Given extreme cold and bountiful snow followed by a recent thaw, cross-country ski centers have had a challenging winter. They also report a good season until balmy temperatures arrived.
Of the state’s 30 Nordic areas, 10 were closed on Feb. 26 for cross-country skiing, although several were open for snowshoeing alone. One allowed fat biking with studded tires.
Most expected to “reopen when winter returns” and were trying to preserve snow cover for skiing this weekend.
Use of ski trails for snowshoeing and fat biking is part of a trend, along with careful business management, to help Nordic centers survive with unreliable snowfall.
Mike Miller, owner of Mountain Meadows XC and Snowshoe Center with wife Diane since 1988, notes cross-country skiing participation has actually been declining nationally for several years now. Their response has been “diversification.”
“I learned that from my (late) father-in-law,” Mike Miller said. Diane’s father Joe Sargent, co-founder of Killington, also insisted on good financial management, another lesson not lost on the young Millers.
“We’re one of the few standalone Nordic centers today,” Miller said, noting that most are attached to lodging businesses or Alpine resorts that can afford to subsidize snowmaking and expensive snowcats. He credits diversification, being attuned to new trends, attention to finance and a passion for the outdoors as key ingredients to their survival and success.
Diversification began after a disastrous “low snow year with only 10 days of skiing.” For their second season, Miller added night skiing on Killington’s golf course and guided tours on the peak. “It was about searching for snow to keep people cross-country skiing,” he said.
It didn’t catch on, so in the early 90s he offered telemark lessons and touring at Killington’s Northeast Passage.
With the Mountain Meadows Lodge where the Nordic center was located for sale in 1995, the Millers purchased 33 nearby acres and built a large facility housing a restaurant, Nordic headquarters, and grooming and snowmaking equipment. “It was a massive investment; we stayed there for 10 years,” Miller said.
At the same time, they focused on being a cross-country race center, hosting competitions and providing a training site for college teams that didn’t want to see snowshoeing on their trails.
By 2005, cross-country numbers were dwindling. Schools were no longer hosting ski programs due to budget cuts, Miller said.
They put up a 10,000-square-foot building on U.S. Route 4 housing Base Camp Outfitters, Cabin Fever Gifts, which Diane Miller manages, and space for rent along with a separate Nordic center building in the backyard. (The former center became a four-bedroom rental house.)
Miller went from adding snowmaking to taking it away, and switched to a recreational focus where dogs, snowshoeing and fat biking are welcomed.
“We sell the same number of season passes because people can bring their dogs now. We built specific trails for snowshoeing and about 50 percent of our business is in snowshoe passes and rentals,” he said, adding the snowshoe market is made up of 50- to 80-year-olds. Mountain Meadows also partners with Alpine Bike Works, which provides the fat-tire bikes.
Miller got rid of his $180,000 grooming machine — repairs were $5,000 a pop — in favor of smaller machines like snowmobiles and four-wheelers that pull track setters and other implements and can be repaired locally.
“We keep it simple now,” Miller said.
With a new backcountry trend starting 10 years ago, Miller diversified again, starting an Uphill Snow Travelers organization and carrying Alpine touring skis (free-heel for uphill climbing, lock-down heel for downhill runs) at base camp.
Mark Bragg’s summer kayak business and Killington Mountain Guides are also headquartered at Base Camp.
In summer, Miller runs a disc golf business with the course rated one of the best in New England and hosts league nights and competitions.
Wearing “a lot of hats,” from sales to grooming to testing skis, Miller cites the outdoors and his diverse duties as “Why I love to come to work everyday.”
The Allaben brothers founded the Viking Ski Touring Center in Londonderry in as a way to get people to buy equipment from their ski retail and catalog business. The trail system grew, but even as Viking changed owners, Dana and Malcolm McNair stayed on to operate the area.
