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Lehigh Valley ski resorts expect increased crowds during Winter Olympics

Special to The Morning Call

Later this week, people from coast to coast will begin following the exploits of snow sport stars such as Mikaela Shiffrin, Lindsey Vonn and Shaun White, while also discovering new medal hopefuls such as snowboarder Chloe Kim and figure skater Nathan Chen. It’s the magic that happens once every four years as the Winter Olympics return, taking place Feb. 9-25 in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Inside homes, pubs and restaurants across the nation, televisions will be tuned to watch Team USA as it goes up against the best athletes in the world.

Out of doors, the region’s ski resorts are also set to celebrate the Games, likely seeing an uptick in the number of people skiing and snowboarding as well. It’s a phenomenon that seems to happen every time there’s an Olympics year.

“I was at a resort for the 2006, 2010 and 2014 Olympic Games,” said Jeff Zellner, marketing and public relations manager for Bear Creek Resort near Macungie. “All three of those years we did see an increase in business.

“When people see this [event] on TV, it reminds them about all the winter sports that are out there that they can participate in. We have seen direct increases [in participation as a result].”

Heather Schiffbauer, marketing director for Jack Frost and Big Boulder Ski Areas in the Poconos, agreed.

“I think it definitely creates interest and gets people excited to either get more involved or try it for the first time,” she said.

As far as how much of an increase in participation resorts see, some note the numbers go up by as much as 15 percent, especially if the weather conditions are ideal.

“I would say that the increase in participation comes from both the casual skiers and snowboarders, and the dedicated [snow sports enthusiasts]…,” said Melissa Yingling, marketing specialist at Blue Mountain Resort near Danielsville. “People are inspired to participate as a result of the winter Games.”

One area that’s up for debate is whether or not the Games lead to a direct increase in first-timers trying the snow sports or inspiring people who dropped out to pick them back up and stick with them. In the winter issue of the National Ski Areas Association’s (NSAA) Journal, Nate Fristoe of RRC Associates notes that so much really depends on the weather.

“Snow conditions are a much bigger determinant of participation than the Olympics,” he wrote.

That being said, NSAA President Kelly Pawlak said the Olympics do provide significant exposure for the sports of skiing and snowboarding.

“The event acts as an inspiration for young snowsport enthusiasts and there are plenty of reasons to try the sport,” she said. “Like most outdoor activities and sports, skiing and snowboarding participation increases when weather is optimal.”

Zellner said that most of the participation increase at his resort comes from those individuals who only hit the slopes on the rare occasion.

“You see a lot of people who haven’t gone for a while, who haven’t been out skiing in many years,” he said. “There’s quite a bit of old equipment around the resort — old skis, old boots — people dusting off stuff in the garage and taking it out… It’s a lot more casual skiers and snowboarders that come out during that time period.”

Yingling said Blue Mountain has more people taking skiing lessons during Olympic years, while Schiffbauer thinks the Games definitely grab the attention of younger individuals.

“I think some [do] come out to try it for the first time — kids especially,” Schiffbauer said.

Regardless of whether or not the Olympics inspire an increase in outdoor sports participation, almost all of the resorts celebrate the event in one way or another. The most obvious is by simply having their televisions dialed in to the Games.

“We have a big screen projector screen in our lodge and we have that on every day that the Olympics are going on,” Zellner said.

Schiffbauer noted Jack Frost and Big Boulder’s current television advertisement also focuses on the “Olympic Dream and it has to start somewhere,” Blue Mountain recently had the U.S. Olympic Luge Team at the resort as part of its annual WinterFest in January.

Most of the resorts also host official skiing and snowboarding competitions, like the Mid-Atlantic Series of the United States of America Snowboard and Freeski Association, throughout the year for the more dedicated snow sport enthusiasts.

“We also have a racing team here at the mountain that train to become Olympic hopefuls,” Yingling said.

Some of the resorts even offer special discounts and pricing to encourage people to hit the slopes. For example, Bear Creek will have a special three-lift ticket pack special for $109.

“It’s something new that we never did before,” Zellner said. “It’s going to be sold only during the Olympic time period.”

No matter how much promotion and marketing the resorts do around the Olympics, there’s still one factor above all that will dictate how many people hit the slopes, and that’s the conditions. This year’s weather has certainly been inconsistent, ranging from extreme cold in December and early January, to days when the temperatures have risen into the 50s and 60s.

Yingling said weather is the No. 1 factor that impacts the industry, but it’s also something area resorts are accustomed to dealing with.

“This year’s weather has been more favorable than we’ve seen recently and we have enjoyed welcoming guests to the mountain for a lot of family fun,” she said. “This looks to be one of the longest seasons, and the most number of days we’ve had open, in a few years.”

Mark Demko is a freelance writer. Contact him at mdemko@ptd.net or follow him on Twitter at @markdemko1.

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