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Snow business

Early storm may be a bonanza for N.E. ski resorts

At Sunday River in Maine, skiers plotted their trail strategy on Sunday. The snowfall is good news for New England’s ski resorts. At Sunday River in Maine, skiers plotted their trail strategy on Sunday. The snowfall is good news for New England’s ski resorts. (Fred Field for The Boston Globe)
By Eric Wilbur
Globe Staff / December 28, 2010

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New England ski resort owners got their Christmas gift one day late — and just in time for the critical holiday week.

The blizzard, which dumped more than a foot of fresh snow in the mountains, also put snow where the resorts usually need it most: in Boston and other low-lying population centers.

Resort owners have long believed that skiers need to see snow at home to be convinced that conditions are good in the mountains. And even before this week’s bounty, New England ski areas were already upbeat about the season heading into the all-important holiday period.

“It’s absolutely perfect timing. It is 16 inches of the most perfect timing you can get,’’ said Darcy Liberty-Morse, spokeswoman for Sunday River in Maine. “I think the skiers coming here later this week are going to be pleasantly surprised and happy.’’

With the recession over but the economy hardly in full swing, New England resorts say that, so far, ski-and-stay bookings are even with or slightly better than last year. The Northeast was the only region that had a decline in skier visits in the 2009-2010 season, according to the National Ski Area Association.

One big problem last year: too little snow. While the winter started off promising, only a handful of memorable storms hit New England for the remainder of the season, and snow totals throughout the Northeast were down 21 percent from the previous year, according to the national association.

“If there isn’t snow in peoples’ backyards in Portland or Boston, it’s more of a challenge to get people to think about skiing,’’ said Sugarloaf spokesman Ethan Austin.

That had a ripple effect in the local economies around the ski mountains, where the resorts are typically the largest source of jobs and revenue. In Vermont, for example, hotel tax revenues were down substantially in Rutland County, where Killington is located, and in counties of Essex and Orleans, which hosts the Jay Peak ski area. While many factors could contribute to the declines, the numbers suggest skiers and riders opted for more one-night stays and day trips — or didn’t come at all.

But so far this year Jay Peak has already notched 93 inches of snow. Spokesman J.J. Toland said Jay Peak is on pace to have its best December ever, with bookings at the hotels at 90 percent capacity during the holiday week, and up to 100 percent for New Year’s weekend.

Bookings for this holiday week are also up at Killington Mountain in Vermont, and spokesman Tom Horrock predicted the resort will receive a lot of last-minute reservations.

“Last year we saw about 25 percent of bookings within 3 to 4 days of arrival, and we expect to see the same as last year,’’ he said. “It’s a wait-and-see attitude. People want to see about snow, wait, and pull the trigger.’’

At the Balsams, an all-inclusive resort in Dixville Notch, N.H., there is already a waiting list for New Year’s Eve reservations, a sold-out package that includes skiing, accommodations, and meals. Spokesman David Donahue said it is “one of the best early seasons we’ve had in quite a few years.’’

Likewise, at Sugarbush, in Warren, Vt., bookings were well up, and by last week reservations for lessons at the ski school had increased 25 percent.

“Snow always tends to make the phones ring, but they were ringing beforehand too,’’ Sugarbush spokeswoman Candice White said. “I think we’re in a perfect position right now,’’ with the snow allowing the resort to open more and more ski runs in the early season.

In order to combat the “backyard effect’’ of low snow in the cities, many resorts have begun to use social media tools to deliver visual proof their mountains are skiable.

“People can see what conditions we have on any given day,’’ said Liberty-Morse, of Sunday River. “The combination of our social media channels has helped bookings be above where they were at this time last year.’’

With more than 18,000 fans on Facebook and almost 4,000 followers of its Twitter feeds, the Newry, Maine, resort aggressively uses social media to provide customers with images and video footage of daily conditions.

“It is leaps and bounds different,’’ added Austin of nearby Sugarloaf, which has almost 23,000 followers on Facebook. “The message gets out so quickly now; it’s totally changed the way we operate, for sure.’’

There’s still no better marketing tool than the real thing. The storms hitting Greater Boston over the past week or so are nothing but good news for the New England ski industry.

“It’s amazing what a little bit of snow can do,’’ Toland said.

Eric Wilbur can be reached at ewilbur@boston.com.