Vermont ski towns might well be ready to drink heavily after this winter-that-wasn’t. But new tourism numbers show they should be raising a glass in cheers.
On Tuesday evening, April 12, the Vermont Tourism Summit, the largest gathering of tourism professionals in the state, kicked off at Killington Mountain Resort in a most appropriate way with the second annual Vermont Bartender of the Year contest presented by Hotel VT, the Vermont Distillers Association, Vermont Ski + Ride magazine and The Mountain Times.
The competition, held at Killington’s K1 Base Lodge, challenged 12 top bartenders from around the state to create a cocktail made from randomly selected Vermont distilled spirits in a stocked pantry.
“When you have these talented bartenders using the country’s most fantastic spirits, we’ll be pushing the envelope in terms of what’s possible from a beverage,” said Megan Smith, Vermont’s Commissioner of Tourism.
And after this winter, Vermont’s tourism industry might well be ready for an envelope-pushing beverage or two.
Smith is one of 250 people expected to attend the Tourism Summit, which is drawing 140 businesses and participants from more than 14 states, as well as the province of Quebec.
The event will include a presentation of awards for Chef, Restaurateur, and Tourism Partner of the Year, as well as the Borden Avery Innkeeper of the Year and a new award, the Christiane Skinner Vermont Tourism Champion of the Year.
It is also a chance for the top leaders in government to speak on how issues ranging from taxes to economy development, forest health to wildlife management impact tourism and for gubernatorial candidates to discuss the future of tourism in Vermont.
The topic on everyone’s mind, though, will be how the weather this past winter will impact revenues.
Parker Riehle, president of Ski Vermont, acknowledged: “In December, we had about 8 percent of our trails open. We’ve also heard nothing but dire tales of dismal spending in ski towns.”
This past December’s sales tax revenue was, in fact, $4 million (or 8 percent) below the 2014 December number and ended at $40 million. Rooms and meals tax revenue was down $1 million (7 percent) to come in at $12.3 million.
Yet, Riehle noted, there was surprisingly good news in January, when sales tax revenue was up 9 percent and $2.5 million compared with the 2015 January number and the rooms and meals tax revenue held steady at $12.3 million.
Released April 12, the March revenue results showed that year-to-date for the fiscal year (which began July 1, 2015), rooms and meals tax revenue was up 3.29 percent over this time last year and sales and use tax revenue was up 1.85 percent, though both were slightly off target. For the month of February compared to last year’s February business levels, rooms and meals tax revenue was up 2.6% and sales and use tax revenue was up 3.2%.
“I’m not surprised given the trend from January numbers but still mystified they’ve held up so well overall. We do know that this year’s Presidents’ Week numbers were the strongest of the season and were not far off last year’s numbers,” said Riehle.
When asked if there was any way to explain the unexpectedly solid numbers, Riehle responded: “We’ve been wondering if the second homeowners have had an even bigger impact than usual since they are committed.”
According to the Vermont Travel & Tourism Benchmark Survey of 2013, there are close to 45,000 second homes in Vermont and visitors to second homes stay the longest (averaging 4.7 days) and have the second highest spending levels ($62 a day) of all visitors.
For many resorts, strong early season pass sales were a godsend, locking in customers and, especially for towns such as Killington with sizable second home populations, helping to dull the impact of a poor snow year.
“Generally speaking we heard that season pass sales were once again very strong, coming in at or above last year’s levels, particularly given the momentum we had coming off of three strong years in a row and last year as a record season,” said Riehle.
“Time will tell what the ‘hangover effect’ this season will have on season pass sales for next year and we haven’t received any reports on the pre-season pass sales happening now,” Riehle said of the early-bird season pass sales many resorts are currently offering.
He added: “We do remain confident that those season pass holders are a loyal enough crowd who will view this winter as the anomaly we all want it to be, and that they’ll still come back strong.”
Amy Morrison, the Events and Marketing Coordinator for the Town of Killington, also looks at this winter as a blip on the radar. “People are calling this the winter that never was or the winter that showed up late,” she said.
Still, Morrison was very cautiously optimistic. “’While I don’t have any hard numbers and I’ve heard business is down by about 20 percent across the board I’m not aware of any businesses that shut their doors after this winter,” she noted.
It also appears that even though the snow was spare, customers were happy with their experiences at Killington this past winter. The town, the resort and a handful of other businesses band together each year too to compile surveys and a “Net Promoter Score” that gauges satisfaction and whether a customer would recommend Killington to a friend.
“Normally, that number rises when it snows,” Morrison says. Year to date, the Net Promoter Score for the town has been 65, “which is actually pretty good when you consider last year when we had tremendous snow we were at 69.”
Last week, thanks to a late snowfall, the weekly score rose to 71.
And then there’s always summer to look forward to. “We have more than 100 events planned and only two weekends open between May and Columbus Day. People are already booking lodging for the wine festival,” Morrison says.
Most of all, Morrison is excited to see the Summit come to Killington. “It’s a great way to build brand awareness for all the things we are doing here and show how the town and the resort can work together toward a common vision, like the one we have to make Killington the mountain bike capital of the East,” she said, referring to expansion of both the resort’s downhill network and the town’s cross-country trails.
And those, thank heavens, don’t depend on snow.