By Karen D. Lorentz
The Vermont Ski Areas Association (VSAA) recently announced that Vermont’s ski resorts recorded 4,670,903 skier and snowboarder visits for 2015, topping last year’s 4,503,269 and setting a record since VSAA began directly tallying visits in 1992.
Vermont continued its number-one ranking in the East and also retained its lead on Utah, which had been nipping at its heels for third place. Utah experienced low snowfall and a 4.9 percent decrease to 3,946,762 skier days, leaving Vermont in third position, if not second, this year.
While Colorado continues to lead nationally with an estimated 11 to 12 million visits, second-ranked California which in a good weather year does anywhere from 6 to 8+ million skier days was an unknown at press time and not expected to release their numbers for another few weeks. However, several industry sources say Vermont may have moved to second place due to the snow drought adversely affecting California.
Vermont’s almost 4.7 million visits is not only ahead of its ten-year average of 4.2+ million visits but exceeds the projected potential that the state’s 20 areas are capable of doing in a good year, according to estimates by VSAA. In the 2000s, a good year most likely would see 4.5 million visits and possibly more in a stellar (weather) season, according to VSAA President Parker Riehle, who noted that on an adjusted apples-to-apples comparison basis, this likely topped the pre-1992 Vermont records when the state totaled skier visits using extrapolations and came up with estimated tallies.
“A near-perfect winter in Vermont allowed for both early openings and extended season operations, leading to the best season since VSAA began tracking visits. The abundant snowstorms and our statewide snowmaking prowess created ideal conditions for visitors, and widespread press coverage helped us get the word out that Vermont was the place to ski and ride this season,” Riehle commented.
Some extreme cold and occasional inundations of snow in Metro areas hindered visits and prevented a ‘perfect’ season, but the record snowfall in Boston still resulted in a positive gain for our overall market, Riehle noted. “The cold also provided ideal snowmaking conditions and proved the worth of Vermont’s statewide snowmaking efficiency upgrade and maintained our snowpack for an epic powder season,” he added. (Thirteen areas replaced 2,255 snow guns with 2,721 energy efficient “low–e” guns in 2014 for the largest snow gun upgrade in Vermont history.)
Additionally, Vermont’s ski industry garnered almost $220 million in revenues for state coffers via various sales, room, and meals taxes, an overall increase of 4 percent over 2014, with the rooms and meals tax revenue alone up 8 percent.
Killington operated for 192 days (Nov. 3 opening, May 25 last day) as opposed to 199 in 2013-14 but nevertheless posted a significant increase in skier visits, noted Communications and Public Relations Manager Michael Joseph. “Thanks to consistent cold and stellar snowmaking conditions, Killington and Pico saw a rise in skier visits of almost 10 percent, significantly higher than Vermont’s statewide 4 percent uptick. Midweek visits showed the strongest growth here, up 13 percent this season over last,” he reported.
Okemo Mountain Resort experienced a very good year, with over 601,000 visits, representing over 31,000 more than 2013-14. “Both visits and revenues exceeded expectations. An early start to the season, coupled with enthusiasm for Okemo’s new Sunburst Six heated bubble chairlift really helped propel us forward during the past winter. With the cold, snowy weather, we certainly picked the right year to unveil a heated, covered chairlift,” noted Dave Kulis, VP of Marketing and Sales at Okemo.
Kulis added, “Lodging room nights were up substantially, aided by a favorable spring season and good snow conditions until late April. Okemo skied right through the last weekend of April, which is later than usual. While not the longest season in Okemo’s history, it ranked up there very close to the top,” he said.
Candace White, marketing director at Sugarbush, reported “a strong winter season” with skier visits and lodging nights “up compared to last year. The mountain was open for 158 days, which is a long, strong season. We closed on the first Sunday in May. We also recorded one of the longest seasons on record for Castlerock to be open [Castlerock is all-natural, expert terrain area at Lincoln Peak]. It was open around 120 days,” she noted.
According to National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) preliminary reports, U.S. ski areas tallied an estimated 53.6 million visits, down 5 percent from last year’s 56.5 million visits — off the record high of 60.5 million in 2010-11 and below the 10-year industry average of 57.3 million.
Severe weather challenges and drought in the Far West and cold temperatures and extreme snowfalls in the Northeast resulted in all regions experiencing decreases. But the Northeast experienced the smallest decline at 0.8 percent and the Southeast was off just 1.4 percent with both regions ahead of their five-year averages. By contrast, the Pacific Northwest was down 36 percent.
Vermont was one of the few states in the nation to experience an increase in visits and the only state in the Northeast to do so. Snowstorms gave Vermont “the most snow of any state in the continental US,” Riehle said.
Visits bode well for future
The 2014-15 is noteworthy for likely being an all-time record because a different methodology estimated visits for non-reporting areas prior to 1992. That most likely inflated both 1987’s estimated 5.2 million visits and the other previous high of 4.85 million visits for 1988, Riehle explained.
Vermont also had 41 areas operating at that time compared to 20 alpine areas today.
A total of the all-time record-visits for each of today’s operating areas (most of which were experienced in 1987) would see a potential sum of around 4.6 to 4.8 million visits.
However, the more recent and accurate method of scanning lift tickets and season passes, resulted in most major players not seeing their earlier peak numbers again.
Dave Belin, director of consulting services at RCC Associates which compiles statistics and does studies for NSAA, explained that not only is scanning more accurate but that he has “never seen annual visits go up (over previous records) once an area adopts scanning.
Killington, Mount Snow, Stratton, Sugarbush, and Stowe all scan while Jay Peak uses the even more accurate RFID technology. Along with Okemo, which does not scan, these major areas have been under their ‘historical’ peak visits, which were mostly posted in the late 1980s.
Additionally, this century’s previous 2000-01 record of 4,579,719 visits was recorded when Ascutney and Bear Creek Mountain Resorts were operating, but they closed after the 2010 season. With this historical perspective, the 2015 season was definitely a winner.
Riehle addressed the significance of the record season, saying, “Coming off three incredibly strong seasons and this record year gives us incredible momentum with consumer confidence in Vermont’s ability to deliver on the market’s expectations and desires for an ideal winter experience.”
One indication of the season’s impact can be seen in early-bird sales for next year’s season-passes. Okemo’s Kulis noted, “Early indicators are favorable, with double-digit growth in season pass revenues through the end of April.”
Riehle said, “Very strong early bird sales are another indicator of consumer confidence in Vermont winters.”