Promising ski area season stalled when polar vortex arrived

  • Article by: JOHN EWOLDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 16, 2014 - 10:41 AM

This snowboarder took advantage of the jumps and rails when Buck Hill in Burnsville finally had a warm day on March 8. This photo was taken from a chairlift.


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This winter season delivered a thick blanket of snow for skiers and snowboarders.

Unfortunately, for much of the winter it was way too cold to enjoy it.

“The season felt like a bait-and-switch,” said Renee Mattson, executive director at Spirit Mountain in Duluth. “We were off to a great start, but business cooled off after the polar vortex kicked in.”

What many thought would be a record-setting year is turning out to be disappointingly average due to a surge of days where temperatures remained at or below zero.

At Spirit Mountain and Lutsen, revenues were down about 20 percent on bitter-cold days. Hyland Ski & Snowboard saw declines in attendance, but like all the other resorts, it was ­overwhelmed on warmer days.

“The severity and the duration of the cold couldn’t help but be a burden on ski areas,” said Luci Botzek, execu­tive director of the Minnesota Ski Areas Association.

Minnesota ranks eighth among the 50 states in the number of skier visits, according to the state ski association. Total spending for last year’s season was $401.2 million, including direct spending at Minnesota’s 19 ski areas and ski area businesses.

Nationwide, the sport is holding on to its ranks despite challenging weather, high technology costs and an aging fan base. The numbers of skiers and snowboarders age 17 or younger is only 9 percent nationwide, but the Midwest has the largest share, 35 percent, according to a survey by the National Ski Areas Association.

The Midwest’s advantage is that its ski areas are close enough to home for many school-aged kids to attend regularly rather than travel to a faraway destination resort. “They learn to ski here and are often content to ski Midwest areas,” said Chris Stoddard, executive director of the Midwest Ski Areas Association in Shoreview.

But the cold has made this season one of the most challenging. Normally, ski resorts can count on a big boost in business on snow days when school is closed, but the season’s snow or cold days weren’t a boon this year.

“They had to balance wanting customers and also wanting them to be safe,” Botzek said.

Statewide, it was the fourth-coldest winter since modern-day records have been kept, said Star Tribune meteorologist Paul Douglas. “Most of us are in survival mode after the toughest winter since the late ’70s for much of Minnesota,” he said.

With cooler temperatures in November, many resorts in the state opened early. Spirit Mountain opened Nov. 16, the earliest in many years, Mattson said. Afton Alps in Hastings opened Nov. 22 after new owners Vail Resorts Inc. poured $10 million into renovations.

Buck Hill in Burnsville turned on its chairlifts around Thanksgiving. General Manager Dan McClure described the ski season as uneven, at best. “The big days were bigger, and the slow days were slower,” he said. “We’re at about a draw compared to last year’s revenues.”

Many resorts closed altogether on the coldest days. Hyland shut down for five days; Spirit for seven, not counting several days when they closed a few hours early. Buck Hill was closed more days this year than in the last 10 years combined.

Most ski resorts don’t have that many big revenue-producing days except weekends, Christmas break, Martin Luther King and Presidents’ Day weekend. This year, Martin Luther King weekend had highs in the 30s, but Presidents’ Day highs were in the teens in the metro.

Ski resort managers said there has been one advantage to the cold — it’s great for making snow. But the ­negatives still outweigh such a silver lining, as lifts can break down when it’s brutally cold and there’s the threat of frostbite, Mattson said.

Extending the season

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  • At Buck Hill, maintenance worker Brian Stoltz cleaned the cafeteria in the chalet on a day when the slopes were closed because of cold temperatures.

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