By Paul McHugh
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 30, 2008
The top concern for skiers and snowboarders is snow: how much, where and when.
"When good snows come, then we do well. Even in times that may seem difficult from a market standpoint," says Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, based in Lakewood, Colo. His group represents 329 alpine resorts across the United States that accommodate 90 percent of all skier and snowboarder visits.
But this season, given falling stock prices and dwindling bank balances, good discounts and smart deals must run close behind on skiers' wish lists.
The association's special report on the current season confirms that. While it points to the loyalty of the skier-snowboarder base, it warns that resorts must be ready to stimulate demand by "creating the right products for each of your key market segments." In plain English, that means: Make deals. And resorts are doing just that. Which means that savvy skiers and snowboarders will be able to find newly sweetened offers. The further into the season we go, the better those deals could be.
Distant-destination resorts, defined as those far from major airline hubs, are reporting 10 to 20 percent reductions in non-holiday bookings, so expect to see Web postings and ads for seductive packages. That destination decline doesn't mean demand from East Coast skiers has vanished; it's only shifting to lower-cost, drive-up resorts in Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire and Vermont.
To win back skiers staying closer to home, resorts out West are pulling goodies out of their swag bags. For instance, Vail Resorts' cluster of operations -- Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Arapahoe Basin in Colorado, and Heavenly in California -- is offering a deal: Stay three nights at a resort lodge, get a fourth free and get a $50-per-person credit for any baggage fee charged by your airline; buy a six-day lift ticket and score a seventh day's ticket free.
"We have to be flexible. We have to be strategic," says Rob Katz, chief executive of Vail Resorts.
Farther north and west, the sprawling Whistler Blackcomb winter resort complex two hours from Vancouver draws so much continental and international business that it can buy blocks of space on airlines and then resell discounted fares into Seattle and Vancouver. Those include last-minute bookings and group rates; check with the resorts' central reservations to score a seat. A fresh deal-sweetener for visitors is the "Peak 2 Peak Experience": Stay and ski two days and nights for $108 per person per night. The package must be booked by Dec. 19.
Stuart Rempel, Whistler's senior vice president of marketing, points out that those prices are in Canadian dollars. Economic turmoil occasionally breaks our way. In the past year, the exchange rate has improved 20 percent for Americans; the U.S. dollar is now worth $1.23 Canadian.
The "Peak 2 Peak" name is in honor of a new gondola, scheduled to open Dec. 12, whose cable stretches 2.7 miles between the Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, a spectacular ride that will whisk skiers over in 11 minutes at 1,427 feet above the valley. The gondola system was built for the 2010 Winter Olympics, which Whistler Blackcomb will host. And yes, you'll be able to schuss official Olympic downhill and slalom courses, because they've already been built.
Dropping down through the West, a skier's eye is drawn to the high, broad, isolated pyramid of Mount Bachelor and its eponymous resort, near Bend, Ore. Many of this resort's patrons are drive-ups and day-trippers from Portland, Corvallis and Eugene. But the mountain's splendid isolation poses a hurdle for multi-day "destination" travelers. Since they have to first fly to a major hub, then fly to the regional airport in Redmond, and then rent a car and drive 40 miles, well, they've got to want to come. Incentives: the first-ever five-day Mini Pass (non-holiday, $269) and the first three-day, ski-stay package at Mount Bachelor Village ($275 per person). Shuttles travel between the resort and Bend. More ski-stay deals from lodges in Bend and Sun River are in the works.
Two of California's large mountain resorts have proved attractive to destination travelers: Heavenly, at the south end of Lake Tahoe, and Northstar-at-Tahoe, at the north end. Both are served by direct shuttles from Reno-Tahoe International Airport. Heavenly offers all the deal-sweeteners of its sister resorts in Colorado and is close to the gambling and restaurants of Tahoe's nearby South Shore casinos. Northstar presents its own lodging options, now bulked up to 1,800 units, and ski-stay packages that start at $108 per person per night, a remarkable price when you consider that its daily adult lift ticket is $79.
Mammoth Mountain, another remote, splendid peak (11,053-foot summit, 3,500 skiable acres) on the east side of the Sierra Range, just became more accessible with the launch of daily one-hour flights via Horizon Air from Los Angeles. Mammoth's lures include $99-per-person, per-night ski-stay packages, offered until Dec. 17, and similar packages at $119, offered Jan. 4-29. Horizon should have one-way service from Los Angeles for $79 to $99 starting Dec. 18. After helping to improve its regional airport, Mammoth hopes to attract flights next year from the San Francisco area and Las Vegas.
Consider also California's Squaw Valley, on the west side of Lake Tahoe. Squaw hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics and offers some of the best expert terrain on earth. Ski-stay offers include an $87-per-person, per-night deal until Dec. 18, with one two-hour group lesson tossed in free; and a similar, $114 deal for three nights or more for a non-holiday, midweek stay.
For those sticking closer to home, don't be daunted if parts of the East Coast lack natural snowfall in the early season. Most resorts here have manufactured snow covering half to all of their terrain.
Shop for deals. Many resorts in the Northeast belt are counting on drive-up traffic from metro areas to remain robust, precluding the need for big discounts. Others choose to be proactive, just in case. There's an array of deals at the Snow Time resorts (Liberty Mountain, Whitetail Resorts and Ski Roundtop) in Pennsylvania. For example, their Advantage Card ($119 for individuals, $199 for families) provides 40 percent savings at all three resorts all day, every day. That means that an adult's one-day lift ticket at, for instance, Ski Liberty that costs $40 to $61 depending on time and length of session, would cost $24 to $36.60.
In New Hampshire, a multi-resort option such as the unlimited "Threedom Pass" for access to Bretton Woods, Mount Cranmore and Waterville sets you back a stiff $799. But if you want to go for just a few days and still score a 20 percent discount on rates, go the Ski New Hampshire Web site (http://www.skinh.com/anywhereanytime.cfm). There you will find day tickets in the $25-and-up range for 12 tickets or more. Once purchased, you can share the tickets with family and friends.
Killington in Vermont has a marvelous new deal. Buy an Express Card for $24. Then ski right to the lift line and have the card scanned, and your credit card will be charged for the day at $10 off the regular $82 day rate on Saturdays and holidays, and $20 off the $77 midweek price.
Here's a bottom line for winter sports this season. If you feel like a skittish consumer, shift gears. Become a smart consumer. Shop like you mean it.