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Poconos ski resorts see their best season in years amid COVID-19 escapes, lots of snow

The snow and accompanying cold have translated to big relief for the state’s tourism industry, which has been battered by COVID-19 restrictions on dining and lodging.

Skiers are on Blue Mountain in the Poconos on Wednesday, where after years of mild winters and lack of snow, ski resorts are experiencing a boom season with sell-out crowds driven to escape pandemic claustrophobia.
Skiers are on Blue Mountain in the Poconos on Wednesday, where after years of mild winters and lack of snow, ski resorts are experiencing a boom season with sell-out crowds driven to escape pandemic claustrophobia.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

As November’s weather ended on a mild spell, and with COVID-19 restrictions looming, Pennsylvania’s ski resorts started the season with trepidation.

“We were definitely a little nervous,” said Rachel Wyckoff, spokesperson at Shawnee Mountain in East Stroudsburg. “We weren’t sure what to expect.”

But the season has exceeded expectations of even the most cautiously optimistic.

“It’s been amazing,” Wyckoff said. “We’ve never seen so many skiers, tubers, and snowboarders want to be out there all day. We have sold out every weekend this season.”

Though she did not share numbers, Wyckoff said online lift ticket sales have been “astronomical.” She estimates that the number of advance online purchases is triple last year’s. And rentals are up 50%, indicating a lot of new skiers.

Indeed, resorts in the Poconos and Lehigh Valley are experiencing a boom season with sellout crowds driven by favorable conditions and a desire to escape, as many people are sick of being trapped indoors by the pandemic.

“Everyone that I’ve spoken to has had a very good season,” said Linda Irvin with the Pennsylvania Ski Areas Association, which represents 21 of the state’s 24 ski areas. “We have been up and down in past years, but I would say that this year will end up being one of the best seasons in years.”

The weather has been a major factor. Consider that snowfall totals in Allentown now stand at 55.2 inches since December — more than double the normal average of 27 inches, according to the National Weather Service.

Last year, Allentown saw just 5.3 inches. As telling, this year is the first time since 2016 that Allentown has had snow on the ground every day in February. Moreover, the average temperature for February so far is 26.8 degrees Fahrenheit, about 5.3 degrees below normal.

» READ MORE: Poconos ski industry optimistic, despite coronavirus, mild winter forecast (from November 2020)

Scranton has seen 52 inches of snow, well above its normal 34.2 inches.

All that snow and accompanying cold have translated to big relief for the state’s tourism industry, which was battered this last year by COVID-19 restrictions on dining and lodging.

The 24 ski areas in Pennsylvania generated $483 million in economic output in 2019, according to the most recent study by the Pennsylvania Ski Areas Association — a figure that also includes summer activities because so many resorts have become year-round venues.

Overall, the ski area industry supports more than 6,000 year-round jobs and generates more than $150 million in labor income annually. And about 320,000 Pennsylvania residents take to the slopes for skiing or snowboarding.

Keeping up numbers was important as resorts approached the season in November with yet another mild forecast and indoor facilities limited to half-capacity. In addition, resorts planned to voluntarily limit the number of skiers on the slopes at any one time.

So the resorts embraced new technology and launched apps — many changes they now plan to keep in place. They required that all lift tickets, rentals, and lessons be purchased online in advance. Now, skiers show up at main gates with bar codes already sent to their phones. After scanning the bar code, skiers receive a chipped badge that gets scanned at lifts and rentals.

» READ MORE: 4 bridges in Wissahickon Valley Park to be closed at least through fall for renovation

In addition, resorts installed hundreds of outdoor heaters, and bought food trucks to encourage outdoor dining. Skiers can order food on their phones while on lifts and have it waiting at the lodge.

Overall, the resorts now say the technology has led to a better experience for guests.

Ashley Seier, spokesperson at Blue Mountain in Palmerton, Carbon County, said it’s been “an absolutely crazy season.”

The resort has sold out most weekends since it opened Dec. 11, two weeks later than normal. It also found that even though it was limiting the number of skiers on weekends, midweek sales jumped.

“That’s probably a lot of people with flex schedules that didn’t take a vacation last year. So skiing is the only thing to do right now,” Seier said. “And all that snow just gets people psyched.”

Rentals are also way up. “We’ve talked to a lot of guests who haven’t skied in 10 years, or who said they would normally be going out West or to Vermont,” Seier said. “Now, they’re looking to dust off their old skis or stay closer to home.”

» READ MORE: 130-mile Pinelands route designated as a National Scenic Byway

Shawn Hauver of Camelback Resort in Tannersville, Monroe County, echoed her thoughts.

“The season has really been fabulous,” Hauver said. “The nice thing is ... other than one or two big storms, we’ve had snow almost every week, with a couple inches every few days. So people constantly have fresh powder, which is really, really exciting. It’s what people live for.”

Hauver said season pass holders have said the conditions are almost as good as they have been out west.

“Right now, on top of our 36-inch base of man-made snow we’ve got fabulous natural snow,” Hauver said. “So it’s really the perfect combination. You can’t really ask for anything better ... it’s one of the best ski conditions we’ve had in 10 years in terms of the quality of the snow.”

Staff writer Anthony R. Wood contributed to this article.