DENVER Ski resorts say snow trumps the economy when vacationers decide whether to head to the mountains.
With economists saying the Great Recession is over, Colorado ski areas now hope a hard-to-predict La Niña weather pattern can bring enough snow to make up for a warm start to October, despite general forecasts otherwise.
Theres a lot of pent-up demand. People are ready for winter, said Melanie Mills, president and chief executive officer of the trade group Colorado Ski Country USA.
La Niña could mean a warmer, drier winter than normal for Colorado but a colder, wetter season for the Pacific Northwest, said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the National Weather Services Climate Prediction Center.
Though theres still a chance of Colorado having a snowy winter, The sweet spot will be farther north into the Rockies, Halpert said. If I was looking to go skiing, Id be looking farther north than Colorado.
Mills was hopeful for snow across much of the state in the heart of winter, when more people want to ski, not just the early and late season like last winter. Last season, overall snowfall was 26 percent below the 10-year average.
With a better snow year, we think visits will tick up, she said.
Last season, Loveland Ski Area started running its first lift Oct. 7. This year, the first lift didnt open until Oct. 24, but unlike in past years, even runs that werent open yet were covered in fresh snow.
The uncertain snow forecast start didnt bother Visanu Tongwarin, of Plainfield, Ill., who bought a pass that allows for unlimited skiing at Vail this year. The 35-year-old golf professional, whose family has property near Vail, said he hopes to ski a dozen times this winter.
He said he fell in love with the sport while visiting Vail and Beaver Creek last year.
Just being at the top of the mountain its so quiet and peaceful up there. You only hear your skis going back and forth, he said. Chicago is so high stress. On the mountain, I just feel relaxed.
Durango Mountain Resort sits in a place that can take advantage of the niños.
The weather is always a variable in our business, but we think the forecast can be over-analyzed. We try not to let long-term predictions affect our planning, said Mike McCormack, senior vice president of mountain operations at DMR.
Durango Mountain Resort is ideally situated to be able to benefit from both El Niño and La Niña. All we need are one or two good storms, and were in the game, he said.
McCormack said DMR started snowblowing operations Monday. He expects by Tuesday for the weather to be ideal for making snow.
Our crews are ready, Im optimistic, and were looking forward to another great winter, he said.
Early-season pass sales were up for Colorado Ski Country USAs 22 member resorts, Mills said. Vail Resorts Inc., whose resorts in California and Colorado arent part of Colorado Ski Country, said pass sales through Sept. 19 were down about 1 percent compared with the same period last year.
Meanwhile, lodging reservations in ski country appeared to be holding steady. Bookings made through Ski.com were pretty even with where they were in the early season last year, Ski.com spokesman Dan Sherman said. Bookings for North America were up by a double-digit percentage. He would not release specific numbers.
He said deals, including some new luxury hotels with introductory pricing, were luring visitors.
Consumer confidence is growing. People who maybe havent gone skiing the last couple of years might try to scratch that itch this year, Sherman said.
Prices on some season passes are inching up, and Telluride is listing a single-day lift ticket at the ticket window at $98 over the Christmas holiday.
There are deals, though, especially for early birds.
Silverton Mountain, the experts-only ski area in Southwest Colorado, was selling an undisclosed number of season passes for unguided skiing for $399 before raising the price to $799. The pass doesnt cover Jan. 13 through March 27, when only guided skiing made with reservations is available. Still, it comes with perks like a total of 14 days of free skiing at Arapahoe Basin, Monarch Mountain and Loveland to the east, plus premium draft beers for $2 all season.
Silverton co-founder Aaron Brill said the idea was to boost the number of unguided skiers, who have sometimes been outnumbered by staff on certain days in past years.
We are hooking it up for local regional skiers to see if we can get them hooked for the long term, similar to a drug dealer offering the first hit for free, but our drug is powder skiing, Brill said in an e-mail.
In Winter Park, guests who booked at least two nights of lodging between Nov. 17 and Dec. 25 through www.playwinterpark.com could receive one free lift ticket per night booked.
Colorado Ski Country USA offers three free days of skiing to Colorado fifth-graders at each of its participating resorts through its Passport program. This season, they also can get a free lesson, including rental equipment, in January.
Ski Copper in Leadville and Loveland offer free season passes to first-time skiers and snowboarders once theyve taken three lessons, complete with rental gear.
Other resorts are trying to give visitors more bang for their buck.
Last season, Breckenridge had an 18-foot halfpipe, but its offering a 22-foot halfpipe built to Olympic standards this season. Arapahoe Basin and Vail are among resorts that have replaced slow lifts with higher-speed ones. Copper Mountain added more free parking.
The Durango Herald contributed to this story.