QUECHEE — Saturday, the last day he was open for business this season, was a quiet one for Jack Henderson, owner of Henderson’s Ski and Snowboard on Route 4 in Quechee. Customers would occasionally show up to return their equipment rentals, but otherwise the most noticeable presence was the Grateful Dead and reggae music filling the store.
“I’m just so glad to get out of here,” said Henderson, but not for the reason you’d think. He called the 2020-21 winter ski season for his shop — the year when the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down entire countries and economies — “extraordinary” and one of the best he’s seen in 37 years of business. He reported a 30 percent increase in leasing of ski equipment both for adults and juniors and strong demand for climbing skins and new skis for backcountry skiing.
“We made it through 9/11. We made it through the pandemic. It just shows how resilient the ski industry is,” Henderson said.
But while ski shops across New England reported a strong year for business, other segments of the ski industry saw different outcomes.
The consensus: New Hampshire’s ski resorts fared better than Vermont’s; hotels experienced setbacks, sometimes severe; and ski shops in both states had banner years.
For overall ski traffic, the difference between the Twin States is striking, and most industry experts attributed it to COVID-19 travel restrictions and proximity to population centers.
Vermont ski resorts reported “some fairly steep declines,” particularly in the sale of day passes, said Molly Mahar, president of Ski Vermont, the state’s ski-industry trade group.
“Strict travel requirements for coming to Vermont definitely had a big impact on our business this year,” she said.
Although final season numbers will not be tabulated until later this spring, a picture nonetheless is already clear.
She said that although sales of season passes were up, daily lift-ticket sales fell 40 percent, food and beverage sales at resorts — due to seating capacity limits — plunged 70 percent and overall business at Vermont resorts over the three holiday periods of the winter — Christmas/New Year’s, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Presidents Day — was off 30 percent to 35 percent.
Ski resorts in New Hampshire fared better, pleasantly surprising with a year something like normal.
Jessyca Keeler, executive director of Ski New Hampshire, the trade group that represents the state’s ski resorts, said preliminary numbers show that “ski visits” in the state appear to be keeping pace with prior levels. New Hampshire has been averaging about 2.1 million ski visits — defined as one skier’s visit to one ski site per day — in recent years.
“I think we are going to be close to that, which is pretty amazing considering everything,” said Keeler, who credited New Hampshire’s more liberal travel guidelines with the results.
Both Mahar and Keeler attributed the rift between the states to Vermont’s restrictive travel and quarantine policies, which for much of winter asked visitors to hole up for 10 or 14 days after crossing the border into the Green Mountain State. People traveling to Vermont account for 75 percent to 80 percent of skiers in the state, and many likely decided it wasn’t worth the trouble.
“We are very reliant on out-of-staters for business,” Mahar said.
With travel curtailed, hotels suffered accordingly.
Patrick Fultz owns the 10-room Sleep Woodstock Motel on Route 4 between Woodstock and Bridgewater, which caters to skiers at both Killington and Suicide Six. When 75 percent of his bookings canceled their winter reservations, he did something he’s never done in the eight years owning the motel: He closed for the winter.
The federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program helped Fultz continue paying his two employees and, with state business grants and his own savings, he has been using the downtime for some needed renovations. The motel will reopen on April 29, and Fultz reports that summer wedding bookings are already looking strong.
Still, he estimates he could have lost upward of $100,000 in revenue.
“Normally we’d sell out on weekends during ski season, but this year we had zero bookings,” he said.
On the other side of Woodstock, Barbara Shehan, manager of The Shire Woodstock, a 50-room hotel at the east end of the village, said it was not unusual for occupancy on weekends to be below 10 percent.
“We really struggled,” she said, describing the season as “a fraction of the business we do normally.”
New Hampshire ski-area hotel operators also experienced a sharply different winter than their Vermont cohorts.
“By no means was it the best year we’ve ever had, but by no means was it the worst, either,” said Tom Behrens, owner of the Mountain Edge Resort & Spa and Sunapee Lake Lodge, both in Newbury.
Behrens said occupancy was down 15 percent this season. But that’s largely due to the cancellation of group bookings and a policy to keep rooms vacant for a day in order to clean them between occupancy.
Taking all that into account, the decline doesn’t seem so bad in an industry that was unpredictable long before COVID-19.
“We could be off 15 percent due to weather,” Behrens said.
One common refrain from in the past year of COVID-19 was an increased interest in open-air activities, which run a much lower risk of transmitting the airborne virus. As the pandemic stretched into winter, so too did the increased demand extend to ski shops on both sides of the Connecticut River.
Like Henderson’s in Quechee, Frank MacConnell, longtime owner of Bob Skinner’s Ski and Sport near the base of Mount Sunapee in Newbury, also said his store saw one of the best seasons it’s had in the 36 years he’s been in business.
He thinks New Hampshire ski areas benefited not just from Vermont’s travel restrictions but also from the influx of so-called COVID-19 refugees — families who either rented or bought second homes in the state while working and attending school remotely.
“Wednesday is normally a slower time, but families were showing up midweek to ski at Sunapee,” he observed.
Time will tell whether that means good news for the industry in future seasons. But the results from this winter are hard to argue.
Although he was initially bracing for a slow season, “in December the lid blew off, ” MacConnell said, and he was stunned at the number of skiers coming to the store.
“It’s almost embarrassing,” he said.
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