By Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger
It’s the season for superlatives at Vermont ski areas, thanks to early snowfall and below-average temperatures.
Killington Resort opened Oct. 19 and will boast 75 days of operation before the year closes on 2018.
The ski areas have been making the most of the cold – making snow early before being flooded with visitors over Christmas and New Year’s weeks.
“They lay down their base now, and a weather event like tomorrow’s (rain and thaw) isn’t going to affect them that much because they have built such a thick base and can regroom the top,” said Adam Smith, the director of communications for the Vermont Ski Areas Association in advance of the past weekend rains.
Several Vermont ski areas had their earliest opening days in history this autumn, including Magic Mountain, Mad River Valley, and Mount Snow. Smugglers Notch had the most terrain available on an opening day in its history.
Smith was at Sugarbush ski resort Thursday, Dec. 20, for Gov. Phil Scott’s weekly press conference, an event that was dedicated to the release of the latest tourism data for the state and a shout-out for the industry.
After manufacturing, tourism contributes the most money to Vermont’s economy, Scott said. The industry generates more than $1 billion in wages and $391 million in taxes per year, he said. And the Scott administration is hoping that tourism will help the state address its population decline.
“When we increase the number of visitors to Vermont, we introduce more people to all we have to offer,” Scott said. “Good jobs, opportunities for investment, a safe place to raise and have a family.”
Scott and Wendy Knight, commissioner of the state Department of Tourism and Marketing, released a study carried out every two years that shows some data about visitors to Vermont and where they spend their money. The most visitors (21 percent) come from Massachusetts; next are New York (17 percent), Connecticut (9 percent), New Jersey (7 percent) and New Hampshire (7 percent).
Among second home owners, 25 percent have a primary residence in New York, 19 percent in Massachusetts, 9 percent in Connecticut, 8 percent in Florida, and 6 percent in New Jersey, the report showed.
A full 20 percent of Vermont housing is second home ownership, the report said. Of that, 50 percent of second home property tax is generated from Vermont’s southernmost four counties: Rutland, Windsor, Bennington and Windham. Second home stays rose 3 percent between 2015 and 2017.
Knight said rooms receipts show a growing number of tourist stays, with a 14 percent increase between 2015 and 2017 – a jump due in part to Airbnb and other short-term rentals, which were included in the category for the first time. The report also showed that southbound traffic volume on Vermont’s interstates on Sundays and holidays has increased 30 percent since 2008.
About 13.1 million people visited Vermont in 2017, with 7.8 million overnight stays, 42 percent of them at lodging, 30 percent at second homes, 24 percent with friends and family, and 4 percent at campgrounds.
An analysis of credit card spending in 35 ski towns shows that outsiders are spending more than Vermonters in every season except spring, according to the study.
“While all four seasons are important, winter really sets Vermont apart,” said Scott. “New Hampshire and the New York Adirondacks and the Catskills don’t show the strength we do. The Vermont brand is known and respected throughout the world.”
Both Scott and Win Smith, the owner of Sugarbush, spoke of factors that are slowing growth: a lack of employees and a shortage of housing. Vermont has 15,000 fewer workers now than it did in 2009, Scott said.
“The first thing people are asking in job interviews is, ‘Do you have housing? Housing I can afford?’” said Smith, adding that the resort has created housing for 130 employees.
Scott said the state’s Stay to Stay program, launched this year as a way to show Vermont visitors their options for moving to the state, will continue in the coming year. Rutland was one of the first towns to launch the program. He said of 140 visitors who participated this year, 44 have moved to Vermont or say they plan to.
“What it tells me is those types of incentives work,” Scott said. “We want to build upon that. We should use that as an example of what we can do as we think outside the box, and find creative ways to attract people to the state.”
Meanwhile, ski area operators and tourism officials were looking ahead. Unseasonably warm temperatures and rain were forecast just before Christmas followed by colder temperatures and (hopefully) snow.
“We’ve had a really good five-week run, but this is northern New England and it’s volatile,” said Smith. “We’re going to see that this weekend, unfortunately. It’s coming early enough so I think we can recover in time for the Christmas holidays.”