Michigan ski slopes open as cold sets in

Karen Dybis/ Special to The Detroit News

With frosty weather predictions, industry investment and the state economic rebound, Michigan seems poised to produce a profitable winter for the state’s ski and resort areas.

Despite a warm November that made Thanksgiving a bust for skiers, many Michigan ski areas say they are ready for snow-sport enthusiasts to take to the slopes.

The three Metro Detroit ski areas — Pine Knob, Mount Brighton and Alpine Valley — are tentatively scheduled to open today after Friday’s light snowfall. Ski areas farther north say their snow guns have been blasting at full speed since temperatures dropped below the requisite 28 degrees.

Early indications are that attendance on the slopes could be high.

The $189 “White Gold” discount cards sponsored through the Michigan Snowsports Industries Association have largely sold out, said Mickey MacWilliams, executive director for the Clarkston group. The association issued 400 cards that allow users to ski at 29 Michigan ski areas for less than $10 each.

“People are feeling more confident in the economy,” MacWilliams said. “They want to get out on the slopes.”

The state’s largest resorts have anticipated this and poured millions of dollars into their infrastructure, equipment and amenities during the past 12 to 18 months.

That means 20 more Low-E snow guns and two snow groomers at Boyne’s two properties, a new ski-under quad chairlift at Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville and a full-service salon at The Homestead in Glen Arbor.

The goal, resort officials said, is to draw both veteran ski enthusiasts with the latest technology and Gen Y snowboarders seeking new terrain. But they also want the novice, who may be drawn to upscale room renovations and spa openings.

“There’s as much fun to be had off the hill as there is on,” said Boyne’s Director of Communications Erin Ernst.

Discounts will be plentiful

Discounts, especially during these early December weekends, also will be plentiful as resorts hope to attract families and larger groups.

For example, Treetops Resort in Gaylord is offering its first “free ski” Dec. 16-18 for those who stay at select area hotels during that weekend.

“It’s a great way to kick off the season, get some Christmas shopping done in the Gaylord area and go skiing with the family,” said Treetops General Manager Barry Owens.

Michigan ranks second, behind New York, among the states in its number of ski slopes, according to the National Ski Areas Association in Lakewood, Colo.

The Michigan Snowsports Industries Association reports the state has 42 ski areas and more than 200 chairlifts as well as 840 runs, 40 terrain parks and hundreds of miles of groomed cross-country trails.

Add an annual snowfall of more than 100 inches of lake-effect snow in Michigan, and you can guarantee a fan base. And there should be ample snowfall this winter, said Jack Boston, senior meteorologist and Long-Range Forecasting Team member for AccuWeather, a weather prediction company in State College, Pa.

Heavy snowfall expected

Boston expects Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula, where many of the big resorts are located, to get above average snowfalls.

The normal winter snowfall is about 65 inches, he said, whereas weather patterns will bring between 80 to 90 inches for the 2011-2012 season. He also expects average temperatures to be 1 to 2 degrees below normal for the 90-day period between Dec. 1 and March 1.

The forecast for Metro Detroit is for 50 to 60 inches of mostly “dry powdery snow,” which is above the annual average of 42 inches, Boston said. If the prediction holds true, it will benefit local ski areas such as Pine Knob Ski and Snowboard Resort in Clarkston, Mount Brighton in Brighton, and Alpine Valley Ski Area in White Lake Township. So while those snow guns are going full speed now, “Mother Nature will take care of it soon,” Boston said. Some local ski areas have made improvements. The main one at Pine Knob is the addition of an upgraded, faster chairlift.

At Mount Brighton, improvements include new higher starting ramps on the ski race course, an upgraded snow grooming machine and new Rossignol skis and boots, said Rob Bruhn, operations manager.

Despite the slow start, “we’re jumping up and down” about this year’s snow forecast, he said.

Part of living in the Midwest means accepting months of snow, which is partly why the state’s ski resorts are so competitive, said Chris Hale, Shanty Creek’s vice president of sales and marketing.

“That means staying fresh and adding something new each year,” Hale said.

Staying competitive

“That mentality has become so pervasive for us as an industry that if we don’t (innovate), we know that Boyne or Crystal Mountain will do something. To do nothing makes you implicitly not in the game.

“To just come out with new ticket pricing is not enough,” he added. “It is a matter of keeping your finger on the pulse and your eye on what’s going on in New England this year, Utah this year.”

Shanty Creek added a lift and beefed up its inventory on tubing, doubling the capacity on this popular youthful sport. Treetops has fully certified day care facilities and bills itself as “Michigan’s most family-friendly ski resort.” The Homestead, which prides itself on its high level of customer service, limits how many lift tickets it sells so there are shorter lines.

“(Guests) will find a civilized environment that is not intimidating and promotes learning or becoming more familiar with snow sports,” said Jamie Jewell, The Homestead’s vice president of sales and marketing.

Besides the new snow-making equipment and million-dollar renovations to its hotels and restaurants, both Boyne Mountain and Boyne Highlands have purchased 400 pairs of Head Link skis for their rental departments.

The new ski technology is said to make it easier for skiers to initiate and hold through turns.

“When we can put them in the newest equipment,” Boyne’s Ernst said, “that helps them grow in the sports of skiing and snowboarding.”

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