Small Business

So Far, The Snow Business Is a No-Show

Peter Suciu, Special to
Key Points

Lack of snow and cold have cut business 30 to 40 percent in some areas. 

Record-high temperatures are being recorded across the country.

Squaw Valley, CA

There's no business like the snow business, except when there's little snow. The numbers mid-week were telling. Whiteface Mountain in Lake Placid, N.Y.: 46 percent of trails open. Elk Mountain in Pennsylvania: 13 of 28 trails open. Squaw Valley in California’s Sierra Nevada: 10 of 15 lifts open.

The lack of snow at ski resorts around the country has meant not only a disappointing start to the winter ski season, but a lack of business for small entrepreneurs who depend upon cold temperatures and the appearance of the white stuff to make money. While temperatures earlier this week in the East fell into the low teens and 20s overnight, giving snowmaking operations a chance to create a base, temperatures are heading back up. In the meantime, businesses are doing what they can to make up for a slow start to winter.

“It isn’t the lack of snow, it is the warmer weather that is killing me,” said Doug Miller, who owns Glacier Ridge Snow Tubing in suburban Rochester, N.Y. He told last week that his snow-tubing business was a complete bust in December, which saw little snow in the famously snowy belt of western New York. Last week, he said, “was the week kids were out of school, but with the weather we had we couldn’t make enough snow to get the runs open.”

Still, like many in the winter sports business, Miller remains optimistic about the rest of the season. He says there's plenty of time to catch up, as long as the snow arrives or temperatures fall.

Areas across the country experienced a December that was the warmest on record. And early January is offering much of the same: Record highs were recorded this week in normally frigid North Dakota and Minnesota, as well as the Sierra Nevada. Warmer temperatures have returned to the East. 

No Snow? No Problem for Ski Resort

“Obviously snow is always the major variable. We’re a realistic industry, and we know that this can happen where we don’t have epic snow across the country,” says Kelly Davis, director of research for SnowSports Industries America. She says that while post-holiday sales have been healthy, “if we get no more snow, it is a disaster.”

Even if the temperatures fall and the snow doesn’t, visitors still might stay away.

“There is a visual impact: Everyone wants to see it white with snow on the ground,” says Tom Dlouhy, owner of Rip N' Willies Ski Shop in Lake Tahoe, Calif., which is close to major resorts such as Heavenly and Squaw Valley in California’s Sierra Nevada. “What we’re not seeing are the California residents yet.”

Dlouhy says that the locals who might drive up for the day or weekend aren’t coming as they normally do, and there's been a lot of cancellations as people wait for the snow. The upside: “It’s a lot easier to drive up here when the roads are clear.”

Glacier Ridge
Photo by: Doug Miller

Those who booked in advance, such as vacationers from Mexico and Asia, were out in force during the holiday week, said Dlouhy. Still, he said, his business is down about 30 percent from last year.

The lack of snow is affecting skiers in Michigan, as well. Bruce Noren, co-owner of the Big Powderhorn Mountain Resort in Bessemer, Mich., says his clients, mostly from Wisconsin and Chicago, want to see snow.

“If they don’t have snow at home, they don’t think about coming,” Noren says. “We saw lighter holiday traffic because of the weather. We opened later than normal, and we opened on man-made snow, which is quite unusual for us.”

Noren says it's too early to tell if the season can be saved, but the holidays typically represent 30 percent of his business. “Our marketing effort will support any additional snow to try and bring in the extra traffic, but whether we can catch up is yet to be seen.”

In the East, a mid-autumn storm brought the promise of an early winter and a strong start for at least one ski shop, before the brakes hit in December.

“We had very strong pre-season sales, which began August 1 and went through Thanksgiving,” says Victoria Profetta, president of The Ski Company in Bloomfield, N.Y. A mild December, however, slowed sales. It’s something the company, which has been in business for 30 years, has seen before.

“We’ve seen snowy seasons and not-so-snowy seasons,” says Profetta. Preparing for a mild winter is as important for a ski-related business as it is for the average person to prepare for a blizzard, she notes.

"To get through the lean times, you need to keep everything in check; make sure everything is paid up and that you don't fall behind."

And while she says they can’t catch up entirely from December, she still expects strong sales, since more than 40 percent of sales during the season typically are generated after Christmas. As long as winter arrives.

“For some businesses there is time to still catch up,” Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, says, adding that colder temperatures and snowfall in some areas are making a good season still possible. “If the weather continues we might not set records with volume, but we could still do well from a cash-flow end. The likelihood of meeting cash objectives is still out there, even for the small operators.”

Doug Miller isn’t taking any chances. While colder weather earlier this week allowed him to start making snow, his complex also consists of a golf dome. During the holiday week between Christmas and New Year’s, his slopes were bare, but he was busy.

“People might not be able to use the skis they got for Christmas, but they have an itch and they were here to use those new golf clubs instead.”