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Warm start to winter puts dent in ski-based tourism

fr golftdaThe winter tourism industry in Haywood County is reeling from unseasonably warm temperatures that have shuttered Cataloochee Ski Area during what’s usually one of its busiest times of the year.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s, when kids are out of school and people are off work, is usually one of the most lucrative weeks of the year. But Cataloochee was forced to close Sunday and remains in a holding pattern until winter returns later in the week.

Cataloochee isn’t the only one that’s suffering. Cataloochee Ski Area’s popularity is a vital drawing card for the hotels, restaurants and shops in nearby Maggie Valley during what are otherwise lean winter months. 

“I think it’s hurt a lot of people. We have a lot of cancelations,” said Jay Culkin, co-owner of Mountain Joy Cottages. “Not having a big winter season has really hurt.”

The biggest hit has been from church youth groups who planned trips exclusively centered around skiing, Culkin said.

Winter in the South is always a bit of a wildcard and goes with the territory, said Chris Bates, the general manager of Cataloochee Ski Area. Skiing is often a stop-go affair during November and early December before winter sets in for good.

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But Bates can’t recall a scenario like this before.

“We have had these sort of challenges, but never at such a critical period,” Bates said.

An astute follower of meteorology, Bates was bracing for a tough start to the ski season.

“All the long-range forecasters knew December was going to be a warm month,” Bates said. “We didn’t know it would be this warm, but it wasn’t unforecasted.”

By that token, predictions call for a colder-than-normal winter come January, February and even into March — if the strong El Niño year plays out as expected. Bates hopes by March, no one will remember the warm bout in December.

“My biggest message is don’t give up on winter,” Bates said.

Cataloochee’s snow crews are now primed for the arrival of colder weather later this week, planning to pummel the slopes with their powerful snow-making machines as soon as the mercury drops.

If the forecast holds, they should be able to starting laying down a new base Thursday night and open at some point during the day Friday. 

Cataloochee’s snow-making prowess has left it in a better position than most ski areas.

“We have skied more days than anyone else in North Carolina this year and almost anyone in the Southeast,” Bates said.

Despite the balmy winter, Cataloochee Ski Area has defied the odds and been open more than it might seem — with 29 days of skiing since the season began 40 days ago.

Despite shirt-sleeve weather over Christmas, for example, Cataloochee had managed to put down three to four feet of snow the previous weekend and was able to keep some runs open through Christmas weekend before it melted away, Bates said.

Lynn Collins, the director of the Haywood County tourism authority, said the warm winter will likely take a bite out of the steady growth the tourism industry has seen over the past few years.

The county saw an 11 percent increase in room tax collected by overnight accommodations for the 2014-2015 fiscal year, compared to the year before. The trend has continued, with room tax collection up 17 percent for July through October of this year compared to last year.

Hopefully, it will make up for what’s likely to be a dip for the month of December, Collins said.

“We desperately could use a little snow — well, I’ll take the cold weather, and they can make the snow,” Collins said during a quarterly tourism report to county commissioners last week. 

Collins recounted a call she fielded from a man in Florida earlier that day asking about the status of snow at Cataloochee.

“He said ‘You just don’t understand how frustrated I am that you all don’t have snow,’ and I said ‘Sir, not as frustrated as I am,’” Collins said.

The tourism industry is trying to put a positive spin on the skiing doldrums, however.

“For the most part I think people have come on,” said Teresa Smith, director of the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce. “I think there are a lot of people who travel as a family at Christmas and skiing is an added bonus. I think the mountain experience is what they are looking for.”

Those who stuck to their trip plans and came anyway have fueled a steady stream of calls and walk-ins at the Haywood County tourism agency’s visitor center in downtown Waynesville this week.

“There is somebody up front right now asking what to do,” Collins said during an interview Monday.

Luckily, the mild weather has opened the door for all sorts of outdoor recreation that normally isn’t conducive to this time of year.

“We’ve been telling them to go fishing. We’ve been telling them to go play golf. We’ve been telling them to go hiking,” Smith said.

Terri Crider, co-owner and manager of Smoky View Cottages in Maggie Valley, said she has done her best to convince people not to cancel their travel plans.

“We had a handful of people who were just coming to ski. So we lost a few people who were dead set on skiing,” Crider said.

But she talked most of her bookings into coming anyway.

“I would tell them, ‘well there is more to do than just skiing,’” Crider said.

The Haywood tourism authority has whipped up a cheat sheet of alternative itineraries for people who came to ski and can’t.

Collins said visitors who couldn’t go skiing over the winter break will hopefully come back later in the season. She’s been in contact with one family who was on a week-long vacation slated to end Friday, but they have added a couple extra nights to their stay.

“Their children got snowboards for Christmas, so they extended their stay until Sunday in hopes Cataloochee will be able to make snow and they can use their snowboards,” Collins said.

Winter tourism has seen steady growth over the past decade, a trend that’s paralleled Cataloochee’s advancements in its snowmaking infrastructure. Many of Maggie Valley’s shops, restaurants and hotels historically closed up shop for the winter, but more and more have made the move to stay open.

The Five Star Inn in Maggie Valley began staying open through the winter three years ago, and has been quite successful, said Jordan Shuford, the general manager. Business isn’t solely dependent on the ski area, but also includes people coming to the nearby Harrah’s Cherokee Casino or simply looking for a winter get-away. Still, the ski area is the big drawing card, especially when it comes to landing groups.

“Just today, I booked the entire place to a youth group for a ski weekend in January. They completely booked out Smoky Falls Lodge next door also,” Shuford said.

Bates said he is acutely aware of the tourism partners that depend on the ski area. A recent study conducted by the N.C. Ski Area Association pegged Cataloochee’s economic impact in the county at almost $40 million a year.

But he said the relationship is a symbiotic one.

“Without other attractions and restaurants and gas stations and hotels, Cataloochee doesn’t exist either.” It is all intertwined,” Bates said.

Bates was recently appointed to the county Tourism Development Authority Board. One of his goals will be diversifying tourism attractions in the county.

“My goal is to have more attractions in Haywood County — in summer and winter and 12 months. Anything we can do to support those venues is going bring more people in and raise everyone up,” Bates said.

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