Despite a sometimes balmy winter, business at Ontario ski hills isn't all doom and gloom.
"Snow-making technology has come to the forefront," says Bruce Haynes, president of the Collingwood-based Ontario Snow Resorts Association. "Years ago, after some rain we would be three days before people came back. Today, skiers understand and are back the very next day."
Shannon Bell, manager of partnerships and public relations for Blue Mountain Resorts in Collingwood, says: "We have some of the best snow-making systems in the world and every year we are investing money."
Blue Mountain is the largest ski resort in Ontario with about 750,000 visitors annually. It employs more than 1,850 winter staff.
|Melanie Chambers, Business Edge|
|Boler Mountain marketing manager Tim Oliver says the facility draws the majority of its business from local kids.|
Last season, the number of ski visitors in Ontario increased 4.5 per cent to 3.5 million from the 2003-2004 season. There were 20 million ski visitors in Canada in the 2004-2005 season, according to the Canadian Ski Council.
Although visitor numbers are not available for the 2005-2006 season, Haynes says resorts generally had an early start and a good Christmas season. "January was steady and the last two weekends (early February) have been very good with the snow we received over most of the province."
"To date the season has shaped up nicely," Bell says. "Occupancy levels in the hotels have been great and bookings have been strong."
Blue Mountain has invested $10 million in snow-making equipment and uses 12 pumps to push water up the hill at a rate of approximately 54,500 litres per minute where 322 tower guns transform it into snowflakes on the 220-metre-high mountain.
Compare that to Boler Mountain Ski Hill in London, which uses 2,700 litres of water a minute at its 35-metre-high hill. With 80,000 to 100,000 ski visitors annually at the most southerly ski hill in Ontario, snow-making facilities are imperative for survival.
"Unfortunately, there's a large misconception that because we're a small hill that your expenses should go down proportionately," says marketing manager Tim Oliver.
"But a snow cat (grooming machine) costs us $300,000 whether we're driving it here or whether we're driving it at Blue Mountain," he says. "It's still the same price and you need one to do business."
Boler is a unique hill not only for its size but also because it is the only one of the more than 60 ski hills in Ontario with a street address. Nestled in suburbia at 689 Griffith St. in west London, most of Boler's visitors are kids between six and eight who live in the neighbourhood, Oliver says.
North of Barrie, Mount St. Louis/Moonstone Resort caters mostly to Toronto residents and has about 210,000 visitors annually, its owners say.
To convince Torontonians that the hill is still running, even when there's no snow in the city, Moonstone spends at least $150,000 annually on snow-making machines and maintenance says Robert Huter. Huter's father Josl, a native of Austria, started the hill in the early 1960s.
Snow-making and bad weather aren't Huter's biggest concern or expense - that's reserved for staff. Of the roughly 350 employees at Moonstone—150 are part-time seasonal workers.
"We have a lot of transient staff, with about 30- to 40-per-cent turnover rate," Huter says. "We keep people for a couple of years and if they find a full-time job you can't blame them."
Most ski hills in Ontario developed in the 1950s and 1960s either as family operations or from a community effort, Haynes says. They follow three models: Privately owned operations where skiers become members for an initiation fee that is usually $1,000, along with up to $10,000 with annual dues; outright businesses that operate for profit; and hills that are operated by not-for-profit organizations.
But no matter what a hill's size, its operators must think creatively to drum up business, Haynes says.
Starting as a family business in 1959, Thunder Bay's Mount Baldy, which has 40,000 visitors annually, may have more snow than its southern neighbours, but it lacks the population to support a larger facility.
Several years ago when poor turnouts forced three of the five hills to close, manager and part owner Craig Spiess enlisted shareholders to get out of debt. "You have three months to make it, and the expenses are astronomical now compared to the way they used to be," he says.
But the shareholders aren't interested in the ski hill, Spiess says. They signed on because of future plans for wind turbines to be built on the property. "That was exciting enough to entice people to put money in," he adds.
In order to finance its expansion plans, Boler switched from incorporated not-for-profit status to an incorporated charitable organization in 2004 - Ontario's only such hill.
With annual revenue of $1.5 million, charitable status allows voting members of The London Ski Club to raise funds for a new hill that will double the size of the current operation, Oliver says.
Fundraising started with a $1 price increase for a lift ticket, as well as hiring a full-time resource manager to head the program. An all-day lift ticket is currently $37 for an adult and $31 for a child.
"We've always been 100 per cent self-contained," Oliver says. "We've never gone into community or looked to government for funds."
Blue Mountain's business has been strong, especially since Vancouver-based North American ski hill giant Intrawest purchased its interest in what had been a family-run ski hill in 1999, Bell says.
Skiing, which accounts for only one third of Blue Mountain's annual revenue, is supplemented with off-season attractions such as a mountain-biking park and a golf course, as well as a 40-acre village with 35 retail and restaurant outlets, hotels and a convention centre.
For smaller hills such as Mount Baldy, diversification hasn't made much sense. "You can't compare us to the top destination resorts," Spiess says.
"People in the community won't come out and use a waterslide. We're a small community here."
Spiess says he tried tubing and horseback riding in the past, but the the risk was too much to carry. "Our insurance company said do what you do well and shut those damn doors when you're finished. That's the cheapest thing to do because you'll have no expenses for rest of the year."
One thing that remains consistent for the ski hills, Haynes says, is ticket prices. "Tickets prices don't generally go up from bad weather."
Lift tickets range from a low of $20 for a full day at Mount Baldy to a high of $50 at Blue Mountain. Managers say the prices have only fluctuated a few dollars in the last five years.
"The ticket prices are representative of what the areas are doing and it's an exceptional value," Haynes says.
To accommodate the demands and needs of local skiers, many smaller hills have recently introduced hourly passes in addition to half-day and full-day passes.
"If people showed up an hour-and-a-half before night skiing, they either had to wait or purchase a full-day ticket," Oliver says.
"This route allows the customer to dictate when they start and finish and not the company."
About 85 per cent of the skiers at Ontario's hills are local residents, according to the Canadian Ski Council survey.
(Melanie Chambers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)