As the economy lurches toward recovery, northern New England's ski industry is viewing the upcoming season with optimism, saying the amount of snow nature sends the region is a much bigger factor in determining how well the ski areas fare.
Improvements continued through the off-season at the three states' resorts, although not on a scale as when times are better. Like other businesses, the ski areas are finding new ways to feed their patrons' enthusiasm while being creative in luring potential schussers in.
New Hampshire ski areas, for example, are sending out text messages on the latest deals and promotions.
Ski areas are also banking on their proximity to bulging eastern markets that are within a day's drive of resorts in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, hoping to draw skiers who might hop on a jet in better times and wing it to slopes in the West.
"At the end of the day, it all comes down to snow," said Parker Riehle, president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association. Historically, when the snow is abundant, the ski areas do well, he said.
That's borne out as well in New Hampshire, where an all-time high as measured by skier visits was recorded two years ago. But even after the economy tanked last season, enough skiers showed up to give the industry its third-best winter, thanks in large part to the plentiful snowfall, said Karl Stone, marketing director for Ski New Hampshire.
"If it snows, it seems like we're doing pretty good," said Stone.
In Maine, the severe recession last winter sent many skiers and boarders to the smaller, family-friendly ski areas for which the state is known, said Greg Sweetser, executive director of the Ski Maine Association. While skier visits were down 2 percent in the state last season, Maine gained a little of New England's market share, Sweetser added.
Nationally, the outlook is positive, said Troy Hawks of the National Ski Areas Association. The industry drew 57.4 skier visits last winter even as the recession raged, accounting for the fourth-best season on record, NSSA said. Hawks said a lot of it has to do with the nature of skiers and snowboarders.
"People are passionate about skiing and riding. They still seek the sport out. It's really a lifestyle they choose," said Hawks. "Even during a poor economy, the ski industry holds up well."
Skier enthusiasm isn't everything. While ski areas try to outdo each other by opening first and strive to kick off their seasons by Thanksgiving, it's the back end of the season that's more critical to success, said Vermont's Riehle.
"In terms of any karma with the snow gods, I would gladly trade a Thanksgiving opening for a strong March," Riehle said.
With money tight, ski areas are concentrating mostly on improved snowmaking and grooming, with trails added on some mountains in the region. In Maine, a new 44-acre gladed area been added at Saddleback in Rangeley, and a new trail's been added from the peak at Shawnee in Bridgton.
Special night skiing dates are being introduced at Mount Abram in Greenwood. Sugarloaf in Carrabassett Valley and Sunday River in Newry improved their hotels.
In New Hampshire, skiers who want to stay up to date on the latest deals and promotions can sign up to receive text messages from "Moe Snow," a bouncing blue snowball character created by Ski NH and the state's tourism department. The marketing campaign includes a Web site, Facebook fan page and Twitter feed with such tongue-in-cheek postings such as "If a lizard can sell insurance, then a snowball can type!"
Gunstock in Gilford, which is completing a two-year $3 million expansion, has a new quad chairlift along with two new trails and two extended trails. Pats Peak in Henniker has a new lift-serviced terrain park. Cannon Mountain in Franconia Notch has been improving its Notchview and Peabody Base lodges.
In Vermont, a new Tram Haus Lodge at Jay Peak is scheduled to open in February. It will have 57 studio, one- and two-bedroom suites, a new restaurant, small coffee shop and bar.
At Middlebury Snow Bowl, a 40-year-old Worth Mountain double chair has been replaced with a fixed-grip triple.
Stratton Mountain added freestyle terrain and Sugarbush in Warren added 75 acres of wooded terrain.