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Wisp hopes fewer inches of snow means easier access, strong season

Fresh snow falls on the Bear Claw Snow Tubing trail at Wisp Resort in McHenry, Md.

Fresh snow falls on the Bear Claw Snow Tubing trail at Wisp Resort in McHenry, Md.

Maryland’s ski resort predicts more visitors this year, even if the weather doesn’t call for topping last winter’s blizzards.

Wisp Resort in Garrett County hopes for a strong start of a season of growth by kicking off its 55th year with discounted lift tickets, lessons and rentals for a limited opening of trails Dec. 12. After last winter’s blizzards kept away visitors, the resort expects a pent-up demand for skiing to be met with more travelers when roads are clearer this winter.

“A lot of people were excited to ski last year, but they just weren’t mobile,” said Director of Marketing Lori Epp. “I think this year a lot more are prepared for this season and are planning the trip.”

Wisp doesn’t release its specific visitor totals, but Epp said the resort saw a 3 percent decrease in skier and snowboarder visits during the 2009-10 season over the prior year.

However, despite a slowly recovering economy that tightened discretionary spending, mid-Atlantic and Southeast resorts saw an increase in visitation numbers last year thanks to the blizzards in December and February, according to the National Ski Areas Association. But for resorts that feed off local tourists and visitors, like Wisp, the inclement weather kept many skiers off the roads.

Still, last year’s growth in the skiing industry was helped by the mid-Atlantic, said Michael Berry, the Colorado-based association’s president.

Frederick Ski Club saw an increase in memberships this winter, from 184 last year to 216 as of Dec. 3. Its two upcoming ski trips — to Lake Tahoe, Nev., and Park City, Utah — each had the maximum 30 people registered, while a third trip to Winter Park Resort, Colo., is quickly filling up, said Vice President of Community Relations Susan Chapman. The week–long trips range from $1,230 per person to $1,330.

While the club holds many of its practices and unofficial trips to local retreats like Wisp and Liberty Mountain, the West Coast and European trips garner most of the attention because of the better snow, Chapman said.

Last year was a record-breaking year for resort visitors nationwide, as 59.7 million flocked to ski towns in the U.S. That number is up 9.6 percent from the previous year’s visitation numbers. Berry said he expects another record year for the ski industry.

Berry, 63, attributes the growth to the multi-generational appeal the sport has to visitors and particularly to baby boomers like him, since skiers and snowboarders over the age of 45 account for more than a third of total skiers.

The increase was felt all across the country, while the mid-Atlantic and Southeast in particular saw a strong number of visitors who braved the roads for the blizzard conditions. But without that kind of snow expected this winter, Berry said he thinks the mid-Atlantic will see more modest visitation.

Wisp was scheduled to warm up its season over the weekend by opening beginner trails for the snow-hungry with $10 one-day lift tickets. The resort will announce its official opening date as soon as its terrain is better covered with snow, Epp said.

Other local ski resorts are anticipating opening day, as Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Seven Springs, Pa., opened Dec. 4. Liberty Mountain in Carroll Valley, Pa., Camelback Mountain Resort in the Poconos and Roundtop Mountain Resort in Lewisberry, Pa., are preparing for skiers by cranking the snow machines.

Analysts say an economically robust ski season depends on the weather. But even once skiers checked into resorts last year, they were thrifty. Families stayed for fewer days or spent less on equipment and apparel, said Kelly Davis, a research analyst for McLean, Va.-based Snowsports Industries America.

While 2007 and 2008 saw record years for the number of dollars spent on snow sports, last year didn’t quite tip the $3 billion spent in prior years. But so far this season, Davis said snow sport sales are expected to grow 10 percent over the same time last year. The early snow on the West Coast and in New England has helped spur early spending on sports.

Wisp’s Epp said the resort saw more families opt for larger rental homes, cook in and want combination packages in the past three years. In response, Wisp created combination packages. This season the resort offers a snow-tubing session, mountain coaster ride and ice skating lesson for $29 per person during the middle of the week. The resort is also trying to lure more budget-conscious families by holding free events this year, like its two-month-long concert series, and a day dedicated to snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

Wisp remains one of Garrett County’s largest employers and economic drivers. The resort employed 175 workers in 2009’s off-season, but swelled to more than 800 employees during skiing season that year. The other largest employer in the county, First United Bank and Trust, employed 492 people that year.

Frank Shap, a director of Garrett County’s department of economic development, said the impact the resort has on the community and its economy is highly significant.