Malcolm McNair’s cross-country experience began with cutting trails for the Breckenridge Nordic Center in Colorado. “I’ve been here since 1975, my wife has been here 20 years, and our ski patroller, 20-plus years,” he said, noting dedication and expertise are essential to survival as are careful management and “paying attention to the bottom line.”
Viking’s snow-belt location along the spine of the Green Mountains is a key to survival, enabling the area to operate without snowmaking in a short season, McNair said. “Snowmaking is a huge expense for Nordic areas. It costs $100,000 to install snowmaking and $30,000 to $40,000 a year to operate it. You have to advertise it and hire extra staff to operate the system.
“Hiring staff is a challenge, too,” McNair added, saying you “need winter to be open and give people jobs.”
As for diversification, McNair said they tried “different things over the years, from mountain biking to inn-to-inn travel. “We used to run a B and B. It’s now a four-bedroom weekly rental, and we have an eight-person apartment rented out seasonally,” he said.
But they did add snowshoeing, fat-biking, night skiing and clubhouse rentals along with amenities like warming huts along the trails. Loyal patrons, including 70 kids from local schools who ski one day a week at Viking through the Bill Koch League, keep the area going, and McNair notes Viking almost always makes it to April 1 for a three-month cross-country season.
The Mountain Top Inn and Resort began as a lodging establishment with ski trails added in 1964 followed by a ski center with shop, rentals, and comfort foods. Over the years, the Nordic operation expanded to 60 km of trails, upgraded to snowcat grooming and added limited snowmaking and snowshoeing.
Director Roger Hill said hosting high school teams, competitions, the Koch League program, and offering special events further expanded business. He estimated 40 percent of rentals come from snowshoes and snowshoeing accounts for 30 percent of ticket revenues today.
On Feb. 26, one kilometer of trails were open for skiing but 57 kilometers were open for snowshoeing. “Snowshoeing has saved us at times when not much skiing is to be had,” Hill said.
Further winter diversification came with sleigh rides, snowmobile tours, ice rink, sledding hill, and popular sleigh ride-and-dinner packages. Linking the trails to the VAST system also brought more business.
“The winter menu of activities provides a reason for guests to choose the resort,” Hill said, estimating 60 percent of Nordic business comes from inn guests and 40 percent from day tickets and season passes.
The Trapp Family resort in Stowe is another example of starting with an inn, adding a ski center (in 1968) and diversifying with a range of snowshoeing and backcountry options.
Burke, Bolton Valley, Okemo, Jay Peak, Smugglers Notch, Stratton, and Stowe are alpine resorts that have added Nordic facilities.
At Bolton Valley, Josh Arneson notes the Nordic center’s 2,100-foot base elevation translates to “an advantage of good natural snow in an average year.” In addition to 15 km of groomed terrain and snowshoe trails, Bolton has further diversified with fat-biking and backcountry skiing and riding on 1,200 acres of un-groomed terrain where they also offer backcountry workshops and guided tours. “This terrain also allows us to host unique events such as Splitfest (a splitboard demo day) and a weekly skimo series on Tuesday nights,” Arneson said, noting diversification has provided “a great way to offer a unique experience to guests.”
The Okemo Valley Nordic Center provides trails groomed for classic cross-country and skate skiing, dedicated snowshoe trails, and welcomes dogs on leashes. Since the center’s lodge is Okemo’s golf hub in summer, the indoor golfing facility— swing stations, putting greens and virtual golf — provides another activity in winter. “It’s just one of the ways we can ‘weatherproof’ a winter getaway. If the weather poses a challenge, people have options like indoor activities in case of unwanted precipitation, or a cardio activity that will allow them to enjoy the outdoors during unusually cold temperatures,” said Okemo’s Bonnie MacPherson.
Most Vermont Nordic ski centers participate in a reciprocal program whereby season pass holders at any participating area can ski one day each at other participating areas.
“It’s a wonderful way that the X-C ski industry shows a nimbleness and camaraderie that puts the skier first,” said Mountain Top’s Marketing Director Laura Conti.