Feature Article - July/August 2002
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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 Resort’s 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.