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Image: Joe Nelson
Chris Pietsch  /  The Register-Guard via AP
A snow covered Joe Nelson from Toledo, Ore., makes his way back to the lodge after snowboarding through the the fresh snow at Willamette Pass, east of Oakridge, Ore., last week.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/5/2011 9:37:47 AM ET 2011-01-05T14:37:47

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

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For those still dealing with the fallout from last week's crippling blizzards, Sammy Cahn’s classic lyrics may sound more frightful than delightful. For skiers and snowboarders, however, it’s more like meteorological music to the ears.

Call it a perfect storm of sorts, but thanks to the three-pronged combination of early snow, good deals and a rebounding economy, snowsports enthusiasts are once again heading for the slopes.

Think globally, ski locally
While few would call the ski industry a leading economic indicator, the sport survived the recession surprisingly well. People may have held off on major equipment purchases and skipped their annual ski week, but many still made their way to the mountains. According to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), the industry tallied 59.7 million skier visits last year, a 4.2 percent bump over the year before and just 1.2 percent below the 60.5 million record set in 2007/2008.

Slideshow: Hit the lifts (on this page)

“It was the second best year on record,” said Ralf Garrison, director of the Mountain Travel Research Program (MTRiP), which monitors lodging reservations at western resorts. Local and regional resorts accounted for much of the bump, he added, as many skiers and snowboarders stayed closer to home rather than splurge on a major vacation.

This year, the pendulum is showing signs of swinging back the other way — despite the challenges of rising airfares, stubbornly high unemployment and continuing economic uncertainty. “Most consumers don’t necessarily feel there’s a recovery going on,” said Garrison, “but skiers are proving to be very loyal.”

According to Garrison’s latest data (through November), lodging reservations at western resorts are up 3 percent over last year. More to the point, perhaps, the pace of reservations for future arrivals was up 14 percent, thanks to rebounding consumer confidence and good, early snow in much of the country.

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“It’s the third year of a tough economy,” said Garrison. “After two years, it’s like the same song, third verse, but people are figuring out how to dance to the beat.”

Cost-conscious but committed
Kristina Wegscheider of San Jose, Calif., will definitely be among them. Flying to Park City, Utah, with a friend later this season, she could almost serve as the poster child for the efforts skiers and snowboarders will make to satisfy their need for snow.

Among her cost-saving efforts: Using the two-for-one companion airfare that came with her Delta credit card, seeking out discount coupons for their rental car and ski gear and taking advantage of Park City’s Quick Start program, which lets travelers turn in their boarding passes for lift tickets on their day of arrival. “We actually keep a spreadsheet with all our costs on Google Docs,” said Wegscheider, “and realized, hey, we could do this more than once a season.”

At the same time, resorts are hoping to attract other skiers and snowboarders with generous discounts and package deals. “Three years ago, a fourth night free was the best deal you could get,” said Dan Sherman, director of marketing for tour-operator Ski.com. “Now we’re seeing third night free and, in some cases, buy two nights and get two nights free.”

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At Ski.com, for example, packages at Capella Telluride offer a third night free and two-day lift tickets starting at $614 per person double occupancy (available through Feb. 11, book by Jan. 31). In Park City, guests who rent a two-bedroom condo at the PowderWood Resort for two nights can get another two nights free plus three-day lift tickets for $452 per person (based on quad occupancy, good through April 15).

Slideshow: Winter wonderland (on this page)

Resorts are also ramping up major social-media campaigns in an effort to win friends and influence travel decisions. Whistler Blackcomb, for example, recently launched a new social-media page called The Movement, which aggregates ski and snowboard news, provides access to contests and connects potential guests to the resort’s presence on nearly a dozen social networks.

Then there’s EpicMix, the latest offering from Vail Resorts, which lets riders track their on-mountain activities and connect digitally with friends and family through location-based software. “Skiers and snowboarders love to tell stories about their day on the mountain,” said spokesperson Kate Lessman. “This lets them capture and share their experiences.” Currently available at EpicMix.com, mobile apps for the iPhone and Android devices are expected to go live later this month.

Story: Great powder, fast runs and social networking

Resorts reach out
If EpicMix and the like speak to social media’s growing influence, other industry efforts speak to another demographic reality. To counter an aging population and ensure continued growth, resorts are going to have to attract new visitors, including people who may not want to ski or snowboard at all. “Skiing used to be a chairlift, a bar and a hotel,” said Sherman. “Now you’ve got world-class spas, fine dining and all sorts of other activities.”

