As La Niña unloads, is this ski season off to the best start ever?

La Niña is bringing down blizzards from Montana to Minnesota, helping some ski areas to record openings. SNEWS finds out why -- and why not -- the early snow might also result in a record season.
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Outrageously wet winter storms are pounding the country from Squaw Valley, Calif., to Seattle to Minnesota this week, where the weight of new snow tore open the Teflon-coated fiberglass roof of the Metrodome on Dec. 12, 2010.

In the northern Rockies, ski areas such as Jackson Hole and Bridger Bowl celebrated early openings with record amounts of open terrain. And in Utah, Snowbird and Alta have long since passed the 100-inch mark of snowfall this season.

“This is the best opening in more than a decade, with more terrain and more snow than many can remember,” said Loryn Kasten, Steamboat Ski Area’s public relations manager. “Being able to tout some of the best early season conditions really helps the phone ring. The holiday period is looking very strong.”

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Many resorts are already ahead of pace just on local and regional traffic alone.

“We had a strong start in November. Opened with more acreage than we had in over 10 years. We also had a deeper base than any opening since 1996,” said Jeff Hanle, Aspen Ski Co.’s public relations director. “Skier visits were strong and have stayed ahead of pace. It looks like we will be between 5 and 10 percent up so far.”

So with all of the early returns, it seems fair to ask, is this season off to the best start ever?

“No,” said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA). “It certainly is off to a very good start in certain parts of the West, but it’s been a little tougher in other regions.”

Berry said intermittent snow in the Midwest, the recent rain events in the Northwest, a “donut hole” of high pressure in the Southwest, and the fact that much of the East Coast wasn’t open for skiing over Thanksgiving has offset the strong start in the Western ski areas.

But given that U.S. ski areas recorded the second best ski season in history last year -- reporting 59.7 million skier/snowboarder visits despite mixed weather and adverse economic conditions -- Berry said he thinks the impact of the early snow will continue to create momentum through the season.

“Anybody who has any interest in winter weather is paying close attention to what is happening. You get together with other couples or friends, and it is a key topic of conversation,” said Berry. “Combine that with the fact that the fundamentals of the sport are so strong -- from baby boomers to their children to their grandchildren, we have three generations together on the snow right now -- and I would argue that even if the weather fights us a little, we could still have a record to near-record season when all is said and done.”

The first real results will start to roll in during the upcoming holidays. As Christmas and New Year’s travelers get their own personal taste of the great early snowfall, they are sure to tell their friends.

“Up until the Christmas holiday, a lot of bookings are built on the experiences of the previous season,” said Ralf Garrison, founder of the Mountain Travel Research Program (MTRiP), which exclusively tracks destination travel to mountain locations. “But once the destination guests start showing up for Christmas, they start talking about the snow on Facebook and Twitter and it becomes the buzz in their local communities. That really starts to set up the sales for the rest of the season.”

As anyone with a friend in one of those lucky Rocky Mountain towns knows, Facebook is already abuzz with POV reports on the early conditions. And with resorts such as Vail making large investments in social media, that buzz is quickly being turned into marketing.

“Resorts are harnessing social media technology more than ever before to communicate directly with their guests,” said Jennifer Rudolph of Colorado Ski Country USA. “Because of social media’s transparency, resorts talk directly to their customers about conditions, snowfall amounts and some are offering deals and promotions exclusively to their friends and followers.”

Which means that all of those locals better get their skis on while they can, because they are about to get a lot more company in the lift lines.

“We've had 11 feet of snow and it continues to snow,” said Dave Fields, Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort’s vice president of operations. “The nice part about so much early snow is people remember it all year. They hear the news that it's snowy in Utah and that really influences their booking decisions.”

--Peter Kray

On Oct. 6, 2010, veteran journalist Peter Kray joined the SNEWS team and is now editor of the new SNEWS WinterSports channel. We trust you are enjoying the full offering of WinterSports news. Be sure to email your friends and let them know the best WinterSports news has arrived -- just in time for the start of the winter season. Got WinterSports news? Send your WinterSports news to Kray at pkray@snewsnet.com. Subscribers can also post WinterSports news releases directly to the SNEWS website. Email us at snewsbox@snewsnet.com to learn about posting your own news releases, or for any other questions or comments. We love to hear from our readers!

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