Always in Season

How some facilities market themselves year round, attracting patrons for seasonal activities and turning off seasons into profitable ones

By Zach Finken


To everything there is, of course, a season. The golf courses and outdoor swimming pools get the fairer months; the ski slopes and outdoor skating rinks have a monopoly on winter. Or so it used to be. Now recreation directors are getting more out of their facilities by getting more creative with their offerings. All over the country, operations that used to be winter-only or summer-specific are now open year-round. After all, why should that $3-million chair lift sit dormant for seven months? And surely someone would enjoy the peaceful beauty of a golf course buried under a foot of snow.

Rec directors are like farmers: The weather is either their blessing or their bane. Usually it's both. But some savvy owners and operators decided they needed to stop talking about the weather and do something about it. Following are some interesting four-season business models.

Summer at Winter Park

Snowboard lessons help beginners master the sport more quickly at Winter Park Resort.

Colorado's Winter Park has been out in front of this year-round trend over the last two decades. Now 63 years old, Winter Park is one of the 10 largest ski resorts in the United States. Its 3,000 acres include almost two dozen chair lifts, several on-mountain restaurants and—when the weather's right—thousands of skiers.

"It's a very big operation," says communications director Joan Christensen.

But in the mid-'80s, management realized they had to keep something going in the warmer months. Their goals were modest, Christensen says; they just wanted to break even and hold on to their best workers.

"We had two financial reasons," she says. "First, it's difficult to have the capital investment lie dormant. You can't have these facilities and only use them four-and-a-half or five months of the ski season. They have to continue to generate revenue. Second, we want to retain our seasonal employees. They can't live on a five-month salary."

Winter Park's first summer attraction was an alpine slide. Then they began adding events, such as their annual Rockfest, a two-day music extravaganza that has attracted the likes of Hootie and the Blowfish, Lyle Lovett and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Now they organize a summer bike race series that is the biggest in Colorado, drawing 500 people to compete in six different races on different courses.

Bikers ride the Zephyr Express, specially equipped to carry bikes, to access Winter Park Resortís 50 miles of mountain bike trails.

"They're a big deal," Christensen says.

There's also recreational biking on miles of trails, miniature golf, an outdoor climbing wall, and a wine and food festival each August.

"They keep us in more people's memory banks, closer to the surface," she says. "It's a break-even operation or turns a modest profit—with the exception of weddings."

Weddings have become quite a lucrative business to the resort, but it's something it just stumbled into.

"It started with an employee who wanted to get married at a ski lodge," Christensen says.

Now more and more brides-to-be are falling in love with the idea of exchanging vows on the peak of a mountain. But this, too, is just a seasonal offering. In the winter, roads to the top are blocked, making weddings too difficult to pull off.

"There's more logistics in getting a bride up a chair lift in January than in June," Christensen says.

Perking up Sleepy Hollow

When the Enman family bought their small resort in southern Vermont, they knew they'd have to attract outdoor athletes year-round. So they borrowed a tried-and-true business plan from other facilities in the area: skiing in the winter, mountain biking in the summer. They even named their resort the Sleepy Hollow Inn Ski and Bike Center.

The beautiful Vermont scenery serves both two-wheelers and skiers at the Sleepy Hollow Inn Ski and Bike Center.

"They complement each other really well," says general manager Eli Enman. "It goes hand in hand. It's an easy fit for us. They attract the same type of crowd."

Sleepy Hollow is near Huntington, Vt., about a half-hour southeast of Burlington, the state's largest city.

The site has had something of a checkered commercial past, Enman says. A grandiose plan for the land in the late 1980s collapsed under its own weight, and the developers went bankrupt. They had planned an 18-hole golf course and 72 luxury condos. But the land proved to be too hilly for golf and neighbors nervous about pesticides from the planned course spilling into their groundwater fought the plan off. Loggers took over the site in the mid-'90s, which Enman says was something of a blessing in disguise.

"The thin forest makes it prettier for skiers," he says. Besides, he added, "the forest will recover."

So the Enmans (that's 24-year-old Eli and his parents, David and Sandra) took over in 1999 and "reclaimed the ski trails from the weeds and prickers," Eli says. Now they have two types of trails: a 45-kilometer circuit for skiing and mountain biking and a 25-kilometer path for snow shoeing and single-track biking. Eli Enman says the more difficult single track is really catching on with mountain bikers.

"You have to hop over logs," he says. "It zigs and zags, inches away from big trees."

Sleepy Hollow also offers weekly biking and skiing races. A weekly bike series in the summer brings out the after-work crowd. On Wednesday nights in the winter, they offer night skiing, with lights illuminating two one-kilometer loops. Enman says most of their day users are locals, but they are attracting vacationers from all over the East Coast.

"Twenty-five percent of the people out here we see in winter and summer," he says. "They're the outdoorsy types. We see more families in winter than summer. Skiing equipment is really big around here. Biking is newer. It's rarer to see families with bikes."

Snowshoeing is also making an impact, but it probably won't make or break Sleepy Hollow's business, Enman says.

"Ten to 15 percent of the people here snowshoe," he says. "But people can do it out their back door. You don't need much. You don't need groomed trails."

