Elmer Mulkins has been on the first chair of the season at Loveland, Colo., nearly every winter for the past 30 years. About a decade ago, Mulkins would arrive at the lift at 6 am to secure the prime spot. Then in the mid-Nineties, he had to move that time up to midnight in order to be No. 1 on opening day. Now the early birds are really flocking. So Mulkins, 77, pitches a tent and camps out the day before the resort opens in his bid to secure first-chair honors. This year, his wasn't the only tent staked out at Loveland's base.
It seems that despite the early season's limited terrain and spotty snow, many skiers can't wait to carve their first turns. But when Mulkins skis Loveland's final day in a couple of months-when the snow has corned up perfectly, when the decks are sunny, when the only use for a down parka is as a pillow on the car ride home-he'll have the mountain nearly to himself. That scene plays out across snow country as resorts shut down. "I find it ironic that we always close with a mountain full of snow but are willing to open with one run," says Bill Jensen, chief operating officer for Vail, Colo.
For much of the modern resort era, Christmas was seen as the traditional opening of the ski season. But during the Eighties, it was bumped up a full month to Thanksgiving. In recent years, skiing's expanding calendar has been stretched an additional month, so that a handful of aggressive resorts now regularly open before Halloween. This season, Loveland (Oct. 19), Keystone, Colo. (Oct. 22) and Killington, Vt. (Oct. 25) led the charge, with none of them having a significant amount of terrain open. Who's responsible for this opening-day gumball rally? "We're not driving the situation," Jensen says. "It's the marketplace."
Oddly enough, the increasingly early openings haven't boosted skier counts: Visits have hovered near the 50 million mark for 30 years. Still, the anticipation of a new season attracts the faithful. "I've been waiting for this," a skier said on Killington's opening day.
Many resort executives believe they have little recourse other than to rush into the season. "Our Thanksgiving drives Christmas bookings. That didn't happen in the industry 10 years ago," Jensen says.
Not everyone is pleased with skiing's schedule. "The areas are pushing the limits set by nature," says Rocky Smith of the Boulder-based environmental group Colorado Wild. Killington, for instance, receives a trace of snow in September and less than a foot in October. "Resorts want to change what nature can provide, and to do that means snowmaking, which uses a lot of energy and water," he says. Killington's snowmaking system pumps 7,000 gallons per minute, enough to stretch its season into June.
Is that money well spent? Instead of clicking into their bindings in the late-spring, many skiers are placing a golf ball on a tee or sealing a redwood deck. The question remains: Can the industry do a better job of selling late-season skiing or is it destined to be enjoyed only by skiing's obsessive-compulsives?
The Rocky Mountain region, which accounts for roughly one out of three lift tickets sold nationwide, racks up less than 6 percent of its total skier visits after April 1. The Northeast, less than 2 percent. The Midwest is off the radar screen. Obviously, many resorts close in March due to a lack of snow. But many others close due to a lack of customers.
As with most everything in skiing, scratch an issue and you'll find dollar signs underneath. "Resorts need to run two-for-one deals to drive April bookings," explains Vail's Jensen. "Lodging, lift tickets, dining-it has to be across the board. You need value to get people up to the mountains."
Or a great party. The World Ski & Snowboard Festival at Whistler/Blackcomb, B.C., for instance. The resort averaged nearly 14,000 skier visits per day during its annual 10-day spring festival last season. "There were days in April when Whistler/Blackcomb did more skier vvisits than all of Colorado," says Ed Pitoniak, senior vice president at Whistler.
Pitoniak doesn't buy into the out-of-sight, out-of-mind school of ski economics. "The common explanation of why people don't go spring skiing is that once the snow melts in their backyards their thoughts turn to golf," Pitoniak says. "The irony is that the areas with the strongest spring skiing traditions never have snowy backyards." Witness the big spring numbers coming out of Breckenridge, Colo., Mammoth, Calif., Killington and Whistler. These resorts are fed by commuters from Denver, Los Angeles, New York and Vancouver, respectively, which aren't snow-shoveling hubs. So what do these resorts offer to hook the late-season skier?
"We crank up our events calendar," explains Steve Wright, Killington's communications director. In the spring, Killington hasn't met a party it doesn't like. Most weekends are anchored by special events, with the spring showstopper being the annual Bear Mountain Mogul Challenge in April, which can attract up to 8,000 spectators. If mid-season skiing is all about snow, late-season skiing is all about attitude.
But attitude alone is not enough. "We're competing with all of the other warm-weather activities," says Rob Perlman, Mammoth's executive director of marketing. With today's skiers, expectations are high-from opening day to the last run of the season. To stay competitive, the ski industry needs to offer mid-season service levels at all times, concludes Whistler's Pitoniak. "If you show up at a resort in the spring and there is great snow all over the mountain but only half of the lifts are open and one-third of the terrain, you have a right to be ripped," he says. "If you go to play golf in the shoulder season, you aren't told you can only play 15 of 18 holes that day."
That's not to say the industry isn't trying. Most resorts offer cut-rate rooms and lift tickets as the season winds down, with enough concerts and "beach" parties to rival spring break. "Resorts are working hard to come up with compelling reasons for people to head to the mountains," Jensen says. "Spring skiing is important to skiing's image. We don't want to lose that."