If the early returns from last week's crucial school vacation period prove anything about the state of New England's ski industry, it is that business hinges more on weather conditions than economic ones.
"I'd rather have good snow in a bad economy than bad snow in a good economy," said Michael Carr, owner of the Golden Lion Inn in Warren, Vt.
There was a mix of both in the days following Christmas. As a result, business at many ski areas was initially down, and then picked up, according to operators, resulting in a decent showing overall. Given the reports that consumers are spending less these days, that's considered something of a relief. It would have been nearly impossible for resort operators to rebound from a disastrous holiday period. According to Karl Stone, spokesman for trade group Ski New Hampshire, December and February school vacations combined account for up to 33 percent of the industry's annual business.
The start of the vacation stretch, however, wasn't promising, with unusually mild weather eventually pushing temperatures well into the 50s. For instance, the Sunday River resort in Newry, Maine, was draped in a foggy shroud of melting snow on Dec. 28 as the snow base rapidly diminished. The same sloppy conditions were reported at other mountains, causing some skiers to stay off the slopes or head home early.
In Massachusetts, attendance at Princeton's Wachusett Mountain was off 75 percent the weekend after Christmas compared with the same weekend last year, said Wachusett spokesman Tom Meyers. That followed a five-day closure caused by the ice storm earlier in the month.
"One thing we've learned over the years is we can't count on Mother Nature," Meyers said. "Once again, she decided to take us down and remind us she's still here."
Fortunately for ski resorts, the brief warm spell gave way to more seasonable weather in time for them to salvage the week and - in some cases - even draw larger crowds than last year. As of yesterday, Sunday River was reporting 75 percent of its 131 trails were open.
In southern New England, a New Year's Eve snowstorm brought desperately needed crowds to smaller areas that rely on the whims of day skiers. Wachusett was even forced to cap its daytime lift ticket sales at 4,000 last Friday, making it the first sellout of the season.
Out in the Berkshires, business was even stronger - Jiminy Peak reported its best start in the area's 60-year history, with a season skier count of nearly 71,000 so far, 4 percent above normal.
In addition, declining gas prices have helped boost the region's ski industry. Six months ago, when prices hovered around $4 a gallon, some were predicting fewer skiers would be willing to travel north come winter. With the average cost of gas down to $1.63 a gallon in Boston, according to AAA, that's no longer an issue.
But while major resorts pronounced the holiday period a success, they remain cautious about the rest of the season.
"We're not celebrating quite yet, but we like what we're seeing," said Molly Mahar, director of marketing at Loon Mountain. Mahar said the Lincoln, N.H., resort finished the holiday week within 2 to 3 percent of last year's business levels.
Jen Butson, director of public affairs for Ski Vermont, a trade group, said that while unusual weather patterns affected traffic in the early part of the holiday week, most areas were able to rebound.
"People picked up on the fact that there was some fresh powder, and that was able to pick up the numbers," Butson said.
For example, Okemo Mountain Resort in Ludlow, Vt., reported Monday that skier visits were 7 percent ahead of the same period last year. Spokeswoman Bonnie MacPherson said that if the weather is conducive to skiing, Okemo is busy, regardless of the gloomy financial outlook blanketing the country.
"We're not seeing any impact based on the economy," she said. "It's really quite surprising for us."
Carr, owner of the Golden Lion Inn, said, "There's an element of randomness to all this. If there's a great big storm in Connecticut or Massachusetts, that's the best-case scenario for the phone ringing."
He said business was "better than average" at the 16-room inn during December. But Carr, like others who depend on the weather to help generate revenue, is also hoping the early part of 2009 isn't a repeat of three years ago, when a snow drought left New England with one of the worst seasons in recent memory.
So far this season, Mother Nature has given him reason to be concerned. While temperatures in ski country have been cold enough to make artificial snow, not much has fallen from the sky. And in keeping with the "mixed bag" theme of the past two weeks, a storm today is expected to bring a mix of snow and freezing rain.
Mark Pothier of the Globe staff contributed to this report.