March 17, 2013

Skiing in Maine: Snowstorms showed great timing this year, for skiers and resorts


We've reached the point in the 2012-13 season when we're able to assess just how good it has been, both from the standpoint of skiers and boarders and the ski area operators.

With some areas closing down, setting closing dates in the near future, or curtailing and limiting operations, the end is in sight ... although we could be looking at another month or more of fun on the slopes, probably until Easter and beyond.

From my discussions with skiers, my own experience with nearly 70 days on the boards (and still counting), and from conversations with a wide variety of people involved in the business, I feel comfortable summing up the season in one word -- great.

In fact, while I've had the chance to venture to both New Hampshire and Vermont for some turns this season, our conditions here in Maine have been far superior to anything I found further afield.

Who better to speak for the entire industry than Greg Sweetser, Executive Director of the Ski Maine Association, with a membership of 19 alpine areas and a similar number of Nordic facilities.

Greg recently reported to me that one of the hallmarks of this year's season was the successful trifecta of high quality conditions during all three of the critical school holidays: Christmas, Martin Luther King weekend, and February vacation. Traffic during those three periods can make the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful season, and the timing of early favorable snow making temperatures followed by three significant and timely snow falls couldn't have been better.

Said Sweetser: "The first major snow storm just before Christmas Day boosted trail counts to 100 percent open at most Maine ski areas, and the result was a huge turnout for the final weekend of the vacation."

He summed it up best, when he remarked, "The year's well-timed snowstorms were a huge boost to both morale and business, and having snow not only in the mountains but in population centers really helped to provoke people to get out and head for the hills."

The big winners were the state's cross country centers, considering their dependence on natural snow, and the Christmas storm enabled them all to open for the vacation period.

Echoing Sweetser's comments about the importance of getting natural snow at the right time was Mount Abram owner Matt Hancock, who told me, "Timely snowfall, together with no market uncertainty from last year's devastating preseason fire that destroyed our base lodge, finds us enjoying this March much more than last."

He went on to say that both ticket, food and beverage sales at Mount Abram are up over 35 percent from last season, and he fully expects that by his area's projected closing date on Easter Sunday, March 31, it will have eclipsed its all-time skier visit mark of 40,500.

Over on the coast, Andrew Dailey, the marketing and ski school director at the municipally-owned Camden Snow Bowl, is just as bullish on the 2012-13 season.

"It's been a great one as far as both traffic and snow conditions," said Dailey. "This is the first season in the past eight years here at the Snow Bowl that we had the big T-bar running all the way to the summit during Christmas vacation week. And we've been blessed with great snow all season."

William "Fitzy" Fitzgerald, Camden's mountain ops chief, shared Dailey's enthusiastic assessment. "Our new high-efficiency snow guns really helped us assure superior conditions before and between storms, and we're looking forward to doubling our coverage as soon as our redevelopment project gets underway," he said.

He was referring to the area's $6.5 million upgrade and expansion that will commence upon completion of a private fund-raising project that has already generated nearly $4 million. Another $500,000 will then trigger a $2 million municipal bond, enabling the project to get in full swing -- probably during the summer of 2014.

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