Mild winter puts chill on ski industry

January 22, 1995|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Sun Staff Writer

Eight weeks into the ski season and Maryland has yet to see snow on the ground. Warm-weather buffs may be rejoicing, but the ski industry isn't.

"We're just like the farmer," said Jerry Geisler, operations manager of Wisp Ski Resort in McHenry. "We get out of it what Mother Nature puts in."

This year, Mother Nature has not been kind to the industry.

After an unseasonably warm December and January, ski resorts, manufacturers and retailers report sluggish sales and are wistfully recalling frigid winters of years past.

"Last year, we had a great year," said Steve Martel, office manager of Baltimore-based Court Jester Hat Co., which makes ski hats. "We've had to cut back a lot this year."

The company has cut its staff from 10 to five after orders dropped sharply in December.

"Our pre-orders were fine. It's our re-orders that are terrible. We won't even come close to last year," said Mr. Martel, estimating sales will be down 15 percent to 20 percent.

While locals point to the lack of snow for their troubles, a national ski association says growth in the industry has been flat for several years and they're taking steps to jump-start it.

"We're trying to stimulate business by funding learn-to-ski programs at very deeply discounted prices," said Diana Mosher, a spokeswoman for Ski Industries America, a nonprofit trade association for more than 800 resorts, schools, manufacturers and stores.

For the second year, the association has distributed grant money to help defray the cost of introductory classes to lure people who otherwise would not try the sport.

In Maryland, Princeton Sports' Frederick store received a $12,000 matching grant to market a discounted three-class program for 50 new skiers.

But while industry promoters bemoan sagging growth and increased competition from other recreational sports, local ski retailers and resort officials say all they want is snow.

"We were going gangbusters until this year," said Mr. Geisler of ++ Maryland's only ski resort. "Our numbers have been steadily rising every year since we opened, except 1989-90 -- that was a warm winter, too."

But even that -- when the number of ski visits dropped about 24,000 from the previous year -- was not as bad as this season, he said. The best Mr. Geisler expects to do is about 150,000 visits, down 26,000 from last year -- and that's if the weather starts cooperating.

Although Wisp managed to keep 17 of its 23 trails open, some resorts in nearby Pennsylvania frequented by Maryland skiers have not fared as well. Ski Roundtop in Lewisberry closed Thursday and Friday and Ski Liberty in Carroll Valley closed Thursday afternoon due to rain and fog. Whitetail Ski Resort in Mercersburg remained open using only five of its 17 trails.

David Epstein, manager of the Frederick Princeton Sports, said that even though resorts were making snow to patch bare spots, only the most dedicated turn out to ski when temperatures reach the 60s, as they did over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend.

The shop rented several ski packages Monday, but customers soon returned dissatisfied.

"They were basically skiing in puddles of water," he said. "I gave them their money back."

At Sno-Net, a skiing equipment and apparel shop in Ellicott City, the display shelves tell the story.

"This time last year, I didn't have a glove on the shelf. This year, my shelves are piled high, full of gloves," lamented owner Mickie Strong, who has run the store for 20 years. "I'd say this is the worst winter we've ever had."

She expects sales to be down 25 percent to 30 percent at season-end in March. Although pre-holiday sales weren't bad, the merchandise started coming back after Jan. 1.

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