Eaglecrest Ski Area is fighting an uphill battle to win back season-pass holders after last year’s record-shattering short season. So far, it’s losing.
Despite cutting prices during its annual PFD sale in an attempt to “get season-pass holders back,” the ski area still fell short of its already lowered expectations, Eaglecrest General Manager Matt Lillard said. The sale ended earlier this month.
“We fully expected to be down,” he said. “We were hoping to be down 25 percent. As of right now, we’re down 35 percent from where we were as of last season.”
During a typical season, season passes and multi-visit cards account for about 70 percent of Eaglecrest’s winter revenue, according to Lillard. The remaining revenue is generated primarily by day-ticket sales, which “at most other ski areas” account for the most revenue. Eaglecrest, too, may have to count on these sales for the majority of its revenue if it isn’t able to start selling more season passes.
“The bottom line can be just as good,” Lillard said.
The problem is that the same thing plaguing the season-pass sales may affect the day-ticket sales as well. It is ultimately going to come down to snow. “It always does,” Lillard said.
If last year’s five-day season wasn’t enough to scare skiers away from buying season passes, forecasts predicting a warmer-than-average winter are only making matters worse for the ski area this season.
“Last year already plays into it,” Lillard said. “People were going to be gun shy anyway, but then you add in the El Niño hype, and that’s a big scare. But even a warmer winter doesn’t mean less snow.”
And he’s right about that, according to Rick Thoman, climate science and services manager for the National Weather Service Alaska Region. For instance, a warm winter in Fairbanks is still well below freezing. Here in Juneau, however, “the margins are a little tighter,” Thoman said. Since the average winter temperature in Juneau is not far from freezing, it can only get so much warmer before snow becomes rain.
Thoman said that Southeast has a “greatly enhanced chance” for a significantly warmer winter and, in some areas, a wetter winter this year. “The big question is what form that precipitation will come in,” he said.
Lillard has compiled a list of various seasons past with comparably strong El Niño cycles to prove his point. The list includes the 1997–1998 season, during which El Niño was stronger than it is this year, according to Thoman. Lillard pointed out that Eaglecrest was open for 82 days that season.
“El Niño is no where near a guarantee that this is going to be a bad year,” Lillard said. “Even a forecast of 10 to 20 percent less snow is still better than last year. Last year was an anomaly. It’s not going to happen again.”
Thoman agreed it was an anomaly. “There’s no doubt about that,” he said. It was the worst season in Eaglecrest history, and the lowest snowfall that the NWS has recorded in the 38 years that it has been monitoring the ski area. Like Lillard, Thoman also pointed out that El Niño alone doesn’t determine whether Eaglecrest will have a good season. “It’s just one piece of the puzzle,” he said. But it’s too early to know how exactly this season will turn out.
“Just because it was bad last year doesn’t mean it won’t be bad this year,” Thoman said. “Just because you threw five heads in a row when you flip a coin doesn’t change the odds the next time you flip it, it’s still 50/50. But last year certainly was an anomaly. And just because it’s a warm winter doesn’t mean there won’t be skiing at Eaglecrest.”