GHENT, W.Va. — Below zero wind chills did not stop skiers and snowboarders from hitting the slopes Friday at Winterplace Ski Resort in Raleigh County.
In the warmth of Mickey’s Restaurant at the foot of the slopes, a special event took place. Officials were on hand from the West Virginia Tourism Office, each of the five ski resorts in the Mountain State and the West Virginia Ski Areas Association.
Governor Justice could not attend due to preparations for the upcoming legislative session, but signed a proclamation making January Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month in West Virginia.
Commissioner for West Virginia Tourism Chelsea Ruby presented it on his behalf, saying the nearly $250 million industry is a yearly boost to the state’s tourism industry and economy. Officials from all ski resorts represented agreed, saying a large percentage of guests come from other states including North Carolina, Florida and Ohio among other states.
“One of my favorite statistics relating to tourism is that 86% of people who visit our state come back’, said Ruby. “This is an important month for our winter ski folks, because what they’re doing is bringing in new people teaching them to ski and to snowboard getting them to fall in love with it, and in turn fall in love with West Virginia and keep coming back.”
The winter ski season brings roughly 800,000 people to the state, but many ski resort officials and the West Virginia Tourism Office want to help make this number even higher. They are slated to propose a $20 million budget increase at this year’s legislative session.
“We are looking to increase exposure to West Virginia”, explained Ruby. “We’re a small state, unfortunately we’ve got some image issues. We just haven’t had the exposure in recent years to bring in the folks that we need to.”
In a previous MetroNews report, the issue of West Virginia not promoting itself enough for business relative to neighboring states was brought up by Josh Jarrell, Deputy Cabinet Secretary in the state Department of Commerce. While we are getting “outnumbered” by other states, Ruby views it as an opportunity to inspire change.
“The good news is if you look at the region, all of the states around us have stronger tourism industries than us. They’re bringing in more people and the numbers are growing. We don’t focus on it to say ‘hey we’re last’, but we focus on it to look at how heavily-trafficked our region is and the potential for growth.”
Ski resort officials are excited about the possibility of more dollars to promote the industry. While the business can be competitive, leaders agree there is a comradery between the properties. Shawn Cassell is Public Relations Specialist for Snowshoe Resort in Pocahontas County and said this is especially true during rough seasons.
“It’s perceived as being a little competitive but we’re sort of in this together, it feels like a family. The difference between this past holiday season that we just came through and how much of a success it was and how great the weather cooperated for us. The stark contrast to the last two winters. We really felt for each other through those tough times, you know? Right now, we’re happy for each other.”
Winterplace Ski Resort and West Virginia Ski Areas Association President Terry Pfeiffer agreed, adding all of the resorts have a common goal in mind for their guests.
“All of the resorts here in West Virginia have great learn-to packages. All of the resorts have professional ski instructors. So we’re all out here to make that first on-hill experience a memorable one, and most importantly a fun one.”
According to the West Virginia Tourism Office, the state’s five ski resorts are Canaan Valley Resort in Davis, Oglebay Resort in Wheeling, Timberline Four Seasons Resort in Davis, Snowshoe Mountain in Snowshoe and Winterplace Ski Resort in Ghent.
While exact numbers are not available yet, officials predict this ski season will be one of the most successful in several years because of the abnormally cold weather.
The ski industry in West Virginia employs nearly 5,000 people every year.