Increasingly, those activities include alternative ways to play on — and, apparently, above — the mountain. This year, visitors to Breckenridge (Colo.), Okemo (Vt.) and Attitash and Cranmore (both in N.H.) can hop on new mountain coasters, riding two-person sleds along elevated steel tracks. Okemo’s Timber Ripper ($9–$13), for example, whips along 3,100 feet of track, traversing waves, camel backs and banking loops at up to 25 mph.

Story: Planning a trip to the backcountry in winter

Other resorts, including Kirkwood (Calif.) and Smugglers’ Notch (Vt.) are setting their sights even higher with new zipline/canopy tours. At Smuggs’, the ArborTrek Canopy Tour ($100) rolls nine ziplines, two skybridges and two rappels into a 2.5 to 3-hour eco-adventure — no skis or snowboard required.

And more on-mountain improvements are probably in the wings, especially in light of recent business deals. In October, Vail Resorts added Northstar-at-Tahoe to its portfolio; in December, KSL Capital Partners bought nearby Squaw Valley. Both are expected to make substantial investments in their new properties, some of which will likely be rolled out as early as next year.

In the meantime, this season is shaping up to be one of epic snowfall (more than 20 feet in Tahoe by Christmas, 18 in Utah), good deals and pent-up demand from cost-conscious, but committed skiers and snowboarders.

“The demographics are there; the economy’s not the negative that it was, and people have a passion for the sports that we sell,” said NSAA President Michael Berry. “By my reckoning, there’s every chance that we could set another record this year.”

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail .

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Photos: Winter wonderland

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  1. Horning in

    Sledders in horned helmets glide to the finish line of the of the traditional horn sledge race in a valley near the Bavarian village of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. More than 90 sleds took part in the traditional event on Jan. 6. (Christof Stache / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Frost and fireworks

    Fireworks explode over ice sculptures during the official opening of the Harbin International Ice and Snow festival in the northern Chinese city of Harbin. (David Gray / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Stripes and snow

    Tigers prowl the snowy Siberia Tiger Park in Harbin, China, on Jan. 7. The park is one of the largest breeding centers for endangered Siberian tigers. (How Hwee Young / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dome to a turn

    An ice sculpture mimics the architecture of Saint Basil Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square on Jan. 5. (Yuri Kadobnov / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Frosted forest

    Horses pull a sledge through snow-covered woods in the eastern German ski resort of Oberhof on Jan. 5. (Christian Charisius / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. River floe

    A Ukrainian man walks on the frozen Dnieper River in Kiev, Ukraine, on Jan. 3. Temperatures in the Ukrainian capital dropped to 28 degrees. (Sergei Chuzavkov / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Horsey hoarfrost

    Frost covers the eyelashes of a horse in the eastern German ski resort of Oberhof, Jan. 5. (Christian Charisius / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Peaking out

    Clouds and blowing snow form a halo around Mount Rainier as seen from Seattle on Dec. 30. (Elaine Thompson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Walking in a winter wonderland

    Two people walk through a band of heavy lake-effect snow falling near Shaker Heights, Ohio, on Jan. 5. (Amy Sancetta / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Sled racers

    A father sleds with his daughter near Bonn, Germany, on Dec. 25. (Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Walking on thick ice

    A worker walks on a snow sculpture featuring camels prior to the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival in China on Dec. 24. The 27th Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival kicks off on Jan. 5. (Sheng Li / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Wake-up call

    A man swims in a partially frozen pond as another prepares to jump in after snowfall at Hampstead Heath in London on Dec. 19. (Matt Dunham / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Picture perfect

    A snow covered Stormont estate is pictured in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Dec. 17. (Peter Muhly / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Mirrored beauty

    Fresh snow on the trees in the Harz mountain range in Sonnenberg, Germany, Nov. 27. (Frank May / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Wild nature

    Deer are seen in a pasture as snow covers the landscape near Schinnen, southern Netherlands, Dec. 17. (Ermindo Armino / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Super snowman

    A 31-foot snowman dubbed "Milocinek," who wears a barrel for a hat and a road safety cone for his nose, greets children in Pierwoszow village near Trzebnica, Poland, on Dec. 11. (Grzegorz Hawalej / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Black swans

    Two swans move across the water during a spell of frosty fog in the Oslofjord, Norway, on Dec. 7, 2010. (Larsen, Hakon Mosvold / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Bread bath

