First, let's paint the picture for a glorious ski weekend in the Washington area. Six to eight inches of newly fallen snow. Dazzling sunlight. Calm winds. Temperatures that have nudged above freezing by dawn and them climbed to the low 40s by mid-morning.
Now imagine yourself the manager of a ski resort within a couple hour's drive of the city. What's wrong with this otherwise perfect day?
"On a perfect day," says Hans Geier, general manger of nearby Ski Liberty in Fairfield, Pa., "everybody comes. We get 20 percent more skiers than on a normal busy weekend. They all come between 8:30 and 10:30 in the morning."
This sounds like a manager's dream. But, says Geier, the resulting rush of 3,500 or more skiers at ticket and chairlift lines makes the customers angry. "People say, 'I'm not going to come here next weekend. It's too crowded.' And the next weekend things quiet down."
Even in the best of times, it seems the problems of operating a ski resort in a place with short and frequently mild winters can be immense.
Still, improved techniques in snow-making, new marketing strategies, lot and condo sales -- and a stretch of cold witners -- have enabled local areas to report profits in recent seasons after sometimes rocky beginnings. And, say ski resort managers, this year looks bright as a result of the Christmas cold snap that allowed them to attract the profitable holiday crowds.
The rain cloud on the horizon is inflation, which the ski operators fear may send the cost of lift tickets (now about $14 to $18 on weekends) beyond the reach of many skiers. Nevertheless, many of the 20 or so resorts within a 5- to 6-hour drive of the nation's capital invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past year alone to add new lifts, cut new trails and build restaurant and lodging facilities.
All of which means more and better skiing for mountain enthusiasts. One of the biggest projects under way is the 260-room hotel, convention cneter and indoor-outdoor tennis, handball and swimming complex at Massanutten, near Harrisonburg, Va. The first 60 units of the hotel are expected to open in March, says ski area manager Charles Wines, and ground is to be broken then for the sports arena.
"Our total building budget," he says "is in the $15- to $20-million range. It's a big investment, but we feel its worth it." Massanutten's goal is to become a major all season vacation destination resort for this region.
Though skiing is a profit-maker for the resort, capital for construction has come from selling vacation time shares at the resort's condominiums and town houses, amounting to $15 million since April 1. These figures, Wines claims, make the operation "the most successful of its type in the world." Despite rising ticket costs, resort managers see few signs that the local skiing boom of the past 15 years is abating.
"It's a family sport, and one of the most fun things you can do in the winter," says Wines. "It's very, very exciting and exhilarating." But they are well aware that, even with its popularity, skiing remains "a risky business," because, like farming, it depends on the weather.
Snow-making machines -- essential for ski areas in the region -- have eliminated much of the risk but not all of it. To make snow, below-freezing temperatures are required, and even lower temperatures are preferred for greater efficiency.
"If temperatures stayed at 35 degrees this winter," says Wines, "then every ski area would be in trouble." Still, continuing investment in snow-making here -- enabling resorts to make larger quantities of snow much faster than they could before -- has had a tremendous impact on the business.
After boosting its snow-making facilities, Ski Roundtop in Lewisberry, Pa., increased its annual number of skiing days in four years from 80 to 103. "That's 23 more days," says general manager Sepp Gmuender, "and that can make the difference between a profitable season and a loss."
Last year, only 14 inches of natural snow fell at Ski Liberty, but it kept its slopes open for 106 days (until March 16), the longest season ever. It might have kept them open even longer because plenty of snow remained for good spring skiing. "But we had 10 skiers here on a beautiful day," says Geier. "In mid March, the Washington skier has other things to do -- tennis, golfing, work around the yard."
With chilly thermometer readings, Washington-area resorts, says Wintergreen (Va.) Assistant Manager Jim Rankin, "can offer virtually guaranteed skiing from mid-December to mid-March." Since 1976, the annual total of skiers taking to Wintergreen's slopes has increased from 76,000 to 139,000. Also a four-season resort, Wintergreen makes "a small profit," says Rankin. "Our major success in the last two years has been the sale of real estate -- lots, condos and homes -- to Washingtonians."
Even with snow machines, ski-area managers still "Think Snow." Ususally, says Homestead (Va.) ski area manager Sepp Kober, it takes a good snowstorm at the start of the season to convince city-dwellers there's enough snow for skiing.
"You can't really judge from the temperatures in the city." Though they've managed to get some control over the weather, ski-area managers remain worried about the effects of inflation.
Ski Liberty's electric power bills -- to run its three chairlifts from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily -- "astronomical," says Geier."Every year they go up 25 percent." The resort now is spending $450,000 a year for power. "Five years ago it was less than $100,000."
Grier also is concerned about the cost of higher minimum wages going into effect this month and about the cost of insuracne in the injury-prone sport -- "it's expensive, the third-highest expense after labor and energy."
With a U.S. ski-area average of between two and three injuries per 1,000 skiers, Liberty can expects as many as nine injuries on a busy Saturday or Sunday -- "anything from a cut from a flying ski to a sprain or a fracture. These days there's a lot of disloations."
Inflation also has delayed resort growth. "We do have a master plan to add more advance and expert ski terrain," says Wintergreen's Rankin. "But it's primarily a question of the money market. While interest in skiing far outpaces the expansion of ski areas, the constraint of high interest rates is making it very difficult to do any capital expansion."
On weekends, local ski areas already get about as many skiers as they can manage. Some say they cut off ticket sales when lift lines reach 15 minutes or more. Even a wait that long, says Wines, "seems like an hour when you're standing in the wind."
To bring in more business, most resorts are promoting midweek and night skiing, generally offering substantially reduced rates or bargain lift and lesson packages. It's a way, too, they say, to combat inflation -- making it easier for a skier on a tight budget to buy a lift ticket. "On weekdays," says Geier, "you get better-quality skiing and better service because the slopes are less crowded."
At Ski Liberty, the Tuesday Ladies Day is particularly popular. Lift and lesson go for $15 instead of the regular $23. Night skiing -- a boon particularly to resorts near metropolitan areas -- now makes up about 35 percent of Ski Liberty's annual ticket sales. And Massanutten last year increased its nighttime business "30 to 40 percent."
One problem the region's resorts probably never will resolve: The trails tend to be short and, for the most part, unchallenging. Are local skiers going to get bored and stop coming? Serious skiers say they are turning to racing featured at many resorts to put more "spice" into a day on skis. "We're not Aspen, Vail or Waterville Valley," says Geier, "We know that.
"Our goal is to create new skiers. When they get proficient, they go west. We expect that. I take my family and hopefully go west for a week.
"We look at our ski areas to improve your skiing ability, to get some exercise and for a little socializing."