Many Ontario and Quebec ski hills suffer devastating season while West prospers

MONTREAL – Ski conditions flipped this year in Canada with Western operators popping champagne and those in Central Canada bidding good riddance to one of the poorest seasons in memory.

While the amount of snowfall at Western Canadian resorts nearly doubled from last year, warm weather melted away revenues and profits from Ontario and Quebec’s most frequented ski regions.

“It’s one of the worst ones I’ve seen since we’ve been in operation,” said Fred Korman, owner of Owl’s Head, a mountain in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.

A lack of snow early in the winter forced it to miss the Christmas season, which can generate up to a quarter of the hill’s annual revenues. It then contended with inconsistent weather, including rain, that made snow-making a challenge.

Poor conditions left some trails closed as overall ski traffic was slashed in half during the hill’s 50th year.

The season brought back painful memories for Louis-Philippe Hebert, CEO of six mountains including Mont St. Sauveur, one of the most popular ski destinations near Montreal.

He remembers the pouring rain on Christmas Day a quarter century ago that devastated his father, who had purchased the main ski hill with partners.

Hebert experienced his own anxiety last Christmas Eve when temperatures climbed to a balmy 22 C.

“It kind of turned off people from skiing for the rest of the winter,” he said.

Attendance was 14 per cent below what it was last season, which was already weak due to temperatures that were too cold. Despite efforts to control costs, he estimates profits this season will be 30 per cent lower than 2014-15 and 45 per cent down from a normal season.

The head of Quebec’s ski association said the year was among the three worst for the province, with hills closing for a record number of days and many shortening their season.

“It was definitely a year of a lot of Mother Nature hiccups,” said Yves Juneau.

Juneau said it forced operators to cut costs and curtail hours of work. Nearby communities also felt the pain as hotel reservations were cancelled, restaurants had fewer customers and some sports retailers closed.

The skiing industry has been adapting to climate change by spending more money on snow-making, he said, though he worries that owners will have less money to invest in further infrastructure upgrades and stay afloat.

“This industry has shown resilience over the years,” he said. “I’m hopeful that everyone is going to be able to be back next year.”

In Ontario, weather woes delayed the opening of Blue Mountain north of Toronto by a couple of weeks, marking the latest start for the hill. A shortage of snow forced the Intrawest-owned resort to reopen some summer activities like zip lines and mini-putt.

Spokeswoman Tara Lovell said the ski hill experiences similar challenges about every decade. She said snow-making investments in 2007 helped it respond to environmental changes and allowed it to remain open until this past Sunday — six days longer than its shortest season.

Despite poor conditions surrounding Toronto and Montreal, areas near Quebec City, Saguenay and Eastern Quebec enjoyed ample snow coverage.

After a slow start, Mont Tremblant said it had a good season as it was spared most of the rain that drenched other regions. It attracted U.S. skiers, particularly from Vermont, which suffered from snow challenges of its own, and was helped by a low Canadian dollar.

“When you work in this business you’re always hoping for a perfect winter, but you come to know that it’s always going to be dependent on Mother Nature,” said Annique Aird, vice-president of sales and marketing for Mont Tremblant.

Out west, Sun Peaks Resort and Whistler Blackcomb said they were on track for record-setting winter seasons due to the low loonie and a high amount of snowfall.

The region saw more visitors from Eastern Canada, the United States and the Southern Hemisphere, said Christopher Nicholson, head of the Canada West Ski Areas Association, though he added final figures won’t be available until May.

“From an overall perspective, it’s definitely been a solid year for the industry,” he said.

“With the East having a challenging year with snow, it attracted Eastern Canadian skiers to the West. What it also did was Eastern Canadian skiers that may have considered going to the States, the dollar kept them north.”