Fall is a time of change. We can see and feel the physical differences daily: the leaves changing colour, the chill in the air and, one of these days, the first snow on the mountain tops.
But in a ski town, the physical changes of fall also trigger the mental gymnastics of anticipation. The wait for winter, made more tortuous by the Thanksgiving weekend equipment sales and the ingestion of too much turkey, can be simultaneously cruel and exciting. For we never know exactly when winter is going to start and what it's going to bring.
Last winter was generally a good one for Whistler. We were blessed with abundant snow from the start of the season to the end. The fact that most other regions in North America and Europe didn't get substantial amounts of snow until later in the winter — some much later — helped drive business to Whistler, which made the winter that much better for many local businesses.
There is nothing to suggest this winter will be significantly better or worse than recent years, which have all seen decent snowfalls and solid numbers of skier visits. But the competition for skier visits has ramped up this winter. Ski areas, particularly in Colorado, are making extra efforts to win back skiers who last year went elsewhere to find snow. The 22 members of Colorado Ski Country, which doesn't include the Vail Resorts properties of Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone, last winter saw skier visits decline about 11 per cent (780,000 skiers) from 2010-11.
This year, several Colorado resorts have added airline capacity, ensuring there are more direct flights to their resorts, making it easier for skiers to get there.
Perhaps tellingly, not one of the 22 Colorado Ski Country members added a new chairlift this year. As the economy continues to stumble along, now approaching half a decade of "slow recovery," ski areas across North America have largely shied away from expansion and large capital projects. That's not to say they haven't reinvested in maintenance and upgrades of lifts, snowmaking, restaurants and other on-mountain facilities, but the days of large-scale terrain expansion and new lifts seem a long time ago.
Real estate sales fuelled ski resorts' growth in the '90s and first years of the 2000s. But a stagnant economy has meant sales of second homes, like those in ski resorts, have also stagnated. New resorts, such as Revelstoke and the proposed Jumbo Creek, will maintain their status quo until the economy improves and people find they have money to invest in second homes.
Meanwhile, value-added is the mantra of ski areas again this winter. Silver Star is offering cross-country skiing, skating, tubing and snowshoeing with an all-inclusive ski pass. Big White is doing something similar with free cross-country skiing, skating and snowshoeing included with the purchase of a 50-year anniversary pass. At Sun Peaks you can purchase cross-country skiing, tubing, skating and bungee jumping as value add-ons with your season's pass.
Locally, of course, Whistler Blackcomb is offering discounts on food, equipment, lessons, rentals, tickets for friends, the tube park, Ziptrek tours, spa visits, Whistler Heli-skiing and lodging at Intrawest resorts with the purchase of a season's pass or Edge card.
But the ski business goes far beyond what ski area operators are doing. The "industry" is a collection of businesses, large and small, that all contribute to the ski and snowboard experience. And how those individual businesses fare is as important as how the ski area operators are doing. They too are full of anticipation at this time of year.
Everything starts with snow. If you don't have it, as so many other ski areas found last winter, your ability to attract skiers is severely limited. But assuming Whistler will have timely, regular snowfalls again this winter, that doesn't guarantee business for everyone in town, as the last four winters have shown.
Hotels and property management companies have always had to adjust their rates according to demand but recent winters have seen fewer days when they could charge top dollar and long periods when rooms have been discounted. In Whistler, with its many strata-titled properties, that often means individual property owners are carrying those discounts, along with the property managers and hotel operators. After four winters of extended discounts, and with little change expected, some operators are trying new tactics. The Nita Lake Lodge, for instance, is selling "passes" for multiple-day stays this winter.
Retailers and restaurateurs have also faced uneven demand in recent winters. Those in the heart of the village have generally fared well, while those in the periphery and Creekside have often struggled.
But a key point for businesses as they gear up for winter is that despite the snow and the skier visitor numbers, it's been several tough winters in a row. And the cumulative stress of four or more tough years may be catching up to some.
As we scramble for bargains and sit down to turkey this weekend anticipation of the winter ahead can mean many things.