By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 8, 2007
It's tough to begrudge these weeks of spring-like weather during what should be the dead of winter -- unless you're part of the multibillion-dollar ski industry. With its record-high temperatures and shortage of snowflakes, this winter is shaping up to be the bleakest in 25 years for regional ski resorts.
Resorts typically collect nearly 30 percent of their revenue during the second half of December and first week of January, according to the National Ski Areas Association. This year, however, lodges within a few hours' drive of Washington are relying on small patches of rapidly melting man-made snow, and several resorts have been forced to close their ski operations altogether.
At Liberty Mountain Resort in Carroll Valley, Pa., a popular destination for Washington skiers and snowboarders, the slopes have been closed since Dec. 15.
"We're a month late, so we've probably lost about a third of our season," said Eric Flynn, general manager of the resort and a 20-year veteran of the ski business. "This is the strangest season I've ever seen."
The freakishly warm weather also has taken its toll on employees. At the height of a typical season, about 1,200 people work on Liberty Mountain. This year, the resort isn't hiring the normal cadre of part-time and seasonal workers, and even the 60 regular employees aren't putting in a full week.
"We've had to reduce hours and cut shifts," Flynn said. Without money coming in to pay salaries, he's now giving out unpaid leaves, and some people are on unemployment until things cool down.
Whitetail Resort in Mercersburg, Pa., just north of Maryland, closed Dec. 23 after managing to stay open for 15 days. Massanutten Resort, near Harrisonburg, Va., closed its slopes Thursday, although the snow-tubing park still functions on a thin sheet of ice. Roundtop in Lewisberry, Pa., was down to two of its 16 trails last week, and it finally closed Friday.
"This is coming at an especially bad time," said Chris Dudding, marketing director at Roundtop. The two weeks after Christmas, when many people are on vacation, is usually a lucrative time for the resort. "It's going to start to get critical soon if the weather doesn't change."
Natural snowfall is not essential to a successful season. Resorts have spent millions upgrading their snowmaking equipment over the past decade. But without below-freezing temperatures to keep the snow, the skiing industry is losing its hottest commodity. On many of the region's mountains, expensive snowmaking machines have been rendered useless, surrounded by mud and grass rather than snow.
Some local resorts are scraping by, relying on an ever-shrinking supply of artificial snow. Wisp Resort in McHenry, Md., still has 15 trails open, surviving on the snow made early last month. At Bryce Resort in Basye, Va., the beginners area at the bottom of the hill is the only section with snow cover. Both resorts have attracted fewer than half the skiers they did by this time last year.
"We're losing snow every day," said Manfred Locher, co-director of ski operations at Bryce. "The forecasts don't look good. We may have to close temporarily."
People still looking for a dose of winter sports are heading to local ice-skating rinks, where business has been booming. The tiny rink set up in Reston Town Center was crowded with kids and vacationers last week, although puddles spread quickly under the warm sun.
Sandy Cleveland, who works at the rink maintained by Tri-State Ice Management, said she has to sweep away the melting ice every hour.
"Kids aren't going snowboarding like they used to, and they still want a winter activity," she said.
Times are almost as tough for retailers who count on the snow-sport trade. They get some traffic from ski enthusiasts who are headed west, where blizzards have blanketed the base of some resort areas with up to eight feet of snow. But it's not enough, store managers say.
"The winter has been killing us," said Rob de Luca, manager of the Helly Hansen store in Georgetown. "Our cash cow is our winter products. Fewer people are out here searching for a winter coat . . . and without any snow, not as many people are even taking ski trips."
He said sales of spring and summer gear will help offset the drop in revenue from cold-weather products. Other stores, like Ski Center in northwest Washington, depend almost exclusively on snow-sport sales. The sales of equipment tune-ups and rental packages are "way down," said buyer Jimmy Martin.
"We still have a lot of customers going out west, but they're not getting that extra jacket for this year," he said.
Princeton Sports, with stores in Columbia and Baltimore, is refunding the price of lift tickets purchased through the store. And it canceled its annual customer appreciation day, which was scheduled for Wednesday. The event at Whitetail Resort usually attracts major ski manufacturers to show off their new products.
Ski Chalet, which has three stores in the area, has lost much of its business since some of the local resorts shut down. "This weather makes people want to stop thinking about skiing and play golf," said Steve Choi, manager of the Arlington store.
Back at the resorts, a little revenue is coming in from warm-weather sports. Paintball players are flocking to Roundtop. Vacationers are toting kayaks and fishing poles to Deep Creek Lake. At Wintergreen Resort in central Virginia, golfers and day-spa customers are helping to offset the loss of skiing revenue. Massanutten Resort puts on murder-mystery dinners and magic shows.
Resort managers point out that all it takes is a few days of frigid air to blanket the mountain with snow. Wintergreen has 400 "guns" that can coat its 24 slopes with a thick layer of snow in a matter of days.
"We're counting on that pent-up demand to break out once the first snow hits," said Bob Ashton, president of Wintergreen Resort. "We can still salvage the year."