Resorts Try To Lure Skiers Back After Last Year's Bust

There's a palpable anxiety in mountain resort towns this fall. After last season's abysmal skiing and snowboarding revenues, these towns are counting on heavy snow this year to make up for the loss. Now, analysts say without early snow, resorts may suffer a "hangover" from last year's disappointment. Luke Runyon reports for Aspen Public Radio.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Last year was a dismal year for the nation's ski resorts. A lack of snow kept skiers away. There is hope for a snowier 2013.

But as Aspen Public Radio's Luke Runyon reports, managers of resorts are worried the previous season's disappointment has left a bad aftertaste.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Susan Penland has been skiing in the Rocky Mountains for more than 20 years. Here's her assessment of last winter.

SUSAN PENLAND: It was dry. It was horrible. It was so disappointing.

RUNYON: And her disappointment hasn't gone away. In fact, this ski season she's staying off the slopes. In years past, she'd plunk down several hundred dollars on a ski pass.

PENLAND: That's a lot of money to gamble away that you might have a good time skiing this year. And there's no guarantees.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNOW MACHINE)

RUNYON: At Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, about an hour drive outside Denver, 10-foot tall machines blast powdery snow onto a ski run. This manmade snow allowed the ski area to grab headlines and TV coverage as the first in Colorado to open this year.

ALAN HENCEROTH: The idea is we try to do as many things as we can to mitigate the impacts of an off-snow year. And obviously snowmaking is the biggest thing.

RUNYON: General Manager Alan Henceroth says Arapahoe started making snow weeks ago to get skiers excited about the upcoming season and shake off any ill-feelings still hanging around from last winter.

HENCEROTH: It was not so great a year for us. With the lack of snowfall, our numbers weren't anywhere near what we'd like. We got through it OK. We were still standing when it was all said and done.

RUNYON: Arapahoe Basin wasn't alone with its sluggish revenues. Almost every ski area suffered last winter. Nationally, the number of visitors dropped nearly 17 percent. Each year, the industry contributes about $6 billion to the U.S. economy. Most resorts in the Northeastern United states closed early when spring started to feel more like summer.

Beth Barry is a spokesperson for Windham Mountain in upstate New York.

BETH BARRY: We had to close a little bit sooner than usual because it was 70 degrees over St. Patrick's Day, and a lot of resorts in the Northeast found themselves in the same boat as us.

RUNYON: Windham started this year's season pass sales way ahead of schedule, and discounted its prices to tempt skiers to the slopes.

But resort analyst Ralf Garrison says what ski areas really need is a few good snowstorms to remedy last winter's hangover.

RALF GARRISON: You're only as good in the minds of the consumer as their last experience with you, and if the last experience wasn't good, then they're going to be hesitant.

RUNYON: Garrison says after the lean snowfall, you can see a carryover effect in fewer bookings for the upcoming winter. Early season reservations are lagging behind, but later season looks promising.

GARRISON: Guests still want to come on their vacations, they really believe it's going to be a good year, but they're buying a little insurance by making their vacation plans later in the year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

RUNYON: Back at Colorado's Arapahoe Basin, dozens of skiers and snowboarders line up for the chance to fly down the ski area's only open run.

DENNIS FLANAGAN: Woo.

RUNYON: One of the season's first skiers is Dennis Flanagan, who comes to a stop just next to a patch of exposed grass. He says the bad snow last year had the opposite effect. It made him all the more restless to get out on the slopes this year. He bought his ski pass months ago.

FLANAGAN: Each year's different. You never know what you're going to get. So you just - you approach the season with optimism.

RUNYON: Resorts are hoping more skiers share Flanagan's optimism and fill chairlifts and hotel rooms for the holidays.

INSKEEP: For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon.

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