Skiing business slowed by rain

Monday March 14, 2011

After racing through much of the ski season at top speed, ski areas suffered a sudden slowdown by something the Berkshires hadn't seen for a few months -- rain.

Until then, it had been plentiful, frequent, glorious snow falling on ski trails up and down the Berkshire hills, defining a ski season full of promise, a promise not lost on skiers. They came out in force, and kept coming back.

"We were sailing through what could have been a very successful winter, but then two rain events suddenly changed it into a somewhat shaky winter," said Brian Fairbank, president and CEO of Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Hancock. "That brought the ski industry to a screeching halt."

In fact, Friday's rain event closed the slopes, but when they reopened Saturday, the skiers returned.

"We have about 2,100 skiers out there today," Fairbank said on Saturday, waving toward the slopes outside the window of his office. "Not bad considering we were closed yesterday."

This close to the end of the season, ski area operators are very protective of their snow base. A sustained rain event could be made worse by allowing skiers on the rain-soaked snow. And it's too close to the end of the season to spend the thousands of dollars it takes to make more snow because there would be little to no return on that investment. So they wait for the rain to end, regroom the slopes, and open up the next day, weather permitting, Fairbank explained.

Hopefully the crews made enough snow earlier in the season so that the base will sustain several bouts of rain and warm weather before the white begins to disappear.

"We had more than four inches of rain in about six days," he said. "But what's amazing is you can look up there and see no bare spots. So if the weather doesn't keep killing us, we could stay open until April 10. We might only open the slopes on weekends toward the end, but we'll keep going as long as we can. We'll run out of skiers before we run out of snow."

Nevertheless, given the strong start to the season, Fairbank noted, it will still go down as the second or third best season ever for Jiminy. The record season, in 2008-09, brought in about 275,000 skier visits. As of Saturday afternoon, there have been 244,300 skier visits at Jiminy Peak.

Presidents [Day] week, he added, was "good, not great." Skier visits were down about 17 percent from last year.

At Ski Butternut in Great Barrington, it was much the same, with groomers hitting the slopes every night to carefully nurse the snow base for maximum duration.

Butternut had already taken a hit when many of its Connecticut customers were taken out of the equation when schools canceled the Presidents Day week holiday because there had been so many snow days earlier in the winter.

"That really cut into our business from what it could have been," said Matthew Sawyer, director of marketing and sales. "Aside from that, we were on a record run until the start of March, when some unfortunate weather came our way."

But after being closed Friday for the rain, Butternut reopened Saturday to about 600 cars in the parking lot and plenty of skiers and snowboarders piling onto the chairlifts.

"We're not done yet," Sawyer said. "We're hoping to ski through March and into the first weekend in April."

To reach Scott Stafford: or (413) 496-6241.


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