Business & Economy

Global supply chain disruptions cause problems for Vermont Nordic ski areas

Snowmaking machines at the Craftsbury Nordic Center in 2015. File photo by Andrew Nemethy

Nick Mahood is still waiting on skis he ordered in the spring. Mahood, director of the Nordic center at the Woodstock Inn, said they are due to arrive any day now, but he has his doubts. And even if they do, Mahood is confident the delivery won't include his entire order. 

“I already know I’m gonna get shorted on stuff — it's just not there, or maybe it'll come in at some point, but it will be too late,” he said. 

Mahood’s skepticism is warranted. This year, serious supply chain lags have left many retailers short on inventory. On top of that, last fall, a major fire struck the Fischer ski factory in Ukraine; the factory produces about 60% of the skis and snowboards in Europe, plus a lot of other ski and snowboard equipment. The fire left several major brands unable to manufacture certain products, and the factory has not resumed production.

Nordic retailers, in particular, are concerned they won't be able to keep up this season. The cross-country ski industry has been growing steadily for the past few decades, but demand — for gear, for passes, for lessons — took a big jump last winter.

People were desperate to get outside during the pandemic winter, and cross-country skiing is cheaper and offers a gentler learning curve than downhill skiing. With more flexible work schedules, and remote options for office jobs, more people were able to get on skis, and lots of them picked cross-country.

Parker Riehle, president of Get on Snow, said the Nordic ski industry grew even more than other winter sports last year in Vermont. His organization promotes efforts to get new people on skis and snowboards. 

“It’s a matter of supply and demand,” Riehle said. “The demand for usage of Nordic ski areas is so high and the normal supply chain — which was typically good — has been completely flipped. It’s become such a popular alternative for those who maybe aren’t ready to hop on downhill skis, and the supply chain is clogged up.”  

Reese Brown, executive director of the Cross Country Ski Areas Association, said that while some growth was expected last winter, nobody was prepared for what actually happened. 

“We’re all anticipating that this year will be as crazy, if not crazier,” said Brown, whose association recently conducted a survey to gauge interest in skiing this upcoming season. 

“Of the 1,500 people we surveyed, like 96 or 97 percent said they plan to return this year, and then we’ll probably also have some newcomers,” Brown said.  

Normally, ski and snowboard retailers order inventory for the upcoming season in March, and some vendors take orders well into April. But this year things were different. Many major suppliers announced they had hit their allotment for United States orders on March 1, which meant quite a few Vermont retailers were simply unable to place orders. 

“They're thinking ‘I’ll place my order like I always do because my rep always takes it,’ but not this year,” Brown said.  

Typically, ski areas replace about a third of their rental skis every season, which guarantees that the gear they rent remains fairly new and in good shape. So last spring, as the ski season wound down, retailers sold some of their older rental gear, expecting that new products would arrive this fall. 

But now, that product might not be coming, or it may be coming too late to rent. 

“That's gonna translate into unsatisfied customers. It's your one weekend out of Manhattan to ski, but oh, there’s no rentals, you can't ski, you’re gonna be upset,” Brown said.  

Eli Enman, general manager at the Sleepy Hollow Inn in Huntington, said he has started scouring Amazon and Ebay to ensure he has enough skis to rent this year. 

“I went to reorder some stuff from Rossignol a couple of weeks ago, and I would say about 75 percent of their normal inventory is gone,” Enman said. That's when he started looking on Amazon and Ebay and ordering extra gear just in case.

While Enman believes Sleepy Hollow will be OK this season, it’s normal safety net is gone. It doesn't have extra gear in stock, and can't reliably order extra of anything, so a busy weekend could wipe out its inventory and cut into its rental business.

Mahood is in the same boat in Woodstock, and he anticipates working with other retailers to help skiers get gear. “We’re probably gonna have to send people elsewhere at some point,” he said. “We’ll have to call around and find some shops that have inventory. We might have to find like 10 different options for them because I think everybody is more or less in the same boat.”

It’s not just ski gear that is lacking. Some Vermont ski areas are waiting on essential parts involved in blowing snow, grooming trails, and maintaining a functional recreational space. 

Enman, the manager at Sleepy Hollow, said he is still waiting on an important part of his snowmaking system that he ordered 10 weeks ago. 

“That's a big one for us, because it has to be installed before it's too cold, and with climate change, snowfall just isn't as reliable as we’d like,” he said. 

Ultimately, ski retailers are excited — it’s good to have more customers coming back year after year. But the supply chain could mean trouble.

Riehle said the industry will have to work closely together to pull off a successful season. 

“Areas are really gonna need to come together, compare notes and help each other out,” he said. “One resort might say they're good on snowmaking parts, and recommend a vendor at another resort. Same thing could happen with hard goods. It's a cooperative industry.” 

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Grace Benninghoff

About Grace

Grace Benninghoff is a general assignment reporter for VTDigger. She is a 2021 graduate of Columbia Journalism School and holds a degree in evolutionary and ecological biology from the University of Colorado.

Email: [email protected]

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