Visitors normally flock to Stowe in the winter for skiing, riding, and all the merriments of snow sports. But this unusually warm winter gave many would-be visitors a reason to stay home or seek their powder days out west.
Despite world-class snowmaking that kept dozens of Stowe Mountain Resort's trails open from top to bottom all season long, perception is everything. Fewer folks on the slopes means fewer people eating and drinking in any of the dozens of Stowe restaurants and bars, and fewer heads in beds in inns, hotels and B&Bs around town.
"Lately, when the phone rings, I'm not expecting a reservation. I'm expecting a cancellation," Tom Barnes, owner of the Timberholm Inn, said in February.
Tourist business can be measured by the state taxes on rooms, meals and alcohol. Numbers aren't available from the Vermont Department of Taxes for the entire winter, but early-season figures paint a picture of what would come.
After a strong November, Stowe's rooms, meals and alcohol taxes nosedived in December and January. November numbers showed meals taxes up 13.5 percent from the prior year, rooms up 9 percent and alcohol sales up 12.2 percent.
By contrast, December was down in meals (9.2 percent), rooms (16.9 percent) and alcohol sales (1.5 percent). January was down 1.9 percent in meals, 11.9 percent in rooms, and 5.2 percent in alcohol.
Even with the number of hotel stays remaining low, people went out to eat more in February, perhaps to drink their poor ski season away.
February showed meals up 12.4 percent from the prior year, rooms down 5.1 percent, and alcohol sales up 8.2 percent.
Stowe's town government also raises money every year from a local option tax, and the slow winter didn't help that either.
Stowe collects an extra 1 percent tax on rooms, meals and alcohol receipts — it keeps 70 percent of that local tax — then uses the money for capital improvements.
The town won't know until roughly Labor Day, 60 days after the end of the current fiscal year, how much money it will get back from the state as a result of this tax, but the warm winter could affect future projects.
"The local option taxes aren't a stable form of revenue like the set property taxes. However, we look at recent trends, and predict what we are likely to see," Charles Safford, Stowe town manager, said. "It's not an exact science, and is more variable — just like the economy — so we try to be a little more conservative in our projections. That can help temper, from a revenue standpoint, a bad winter, a rainy summer or any other thing that dissuades people from traveling to Stowe."
Stowe has a reserve fund acting as a cushion from those variable tax collections, but a weak revenue year could affect projects down the road. Safford said Stowe businesses had a strong 2015 summer and fall, and "unless the winter was a total disaster where we have to adjust our spending" this year, it's more likely to have an effect on next year's project schedule, not this coming construction season.
"In the end — unlike small businesses in town — because of lag time in the state and the democratic process, we look at revenues based on a whole year, not just a season," Safford said.
Skiing and riding visits low
Trails at Stowe Mountain Resort were open from Nov. 23 through April 24, and although the resort had record season-pass sales to start the season, it all came down to the destination guests. Skier/rider visits were down 18 to 20 percent this winter.
"In this day and age of instant communication, people know where it snowed or where it didn't," said Michael Colbourn, vice president of marketing sales and communication at Stowe Mountain Resort. "Historically, this was the worst natural-snowfall year ever, at least as far as the records that we have here at the resort, and going by the stake at the top of the mountain. The low snowfall was compounded by rain events on a weekly basis throughout the season."
Colbourn said many of the people who would normally travel to Stowe in the winter have a choice: drive here or fly out west, where the snowfall totals were higher this season.
Destination guests generally start arriving in Stowe around Christmas week, and continue from January to March. However, the holiday dates this season were hammered by rain or cold weather, and it was impossible to make them up. President's Day week had a lot of rain, and that Sunday — usually the busiest of the season — had temperatures around 30 degrees below zero.
"All of the media reports called the weather going into that weekend dangerous," Colbourn said, "and the weather for the weekend was deadly for skiing and riding. The message media was sending out was, 'Do not go outside.'"
In terms of the actual conditions on Mount Mansfield this winter, Colbourn says they were pretty good, with the help of the resort's recent three-year, $10 million snowmaking investment, but business was still way down, and the resort was lucky that not all of its business is reliant on snow sports.
"This season had a lot of significant wins, including a successful opening of our new Alpine Clubhouse, the plaza ice skating rink, which was open all season, and new food with the Skinny Pancake, so not all of it was gloom and doom," Colbourn said. "But I wouldn't want to do it again."
Retail, restaurants and resorts
For lack of tourists on the mountain, the season was grim for many businesses that rely on travel and snow sport dollars.
Sales at Stowe Mercantile were down about 5 percent this year, but owner Marc Sherman said that's not as much as at other businesses in town.
"With so few people skiing, I think that more people came shopping," Sherman said. "We are also fortunate that the mountain company does as much as it does to try to keep such high-quality skiing in Stowe. It helps us all in a horrible winter."
For Steve Sulin, the store manager at Pinnacle Ski & Sports, the season "sucked."
Sales and rentals were down about 20 percent, and Sulin said the warm weather and rain only hindered the winter clothing sales.
Even though tourism was low for the season, the people who live in the area helped a number of businesses stay afloat.
"The locals are still a strong part of business here," said Andrew Kneale, co-owner of Harrison's Restaurant and Bar. "Without them, I don't know what would have happened, but without snow there are no skiers. In this business, you have to roll with the punches. We can't have a banner year every year."
Harrison's sales were down about 10 percent this winter.
For Nate Freund, owner of Sushi Yoshi, business wasn't that bad, because 60 to 70 percent of his customer base lives in Stowe.
"The local community really helped us weather the storm, or lack thereof," Freund said. "In December and January, our sales were down slightly, but all I have to say is thank God Stowe has such a supportive community. If it didn't, the whole business community would be in trouble after this winter."
For resorts, the numbers told a similar story.
Chuck Baraw, owner of Stoweflake Resort and Spa, said that from Thanksgiving to February, the season wasn't too bad, down about 8 to 10 percent. March is when the winter really took its toll, putting the resort below the mark by about 30 percent.
"We had snow at that point, and in March, most of the trails were open with the mountain's snowmaking," Baraw said. "But I don't think people believed the skiing conditions were good with the lack of snowfall over the course of the winter. For the year, we were down about 12 percent, so all things considered, it wasn't too bad."