Hot time in the Windy City

Each summer, Navy Pier is one of Chicago's favorite places to play. Built in 1916, it has been everything from a World War II pilot training facility to a campus of the University of Illinois. Today it is 1.5 miles of bike and walking paths, restaurants, theaters and shops stretching into Lake Michigan. On the busiest summer days, it's tough to navigate through all the bikers, baby strollers and runners. Ships dock up and down the pier waiting to take passengers out on the lake.

During the crisp midwestern winters, Navy Pier in Chicago lures tourists and locals with its outdoor ice rink.

Since the refurbished facility reopened in 1995, it has become one of the city's top tourist attractions, annually drawing about 8 million visitors, according to spokeswoman Maura Sheahan.

But it's not just a fair-weather facility.

"We provide entertainment 363 days per year," Sheahan says.

And that entertainment includes a rather creative use of the pier's outdoor theater—as a skating rink. From May to Labor Day, the Skyline Stage is a 1,500-seat venue that hosts top names in music and comedy. Now from January to early April (depending on the weather), skaters can practice their figure-eights on the same stage that has hosted such greats as Cheap Trick and the Beach Boys.

The rink covers the stage and, thanks to a scaffolding that stretches out into the crowd, several rows of seats. The ice time is free, and skate rentals are available. The skaters are protected from the midwestern winter by the stage's tented roof.

Navy Pier will probably always see its biggest crowds in the warmer months. But officials are hopeful that the rink will lure a few more Chicagoans out to the lake in the winter.

"It's one more aspect of all the attractions we have," Sheahan says.

Mind if we ski through?

If they had their choice, they'd golf every day of the year at Saukie Golf Course in Rock Island, Ill.

"Weather permitting, we're open year-round," says Bill Fetty, manager of golf services for the par-66 municipal course situated on 100 acres of beautiful woodlands.

But don't let that "Island" in the town's name fool you. There's nothing balmy about this city in the middle of February. Rock Island is one of the Quad Cities straddling the Mississippi River and the Illinois-Iowa border. So when the snow hits and the golfers go inside (or south) for the winter, the cross country skiers come out to play.

"It's a nice way to get some usage out of the land in the winter," Fetty says.

And it's easy. Skiing at Saukie is do-it-yourself: no groomed trails, no rentals, no lessons.

"We just turn them loose," he says.

Fetty says he wasn't always so happy to see skiers out on the links.

"I had a problem with it in the past," he says. At the time, he was working at a course in north suburban Chicago that attracted hundreds of cross country skiers every winter. But he didn't like the idea of all those skies and poles roughing up his course.

"But they're really not doing that much damage," he says. "Mother Nature repairs herself fairly quickly if you have a good plan."

And that plan includes restricting skiing when the snow on the ground is less than four inches deep and keeping skiers off the tees and greens all the time.

"We've got a hundred acres of course out here and maybe seven acres of greens and tees," he says. "The skiers still have plenty of room."

The problem, he says, comes from "sledders out on the back nine where we can't see them" and "the bozos with snowmobiles and four-wheel trucks."

"The skiers have a minimal impact," he says. "They're very cooperative."

Since Saukie is a municipal course, Fetty doesn't have to worry about turning a profit in the winter. But keeping the course open for skiing gives people an opportunity to use public land year-round. And it brings an entirely different crowd out to the links.

"Very few skiers play golf, and none of my golfers ski," he says. "One group likes exercise; the other doesn't. I won't tell you which one is which."

Then he adds: "I do think some of my golfers would ski if they could do it in a cart."

Go west

A scenic Lake Tahoe trail is a perfect setting for a summer hike.

Any discussion of four-season facilities has to include Lake Tahoe. The California-Nevada resort area has been attracting year-round vacationers for more than 100 years. But there's always room for improvement.

Take Spooner Lake, a rather small operation by Tahoe's larger-than-life standards. Its two year-round cabins are nestled in Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park. Skiers have been enjoying the resort's amazing views and 80 kilometers of groomed trails for decades. But in the last two years, Spooner Lake has added mountain biking to its offerings. Head ski instructor Nina Macleod says the owners had to acquire the financing and the permits from the state to go ahead with biking.

"There are lots of rules and regulations," she says.

But slogging through all the red tape has been worth it. The 14-mile Flume Trail down to Lake Tahoe attracts bikers far and wide. Spooner Lake's Web site calls it "one of the premier trails in the world," and who can argue, with its breathtaking views of the lake and pristine setting?

"It absolutely draws a big crowd," Macleod says. "People come from all over the world. [The operation] grew very much from two summers ago to last summer."

The new emphasis on biking is a change for the resort and quite a departure for Macleod too.

"Skiing has been my life," she says.

She was born in Norway and her father, Sigmund Ruud, and uncle, Birger Ruud, both won Olympic medals in ski jumping in the 1920s and '30s. Macleod came to the United States to teach downhill skiing in Vermont in 1965.

"I met a man and stayed here," she says.

Now she's working year-round in Lake Tahoe, introducing amateur athletes to all the area has to offer.

"It's a really nice place," she says.

No matter what the season.

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