kids were well taken care of,” she said.

In terms of overlap among visitors, Boushie said, “About 25 percent of our guests visit in both summer and winter. The seasons are both strong and are fairly equal in terms of business.

“We also have seasonal programs in fall and spring, and serving our guests year-round is very positive for the resort — year-round availability creates a nice community feel for guests who can choose to visit their ‘home away from home’ in different seasons,” she said, noting it also enables the resort to retain valued staff.

Boushie added that as guest’ interests expanded and changed, the resort added programs and attractions in response. With interest in Vermont products, Smuggs offered a chocolate tasting event for several years and this summer launched a brewery tour, she noted.

Due to the growing interest in adventure activities, programming expanded with the Via Ferrata outing, the ArborTrek Canopy Adventures (zip line tour and treetop obstacle course), and mountain biking options.

This year a mountain biking program manager and his crew “have significantly enhanced the trail network and also built a pump track for developing skills prior to hitting the trails,” Boushie said, noting the trails serve beginners to experts.

“Children’s programs now have a mountain biking camp for ages 9-17, and we’ve added a mountain bike group ride, learn-to clinics, guide services and private lessons. With these additions, mountain biking at Smuggs has developed into a program that can serve most ages and abilities,” she added.

Summer at Jay

“Having consistent and robust business levels across 365 days is crucial to Jay Peak’s viability as a company and became a top priority around 2005,” noted spokesman JJ Toland.

Since then, Jay has built a golf course, ice arena, and 60,000-square foot indoor waterpark. In 2012 Jay also began offering summer camps for kids as well as nightly activities both for resort guests and the local community, he added. Jay also built three hotels and many additional condos.

“With all of those new additions, our summer business levels now equal winter visitation rates. Between May 31 and Sept. 30, 2012, we had approximately a quarter of a million visitors to Jay Peak with a majority of those visitors spending at least two nights in one of our lodging properties,” Toland said.

The hosting of weddings is “another big contributor to warm-season revenue. From May to October 2012, we hosted 28 weddings but 61 weddings were booked for 2013,” he stated, noting similar results for 2014.

“The resort also got into the music business two years ago when the Foeger Ballroom inside the Hotel Jay debuted. We found that people enjoyed a diverse range of shows and seeing music in a place that lets them feel close to the musicians,” Toland said, adding this led to creation of the new Stateside Amphitheater, a 1,500-person outdoor venue, that debuted this past weekend with a nearly sold-out two day festival.

More summer business

Bromley Mountain has greatly expanded upon its original alpine slide attraction of the 1970s to offer a busy summer of family shows, live bands, deck barbeques, special events and 23 rides and attractions — Kids’ Park, Alpine Slide, ZipRider, water-slide, and Aerial Adventure Park with 63 tree-borne elements. “Our goal at Bromley has been to make our parks a day-long destination for summer activities, and, with the addition of the Aerial Adventure Park I think that we have achieved that,” Marketing Director Michael van Eyck said.

Summer business has been growing at Mount Snow due to more offerings for guests, noted Communications Manager Dave Meeker, who added, “Winter is still our bread and butter, but summer business is incredibly important to us.”

The Mount Snow Golf Club, conferences and weddings at the Grand Summit Hotel, and large scale events like Tough Mudder, Brewers Festival and Oktoberfest continue to draw guests but as mountain biking has grown more popular, the area has expanded its lift-served mountain biking to five days a week, Meeker noted.

“Downhill mountain biking has experienced fantastic growth,” he said, attributing it to “expanded offerings, extensive trail-system work, and introductory downhill trail for anyone comfortable on a bike. Learn-to mountain bike programs and a new pump track help build skills and enjoyment while providing fun activities for all abilities,” he noted of continuing efforts to build this program.

Additionally, the new Bullwheel restaurant and bar at the Summit Lodge is now open Fridays through Sundays with live music on Saturdays. The Bluebird Express lift has expanded hours until 7 p.m. on Saturdays, and the new Family Camp offers families the opportunity to “unplug and reconnect” (mobile devices not allowed during Camp activities), he added.

These are just four examples of resorts building summer business. Stratton, Okemo, Sugarbush, and Stowe are also growing summer programs. Next week look for a feature on Killington Resort’s summers — past, present, and future.

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