Berkshire ski resorts expand, diversify, and strive to thrive
Ski Butternut in Great Barrington
Photo: Courtesy of Butternut
Dick McCann learned to ski on the slopes of Blandford Ski Area in the early 1950s. He and his family were members of the former Springfield Ski Club, a group that maintained a mountain accessible only by rope tows, without snowmaking capabilities, and fewer than ten trails. McCann recalls that grooming was done by the members and, on days after a heavy snow, the lifts would not turn until a few brave souls ventured up the hill and boot-packed some of the terrain to make it skiable.
Over the years, skiing has become a veritable way of life for many who flock to the Berkshires come winter, and McCann—who hails from Westfield—is no stranger to the industry. Today, in his 50th year of affiliation with the ski area where he met his wife and taught his three children to ski, McCann sits at the helm of Ski Butternut in Great Barrington, a burgeoning resort whose parent company, Ski Butternut, Inc., is making a real business of skiing. In fact, owner Jeffrey Murdock—whose parents, Channing and Jane, opened Butternut Basin on Christmas Eve in 1963—has just acquired Blandford Ski Area, the very location, McCann says, “that created my love for the industry—and served as the jumping-off place for my career.” He is in his fourth season as general manager. The newly rebranded Ski Blandford is the third in a trio of ski areas being run by Ski Butternut whose partnering with Otis Ridge, as a majority owner, occurred in the spring.
So, what’s an inch of snow worth when it comes to the business of skiing?
“That’s not a germane question,” explains McCann, “because you can make an inch of snow one day when it’s eight degrees with low humidity and no wind and it would cost very little. That same inch, in 28 degrees with high humidity, would cost a great deal to make and have a much different consistency.”
Which, perhaps, is the real gist of this business: It is not only inconsistent, it is wholly unpredictable.
“We are totally at the mercy of Mother Nature,” says Sherry Roberts, owner of Bousquet Ski Area in Pittsfield. The weather and the three winter-holiday weeks have the power to dictate the success of any given ski season. Peak periods—between Christmas and New Year’s, the Martin Luther King Jr. long weekend, and President’s Week (traditionally school vacation)—are invaluable to skiing businesses in the Berkshires. “It’s like farming: seven days a week, dependent on Mother Nature, hard work, and very few free moments.”
In and around Berkshire County, there are more than 800 acres of skiable terrain among six ski areas. But snow on the slopes is just part of the equation. “If people don’t see snow in their own backyards, they are going to stay home,” says Jamie Carr, business manager and part owner at Otis Ridge Ski Area.
So, it’s not just skiing that lures visitors.
Eric Van Ostveen, GM at Otis Ridge, points to other attractions like the addition of multi-lane snow-tubing centers, accessible by a magic carpet to ward off exhaustion, and après-ski enhancements like outdoor firepits, rustic bars, and fireside dining.
At Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Hancock, visitors can take a ride to the summit on the Berkshires Express, Berkshire County’s only six-passenger, high-speed chairlift and the closest one can get to Vermont-level amenities without crossing the border.
A good season often leads to facility upgrades. At Berkshire East Mountain Resort in Charlemont, area manager Jonathan Schaefer says two new trails off the north side of the mountain will retain a lot more snow. At Bousquet, improvements have been made to the chairlift and lighting. The Grouse House Restaurant and Inn—owned and operated by Otis Ridge—was completely gutted and the kitchen and dining room totally redone. The renovations were aimed at bringing the slope-side ski chalet up to par for year-round dining and functions.
Come spring, “almost all the local ski areas have diversified into the summer business or event hosting,” says Roberts. Jiminy Peak installed the first Alpine Super Slide in the nation in June 1977. Since then, facilities have been upgraded to include an Aerial Adventure Park as well as a Mountain Adventure Park. Bousquet offers a slew of family activities from waterslides and disc golf to a climbing wall and go-karts.
At Berkshire East, the Schaefer family added the Thunderbolt in 2014, North America’s longest mountain coaster. They continue to drive the local economy by building wind turbines and solar arrays and operating zip-line canopy tours. Catamount in Hillsdale, New York, boasts an extended season “in the trees,” Otis Ridge becomes a garden center, and Ski Butternut hosts an annual art show and summer concert series.
In a weather-dependent industry whose most reliable factor is unpredictability, “it’s very important that ski areas are part of the local tourism year-round,” says Roberts.