Spence Timkey was getting a little nervous a few weeks ago, looking at green grass and rain outside his family's snowboard shop in Ellicottville.
Then the snow finally fell, and everything changed.
“Man, when we get natural snow like this, it sets the atmosphere,” said Timkey, whose family owns the Boardroom Snowboard Shop just outside Holiday Valley Ski Resort. “When you're walking around town for dinner and there's snow on the sidewalks and snow on the streets, it makes it fun to be here.”
After a dismal ski season last year, those who depend on the industry are finally starting to shed anxiety that the snow would not return again.
“Two years in a row like that, you would have seen a lot of businesses close,” Timkey said. “That's how important the snow is to this town's economy.”
And return it did. A thick layer of snow that fell on Holiday Valley during the last week has brought the crowds back to town. Restaurants were packed. Slopes were busy, and shops were enjoying a post-Christmas buzz Saturday.
Ten days ago, Holiday Valley had four slopes open with manmade snow.
“Everything else was green,” said Jane Eshbaugh, the resort's director of marketing. By Saturday, 41 of its 58 slopes and trails were open.
“Now everything's white,” Eshbaugh said. “There's snow in the trees. There's snow in the woods, and there's a lot of people here.”
Ken Smith, of Cincinnati, decided Christmas morning to take a trip to Ellicottville with his son, Sam, after seeing the weather report. He wasn't the only one trying to book a last-minute room.
“While I was on the phone with the guy, they booked up the last suite,” Smith said. “He said they couldn't even keep up with the reservations because they were coming in so fast.”
The snow brought a sense of relief to workers at Holiday Valley and to local businesses. Last year, the resort was open for skiing and snowboarding for 97 days before closing early March 18.
“We've had other years where we haven't had a lot of snow,” Eshbaugh said. “But that was probably the earliest we've closed in the last 20 years.”
The year before, Holiday Valley got more than twice as much natural snow and was open for 123 days.
For gear rental shops and other businesses that rely on the weather, that can mean the difference between a boom or bust year.
“This is a weather-dependent industry – skis and snowboards, that is – and when it doesn't snow, the people don't come,” Timkey said.
Holiday Valley buffers against the swings in weather with upgraded snowmaking machines and off-season amenities, but the first few weeks of warm temperatures in December made the start of the season a “nail-biter,” Eshbaugh said.
Fresh flakes across the region can be among the best marketing campaigns for local resorts.
At Kissing Bridge, which opened Wednesday in Colden, the tubing hill depends on people thinking about snow to draw them back, said marketing director Peter Calleri.
“If they don't see snow in their yard, they don't get that tubing mindset,” Calleri said.
Most ski resorts, he said, stabilize their business with season tickets and packages, but a snowy year can bring more over-the-counter sales at full prices.
“Your success for a year is many times based on how well you do over the counter,” Calleri said. “The stability is in the prepaid programs, and the over-the-counter sales tickets are the ones that really dictate how profitable a season you're going to have.”
Despite warmer-than-usual temperatures in early December, forecasters expect a “fairly typical winter” this year because of a lack of either El Niño or La Niña climate features, said John Hitchcock, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Cheektowaga.
“Last year was way below average. It was one of the least snowy winters on record,” Hitchcock said. “And the first part of this winter was really similar to that, but it looks like we've broken that pattern now, finally. I think for skiers and snowmobilers, the rest of this winter is going to be much better than what last year was.”
In Ellicottville on Saturday, bartender Mike Glantz served up burgers and pints and braced for the crowd to swell. By midafternoon, a seat at the bar was already hard to come by.
“It's our first real Saturday for Ellicottville winter, so I'm going to guess that tonight it's going to be packed,” Glantz said.
He estimated that business had nearly doubled since the snow arrived. Two weeks ago, he said, the scene was completely different.
“It was dead,” Glantz said. “There's no other way to describe it. There was nobody there.”
Jay Bailey, a retired autoworker from Lorain, Ohio, had a similar assessment when he looked at Holiday Valley's webcam from his home. Saturday, he decided, was the day to make the 210-mile drive for his first ski day of the season.
“It looked dire straits about three weeks ago, until just after Christmas,” Bailey said.
For Timkey and others who work in seasonal shops, the weather during the next few months will be key.
“We don't put too much into the forecast,” said Timkey, whose family has owned the Boardroom Snowboard Shop for more than two decades. “But when it's good, we like to think positive thoughts.”