    Ducks fight for bread on the River Kelvin in Glasgow, Scotland, on Dec. 7, 2010. (Andy Buchanan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Winter's web

    Hoar frost clings to a spider's web around Pickmere Lake in the Cheshire countryside in Knutsford, United Kingdom on Dec. 3. Heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures have severely disrupted Britain's infrastructure. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. White vista

    Roofs in the old town of Bern, Switzerland are covered by snow on Dec. 2. Heavy snowfalls hit large parts of Central Europe. (Peter Klaunzer / Keystone via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Cold canopy

    A man skiis in the Thuringian Forest in Oberhof, Germany on Dec. 2. Large parts of Germany were hit by heavy snowfalls and icy winds. (Jens Meyer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Stroll noir

    People walk along the Moskva river at the outskirts of Moscow on Dec. 2 as temperatures plummet to -23 degrees Celsius (-9 degrees Fahrenheit). (Mikhail Metzel / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Crystal clear

    Snow crystals appear on the window of a car in Bayreuth, southern Germany, on Dec. 2. Snow blanketed the country, disrupting traffic but also bringing good winter sports conditions. (David Ebener / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Full steam ahead

    A steam engine makes its way across the snow-covered landscape after fresh snowfall near the eastern German city of Wernigerode on Nov. 22. (Matthias Bein / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Rose hips on ice

    Rose hips are covered with an icinglike layer of snow in the southwest of Bavaria in Stoettgen, Germany, Nov. 22. (Karl Josef Hildenbrand / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Let it snow

    Snow covers the 'Pepiniere' park in Villers-les-Nancy, France, Nov. 29. (Alexandre Marchi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Grin and 'bear' it

    A Kamchatka brown bear rests in the first snow at the zoo in Gelsenkirchen, western Germany, Nov. 29. (Martin Meissner / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Snowfight!

    Children have a blast during a snowball fight in Lyon, central France, Wednesday, Dec. 1. (Laurent Cipriani / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Slippery when wet

    Snow-covered rooftops are pictured in this general view of Lyon, southeastern France, as winter weather with sub-freezing temperatures hits the country, Dec. 1. (Robert Pratta / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Walking in a winter wonderland

    A man goes for a walk through the snow-covered landscape near the southern German city of Altdorf. (Karl-josef Hildenbrand / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Snow buddy

    Brox the cocker spaniel runs through the snow at Scotch Corner, northern England, Nov. 29. (Nigel Roddis / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Frost on!

    A fisherman casts his line in Moscow River, covered in frosty fog, with the air temperature at about -13 degrees Celsius (8.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in Moscow, Nov. 29. (Denis Sinyakov / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Blinded by the light, and snow

    Blowing snow and freezing temperatures face drivers as they head west on Highway 1 from Calgary, Alberta, Nov. 29. (Mike Blake / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Clearing for takeoff

    Snow plows clear part of the runway at Edinburgh airport, Scotland Nov. 29. (David Moir / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Over the fields and through the snow

    A horseman rides a horse between snow-covered fields in Muehlethurnen, near Bern, on Nov. 26. (Michael Buholzer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Just ducky

    A duck rests on a frozen lake with the air temperature at about minus 18 degrees Celsius (minus 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit) on the outskirts of Minsk, Dec. 1. (Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Silent night, twinkling lights

    A snow-covered cabin is lit by Christmas lights along the shoreline of Lake Louise after sunset in Alberta, Nov. 29. (Mike Blake / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Lights all aglow

    A lamp covered with frozen snow shines on top of the Feldberg mountain near Frankfurt, central Germany, Nov. 30. (Michael Probst / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Snow crossing

    A man crosses a bridge on the Niviglio river in a snowstorm on Dec. 1, in Robecco sul Naviglio, near Milan, Italy. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Sledder's delight

    Rachel Douglass (top) and Sophie Coatsworth sledge downhill at the Town Moor in Newcastle, northern England Nov. 29. (Nigel Roddis / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Wearing their woolens

    Sheep stand on a snow-covered meadow in Olching, west of Munich, Germany, during heavy snowfall in Bavaria, Nov. 29. (Michaela Rehle / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Arctic oasis

    Landscape is covered in snow on Nov. 29, at the Schlaubetal natural park near Mixdorf, eastern Germany. (Patrick Pleul / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Participants wearing helmets with horns
    Christof Stache / AFP - Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (42) Winter wonderland
  2. Image:
    Corey Rich courtesy of Heavenly Ski Resort
    Slideshow (27) Hit the lifts

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