February 13, 2009 in Idaho

Ski areas see improvements from December

Seasonal average still below last winter’s
By The Spokesman-Review
Jesse Tinsley photo

In a steady snow snower, snowboarders ride up chairlift 5, with the Ski Patrol building behind them, under the lights Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009, at Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park. A small amount of new snow made for good conditions on the groomed slopes.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Skiers and snowboarders flocked to the mountains in January despite the economic downturn, boosting revenues for Inland Northwest resorts hurt by the season’s late start.

Schweitzer Mountain Resort in Sandpoint reported record January visits, 25 percent more than last year. Other regional resorts said the month delivered visitors on par with last year or better.

“It’s been the second-best January on record as far as skier visits go,” said Eric Bakken, mountain manager at 49 Degrees North in Chewelah. “December was a late start; everybody was stuck in their homes for about two weeks there, so that didn’t help at all.”

However, the uptick in activity has not been enough to erase a seasonal decline over last winter of 15 to 20 percent at several regional resorts. The season started late due to weather patterns that didn’t dump enough snow on the mountains until early December, then crippled the region with record snowfall and frigid temperatures.

The five regional resorts – Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park, Silver Mountain Resort, Lookout Pass Ski Area, Schweitzer and 49 Degrees North – opened about two weeks into December. They opened in time to pull in crucial holiday season revenue, and January has leveled off nicely, allowing them to make up some lost ground.

Nationwide, ski resorts reported strong holiday revenue, according to the National Ski Areas Association. The NSAA said in January that skiers and snowboarders around the country continued to hit the slopes over the holidays despite the economy.

That was a pleasant surprise for Brad McQuarrie, general manager at Mt. Spokane, who said he usually takes his cue from retail shopping traffic during the holidays. If that holds steady, he figures skier visits will as well. This year, retailers reported disappointing holiday sales, but people in the Inland Northwest found a way to hit the mountains, McQuarrie said.

“I believe people want to get out and do things in the Inland Northwest,” he said. “The only thing I can think of is people value recreation more than stuff.”

Resorts are reporting customers watching their pennies and looking for bargains. Schweitzer has seen more visitors looking for a price break by going night skiing, which costs less, or buying half-day passes on Sundays, said Haley Sorbel, communication coordinator.

Phil Edholm, president of Lookout Pass, said he’s seeing more visitors bring lunches or take advantage of midweek discounts. Hundreds swarmed Silver Mountain last Saturday when free night skiing passes were offered to people who brought three cans of food for the food bank.

“People are watching their wallets,” Edholm said. “We’re not seeing as large of a crowd on weekends.”

Last month, Silver Mountain shifted from a seven-day schedule to five days, closing on most Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Season pass holders were compensated with four additional lift tickets to use however they chose and were offered visits at the resort’s new indoor water park. John Williams, the resort’s marketing director, said Tuesdays and Wednesdays accounted for 25 percent of operating costs but less than 5 percent of skier visits.

“It was driven by economic factors,” Williams said. “The midweek crowd thinned out considerably.”

Still, Lookout Pass, just 20 minutes farther east on Interstate 90, quickly jumped on what it saw as an opportunity, opening on Wednesdays and discounting lift tickets for other season pass holders by $10 on those days.

“When we saw that Silver cut that out, we saw a business opportunity. We saw a chance to see if Wednesdays were worth being open,” Edholm said of his resort, which usually runs on a Thursday through Monday schedule. “We’ve broken even. It hasn’t caught the world on fire. What it did show us was Wednesday was a viable day. All options are open.”

Contact Alison Boggs at (208) 765-7132 or alisonb@spokesman.com.

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