Skiing Through the Recession

JoAnn Hanak and her two kids are doing things differently this ski season. The Hanaks are skiing at Shawnee Mountain in Pennsylvania, a two hour drive from their New Jersey home. The family used to head up north for more expensive ski vacations at the Northeast’s bigger mountains, but because of the recession JoAnn said she and her husband changed their plans. “We were going to take them up to Vermont for a few days but because of the economy and trying to conserve money we decided to stay closer to home and to take advantage of the deals.”

Instead, JoAnn is learning to snowboard with her son and daughter for just $59 a day.

“Right now we’re going to be working on side slipping,” the snowboard instructor tells the Hanaks. JoAnn stands up on her snowboard and struggles to balance. “Start putting weight on the uphill foot.”

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Hanak is an experienced skier but figured why not try snowboarding with the help of a beginner’s special at Shawnee. “This deal was to snowboard for the first time – we were probably the oldest snowboarders. It’s been a lot of fun.”

Business is booming at Shawnee, a small local mountain that mostly serves area residents. Whitney Reynolds, Shawnee’s sales and marketing representative explains “Even though it’s tough economic times right now, people are still looking for recreation. They are still looking to have a good time.”

Shawnee is finding ways to make skiing more affordable by offering better deals and discounts this season. The mountain introduced the beginner’s package in January, which includes a lift ticket, rental equipment, and a lesson for just nine dollars more than a day pass. Reynolds says that there are good crowds this season and Shawnee has the recession to thank for increased business. “I do think we benefit from the tougher times. We are so close to metropolitan areas and instead of going to Vermont or Colorado and having to buy plane tickets, people come up here. They can still get away for the weekend.”

The more affordable midsize resorts in Vermont and Maine are also reporting a great season. Okemo Mountain in Ludlow, Vermont had its best Martin Luther King holiday weekend in eight years, with nearly 25 percent more skiers and riders compared to the same holiday weekend in 2009.

At Vail Resorts in Colorado, where a day pass costs 97 dollars, the number of skiers is down from last year. Chris Power who is skiing the mountain with his brother, remembers when it cost just $60. He says paying nearly a hundred is “pretty outrageous actually.” Despite the high cost, he and his brother decided to ski at Vail because his brother Stephen explains, “you have to have some fun sometimes. You can’t always try to save money. We’re on vacation.”

Joe Finkel who flew here from California to ski with friends thinks the daily lift ticket price is “insane. I think if it hits 100 dollars I will have to look into a different sport. I ski less - I used to ski a lot more and now I ski a lot less - because it’s so expensive.”

CEO Rob Katz says that while Vail Resorts is not growing by 20 percent this year, the company is not seeing huge declines and he has noticed an increase in the luxury end of the skiing market “…as the market has come back and people feel that all of a sudden their net worth isn’t in peril.”

Vail Resorts is doing more to offer value says Liz Biebl, Vail’s spokeswoman. “People are looking for that added value. Times are tight and people want an extra added incentive to get out here.” With the introduction of their Epic Ski pass last season, the mountain is hoping to tap into the desire for value. For around $600, skiers and riders can purchase a season pass with no blackout dates and access to nearby mountains. Pass sales have been up some 10 percent over last year, according to Biebl.

Twenty one year old rider Andrea Strunk from Seattle says that despite the cost she would never give up time her snowboard. “It’s just great. When you are on the mountain and going down on your board you just feel like you are flying - it’s amazing and it gets out aggression when you are having a bad day and makes you feel even better when you are having a good one.”

That is a sentiment echoed by JoAnn Hanak at Shawnee Mountain. “Even though we’re in a recession and it’s a little expensive - it’s a family sport and it’s somewhere that you can feel you are getting far away and not spending that much money on gas and still feel like you’ve escaped your regular life for a few days.”