Ski areas hope for ‘decent season’ out of dry winter

Taos Ski Valley skiers rest in the Martini Tree during the one significant snowstorm in January. In the absence of white-out conditions day after day, ski areas across the state are adapting their workforce and management of slopes and restaurants for better efficiency. Katharine Egli

It may be February, but ski resorts around Northern New Mexico are doing their best to make lemonade out of the abnormally dry winter season.

Aside from a tremor of snow Tuesday — quick enough for one to wonder if it was even real — the skies have been bereft of any meaningful precipitation, forcing snowmakers to run full-blast and forcing the Taos County ski areas to adapt with a spirit and marketing strategy of optimism and ingenuity.

It’s no secret that less snow equates to fewer visitors. But what’s less understood is the exact effect.

The dry spell’s impact to visitor numbers won’t be available until the end of the season in April when Ski New Mexico, the state’s ski industry organization, collects data from all eight winter sports resorts. While an official count is still three months away, Ski New Mexico Director George Brooks said a mid-January survey indicated a drop in visitation statewide by 25 to 30 percent. Brooks called the figure a “very rough estimation.”

Ski areas in Taos County declined to share visitor numbers with The Taos News, but they each offered an optimistic tone at the middle of the season.

Taos Ski Valley is “experiencing slower visitation than winter seasons with closer-to-average snowfall,” according to Sandy Chio, director of sales and marketing.

Kim Oyler, the marketing representative for Sipapu Ski and Summer Resort, didn’t offer specific numbers. Oyler admitted the season “got off to a slow start,” but added, “In general, visitation has picked up at Sipapu.”

Similarly, Red River Ski and Summer Resort director of marketing Nicole M. Nyznyk said the number of skier visits are “slightly up over last year at this time.” However, she credited the “overall decent season” to the snowmaking infrastructure that laces the mountain 12 miles east of Questa.

In the absence of natural snow, snowmaking is a necessity for ski areas to keep their business — and associated businesses in the industry — viable. It’s a process that demands both energy and water. At Red River, snowmakers can use 1 million gallons of water in a single night.

Brooks said snowmaking is producing “exceptional skiing” across the state but that all the ski areas are dealing with a “perception issue.”

And to deal with it, ski areas are getting creative with their promotions and tailoring the workforce for the guests they have and for the bottom-line efficiency they need.

When it comes to deals for consumers, Angel Fire resort is offering free night skiing with regular day passes. And in Taos Ski Valley, “we’ve been having fun and being creative with our lift ticket promotions,” such as two-for-one lift tickets for guests wearing red, white or blue during the Winter Olympics (Feb. 9-25).

TSV’s Chio also said the ski area, which was purchased by hedge fund manager Louis Bacon in 2013, has “adapted operations to be more cost-effective.” That includes “strategically managing” restaurants, shuffling the current workforce and accelerating some summer development projects “in order to tap into the staff’s ski set.”

For better or worse, the end of the season is in sight. But the resorts have a few big shindigs planned before everyone puts away their skis and snowboard for the winter.

Sipapu’s annual Fun Fest is coming up Presidents Day weekend, where employees build a massive snow castle repeats with stairs, slides and scavenger hunt. And from March 16-19, TSV is throwing a weekend-long celebration for the 10-year anniversary of snowboarding on the mountain.

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