by Dan Richardson
Life's not a beach -- it's a ski slope. At least, that's the feeling at Inland Northwest ski areas, which are reporting soaring
business. The numbers of skiers are up over last year 10, 20, even 40 percent.
The reasons for the season, ski operators say, are good snow and perhaps also people's desire to stay close to home in uncertain times.
"I think the Inland Northwest in particular has an appetite for good snow. In our industry, people will come out when it's good," says Patrick Nowak, assistant general manager for Silver Mountain. This year, "It's been very good."
Inland Northwest ski areas say they received more snow in December 2001 -- in the 100-inch neighborhood -- than all of last season.
Over the holidays, 15 to 20 percent more skiers visited Silver Mountain than last year at the same time, according to Nowak. Last year was particularly slow for the ski business, given the low snow levels, but the increased business is still impressive, operators say.
"The numbers are up hugely for us," agrees Lisa Gerber, marketing coordinator at Schweitzer. In December 2000, Schweitzer saw 57,000 skier-visits. This year, the number was 65,000 -- a 14 percent increase, and a holiday record. And at Lookout Pass, on the Idaho-Montana border, President Phil Edholm boasts a whopping 40 percent increase over last year. In hands-on terms, that means that Lookout's 50 new rental snowboards still weren't enough to cover demand during two days over Christmas.
"Those are problems you like to have," says Edholm.
For ski areas, snow is white gold. It's what draws people out of their homes to the mountains. But while the holidays brought cheer to ski areas and skiers alike, much of the Christmas powder has melted and compacted from the recent thaw. Several mountains saw rain. Operators spin that weather, though, saying that just means they have a solid snow base for spring skiing. Anyway, there's always a post-holiday lull in business. So if there's a let-up in the weather, says Mount Spokane's Randy Chambers, this is the best time for it. And there's a lot of skiing left, as resorts stay open well into March, as long as the snow holds up.
This season, operators of destination ski resorts, as in Colorado, thought ski vacationers would stay away because of uncertainty about airlines, reports Stacy Gardner Stoutenberg, spokeswoman for the National Ski Areas Association. But high powder and reasonable travel deals enticed skiers to slopes around the country, especially in the West, she says. (Initial reports, however, indicate the Inland Northwest's business has boomed more than most places.)
Given safety or powder snow, says Gardner, "Snow definitely takes precedence."
Some anecdotal evidence suggests uncertain times channeled skiers to the local mountains, too. Silver Mountain claimed a "little bigger rubber tire market from the surrounding region," says spokesman Nowak. "I know a large portion of the people from Seattle who visited this year say they came here because they could drive."
While they're hoping for more snow, of course, Nowak and others in the biz aren't just looking at the next weather report, but at next year. Reinvesting in the mountain is the name of the game. Several Inland areas have recently made noteworthy additions, or plan to do so soon.
Lookout, one of the area's smaller ski resorts, could nearly double in size from 18 to 29 runs if its expansion plans are approved this spring. First comes an environmental impact statement for the two-lift, 11-run expansion, due perhaps as early as the end of January, according to Edholm. Following that statement, the U.S. Forest Service allows the public a 30-day comment period, followed by its decision.
Also this spring, Schweitzer's $15-million White Pine Lodge condo development is scheduled to open in March, according to spokeswoman Gerber. So far, people have purchased 35 of the 50 condo units, and the six shops in the lodge -- restaurants, clothing, wine, real estate -- have been open since Christmas Eve.
Silver, meanwhile, is laying the foundation to become an all-purpose winter sports mountain, with skiing as a core recreation. This year, the area began marketing its summer bike trails for snowshoers, and unveiled an ice-skating rink and snow-skating park.
"It's given us a whole new feeling here," says Nowak, Silver's spokesman. "The way it's working for us is that Dad might ski, Mom might snowshoe or skate, the kids skate or ski. It's much easier for a family with non-skiers to come up and have a good time."
Mount Spokane continues its upward arc since the nonprofit Mount Spokane 2000 took over five years ago, says Chambers, the group's director of mountain operations. Good snow helps, he says, but so does a ski area being able to define its mission well. Four years ago, for example, about a hundred people signed up for Mount Spokane's post-Christmas learn-to-ski program. This year, it's 600 people.
Says Chambers, "I think we found our market niche, as far as being the local ski hill, because people are coming up here to learn to ski."