A fter a banner snow year during the 2010-2011 ski season, many Colorado resorts and avid snow lovers were disappointed with last year’s drab winter and low precipitation.
Some Colorado resorts closed early and recorded drops in both revenue and skier visits. Other smaller ski areas with shorter commute times from the Denver metro area raked in the skiers and boarders during a few scattered powder days.
Nationally, ski resorts saw a 15 percent decrease in skier visits last season, according to the Kottke End of Season Survey. The same survey found that the 2011-2012 season had the lowest national average snowfall since the early 1990s.
Along Colorado’s Western Slope, precipitation was 43 percent below average, according to nonprofit ski industry trade organization Colorado Ski Country USA.
The organization recorded an 11 percent drop in skier visits across the 22 member resorts last year. During the 2010-2011 season, the 22 member resorts saw 6,946,826 visitors, compared with 6,163,278 during the 2011-2012 season.
Officials at ski areas across Colorado say they have put last year’s dismal performance behind them, have invested in the future during the off-season and now are looking to the coming season with optimism.
Most of all, they are keeping an eye to the skies and hoping for a steady dose of snow all winter long.
Snow — it’s critical to the resorts drawing big crowds, but is also the big unknown over which they have no control.
Nezette Rydell, meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service in Boulder, said it’s difficult to predict the amount of snow Colorado will see this season.
“Some years are more forecastable than others,” she said. “We’re wish-casting with the rest of you.”
Rydell said the state could see weak El Nino or neutral conditions this winter, adding that there is nothing in the forecast that points to tons of snow.
“There aren’t good strong signs that we can say one way or another,” she said. “We could see normal snowfall; we could see above or below.”
Joel Gratz, meteorologist and founder of OpenSnow.com, said he is optimistic for the upcoming season.
“Statistically, if last year was the worst year in the last 30 years for many areas, then chances are this year will be better,” he said, adding that he doesn’t find long-term forecasts to be accurate. Gratz said he encourages skiers to focus on each individual storm, and then decide where to ski that day.
No snow, no skiers
Arapahoe Basin saw more than a 20 percent decline in skier and snowboarder visits last season, General Manager Alan Henceroth said.
“Last season was not particularly great for us,” he said, blaming a lack of snow for the decline. “People just didn’t want to ski last season. We’re trying to put that behind us and move forward.”
Arapahoe Basin will have a new conveyor lift, beginner’s trail and terrain park for first-time skiers called the Pika Place Learning Area to draw more families and young skiers. The resort purchased a new snowcat for the upcoming season, redesigned the website and upgraded the ticket-scanning system, Henceroth said.
He added that A-Basin also upgraded the sewer system and installed AT&T cell phone signal boosters for better cell reception on the mountain.
Henceroth said the ski area will take each storm as it comes without trying to predict the outcome of the whole season.
“To be honest, I don’t put a lot of weight in long-term forecasts,” Henceroth said.
Vail Resorts, which includes Beaver Creek, Vail, Keystone and Breckenridge, recorded a 9 percent decline in skier visits at its Colorado resorts, though season pass revenue was up 12.8 percent across all resorts, according to Broomfield-based Vail Resorts Inc.’s fiscal third-quarter statistics.
Vail Resorts saw more than a 50 percent drop in snowfall across all resorts in what CEO Rob Katz called “the most challenging winter in the history of the United States ski industry.”
Overall, Vail Resorts’ revenue remained steady, with a 0.9 percent increase in net revenue across all resorts.
This season, Vail celebrates its 50th anniversary with the addition of a new 10-passenger gondola to replace the Vista Bahn Express Lift. In late February and early March, Vail will host the Burton U.S. Snowboarding Open.
Breckenridge received late-summer approval for a 543-acre terrain expansion set to be completed by the 2013-2014 season.
At Loveland Ski Area, skier visits were down more than 10 percent, said John Sellers, the resort’s spokesman.
“It wasn’t the end of the world,” Seller said. “We were coming off our biggest season in the history of Loveland. We’re comparing one of the slowest snow seasons to one of the snowiest.”
Sellers said skier visits “weren’t too far off” the resort’s average numbers, adding that Loveland was able to stay open for 199 days even with the lack of snow.
The still-slumping economy worked in Loveland’s favor, Sellers said, because people continue to pinch pennies.
“When they look at gas costs and ticket costs, you can ski at Loveland for half of what you pay at bigger resorts and still get an authentic Colorado experience,” Seller said. “We’ve seen a lot of people make the decision to ski here instead of driving through the tunnel.”
Loveland turns 75 this season, and Sellers said a birthday party is in the works for January. The ski area completed renovations to its mountain cabins, and this season skiers can ride a 20-passenger snowcat to the hike-to terrain, Sellers said.
Eldora Mountain Resort, on the other hand, had “by some accounts, a record season,” spokesman Rob Linde said.
Boulder County’s only ski area had a few well-timed snows, Linde said.
“No one else in the state got the snow that we did,” he said. “It was completely isolated to the Front Range. We had people literally coming from all over the state.”
Upslope storms caused the sudden bursts of powder around the Christmas holiday and the first weekend of February, Linde added. Skiers and snowboarders flocked to Eldora so much that the resort had to turn people away once the parking lots filled up, he said.
Linde attributed increases in both skier visits and revenue to Eldora’s proximity to Denver.
“People don’t want to drive as far,” Linde said. “They want to continue to ski, however they may change their focus a little bit and not be willing to travel as far or pay as much. We’ve really done just fine through this economic downturn. It has helped small, local ski areas in general.”
Eldora is still waiting to begin construction on its master plan, which was accepted by the U.S. Forest Service in February 2011. The plan includes additional lifts and terrain, though “no dirt has been turned yet,” Linde said.
The resort also purchased 50 new high-efficiency snowmaking guns for the upcoming season.
–Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.