Considering New England's unpredictable weather patterns, the installation of snowmaking equipment at a ski area is something like buying a health insurance policy. During the peak ski period of Christmas week this year, two of the Valley's ski areas and one nearby resort have been collecting on those policies.
There is no question that business is down in terms of ticket sales at the three ski areas which have been able to have skiing up to this point. With only a limited number of trails open, the areas have had to restrict the number of lift tickets sold and have therefore lost out on some of the peak Christmas business, estimated to be responsible for up to 20 to 30 percent of the year's revenue. In talking with the general managers of the ski areas with snowmaking equipment, however, the general consensus was that this will be the winter that snowmaking proves it is worth the investment of time, labor, and electrical costs. In short, some business is better than no business at all, and without snowmaking, there would have been no skiing terrain available to skiers over the Christmas break this year.
In a normal winter, snow making is used in late fall when temperatures start dropping down into the 20s and teens every night. Later in the season, they are used to cover worn areas or to provide fresh coating when necessary. The snow guns spat out the denser, man-made snow to provide a hard-packed base, using either a combination air-compressor and water system such as those at Mt. Cranmore and Bretton Woods, or a Headco system utilizing only a water line like those found at Wildcat. The targeted opening date for a ski area with snowmaking equipment is usually Thanksgiving Day. But with this year's warmer than normal November, the opening dates had to be adjusted a bit.
"Snowmaking was frustrating for us in November because of the warmer weather and the heavy Thanksgiving rains," says General Manager Stan Judge of Wildcat. During the cold spell earlier in December, Wildcat operated the snowmaking machines around the clock, only to see the base damaged again by the Christmas rains. Despite those setbacks, the Pinkham Notch-based area was still able to provide skiable terrain on two of its slopes the rest of the week, and plans to open up the T-bar on its Bobcat trail by the weekend.
"Our investment in snowmaking in terms of cash flow is now starting to pay us back. I'm now very positive about snowmaking for two reasons: it's allowed us to open and is therefore generating cash, and secondly, it's prepared a good 5"-3' solid base so we'll be all set once we do get even a slight dusting of snow," Judge stated. He added that ticket sales averaged between 300-400 a day during the Christmas week, despite the limited number of trails and the closing of the lifts on Friday and Saturday due to high winds. The ski area can accommodate 1,500 skiers when operating with only two of its lifts, a figure which was reached during the weekend.
Cranmore Ski Area in North Conway was also limited by the weather in its snowmaking activities during November and December. A second factor they had to be aware of was that of possibly being restricted by the N.H. Electric Cooperative to use the snowmaking machines only between the off peak hours of 7:00 pm - 8:00 am. The Cooperative has not issued that kind of limiting directive, and Cranmore has been able to make snow day and night when the weather has permitted it.
Unlike Wildcat's Headcos, Cranmore's snowmaking machines are able to throw the snow over greater distance. Its compressed air and water system is more expensive than Wildcat's, but is also able to produce snow at temperatures above 27 degrees. Despite this advantage, Cranmore was able to make snow for its South Slope on only two nights of the Christmas week. Still, the mountain covered an 8-10" base on the trails by making snow 12 straight hours the week prior to Christmas.
The fact that there was only one slope available for skiing did not deter skiers from skiing, though Cranmore's Herbert Schneider estimated that ticket receipts were down by 60 to 70 percent from last year's. Skiers who did buy tickets adapted to the situation, carrying their skis across the bare ground at the base of the mountain a little farther than normal before climbing aboard the Skimobile at the North Conway ski area. For the area, the snowmaking machines meant business.
"Provided that it doesn't warm up drastically, our snowmaking cover should allow us to at least cover our expenses this winter. Snowmaking has paid off in that sense, since we've been able to stay in business and keep some of our employees working," noted Schneider. "Snowmaking can be a rough and risky venture, even a liability, which you take upon yourself. So far, it's helped bring the skiers here during the holiday week, and I'd like to think that skiers will continue coming, and we're doing everything we can so that they'll want to come back."
The ski area which appeared to be weathering the lack of a storm with the least amount of damage was Bretton Woods. The family area has not received its normal number of snowstorms this year so far, but its higher altitude has aided its snowmaking efforts and consequently its Christmas week business. The mountain has a total capacity of 1,700 skiers when all of its lifts and trails are open, and over Christmas week it sold out most days with its limited lifts and trails at 1,000 tickets. According to Eric Lazaroff, an executive at the mountain, 1,500 additional skiers had to be turned away each day.
In total, 35 out of the mountain's 135 acres of trails were open, all of it due to snowmaking.
"We could of course be happier if the whole mountain was open, but we're lucky to have done as well as we have," said Bob Schaeffer, Bretton Woods general manager. "Our electric bill last month from the Public Service Company was $18,000, which is high, but we've already paid that and then some through ticket sales. We'll continue to make snow around the clock as long as it's necessary and possible."
Scheaffer was confident that the skiers would continue to drive to the ski areas with the snow, regardless of the number of trails open. Herbert Schneider of Cranmore and Stan Judge of Wildcat weren't so sure, however. Still, all three general managers stated that they looked at snowmaking as both an economic plus for their businesses and also as a commitment to both the sport of skiing and to the economy of the area.
"I look at the snowmaking as a commitment to our season pass holders and to the promotion of skiing in the region. It's a psychological boost which does attract people to the Valley when the other areas don't have snow," said Stan Judge. "I believe that you also pay the price through hard work."
All of the areas have been accommodating the skiers by charging reduced rates for their tickets. As Dick May of Wildcat mentioned, though, the ski areas still have an overhead in terms of gasoline, labor, equipment, and electric costs which remain high regardless of the number of trials open. However, he added that few skiers had complained about $10 lift price charged at Wildcat for the two slopes.
On the whole, most of the skiers expressed an appreciation for the work done by the ski areas making skiing possible. "We wanted to get away from Fall River for the holidays, and since this is the only place with snow, we came," said one person while skiing at Cranmore on Friday. Another, Ed Boyle of Somers, New York, commented at Bretton Woods on Monday that the skiing was much better than he had expected. "I think they've done a great job with the snowmaking. We come here every year, renting a house for the entire season, and I've never seen anything like this winter," Boyle said. "It's a five-hour drive from home, though, and I'm not so sure I'm going to want to drive 300 miles just to ski on two trails for a weekend. But if it snows, I would make the trip."
Others commented that the Mt. Washington Valley offered enough entertaining activities as a resort to attract them back whether it snowed or not. "We were bound to come here for the holidays, and I think that I"ll still want to come here just on weekends from Framingham - I need it," said Mary Kilduff while skiing at Wildcat Saturday.
The fact that the ski areas limited the lift lines was also mentioned by the skiers as an example of how the resorts had accommodated them. One Massachusetts family noted that they were surprised by the beauty of the Valley and would return. "We were disappointed by the lack of snow, but then we just went hiking and enjoyed ourselves. We also were impressed by the shops in the Valley, which we'd never visited before," said Marc and Anne Grisaru of Boston.
Snowmaking proved its value during the Christmas week. The man-made stull is better than none, and the natural stuff is sure to come. As Stan Judge said, "It's still early in the game, Before snowmaking and grooming, it was common to have a January ski opening. Over the years, though, people have come to expect a lot of snow by Christmas or even Thanksgiving, and the fact is that some years it just isn't possible. I've been in the business for 18 years, and the thing I've learned above everything is that you can't plan the weather until it happens. Something's bound to change."
If it doesn't, at least he can fall back on his insurance policy. It's not just a snow job.