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No Business Like Snow Business

'People are excited; I don’t think they’re buying the idea we’ll have two terrible years in a row.'

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"Call off Christmas," snarled the wicked Sheriff of Notingham in 1991's Robin Hood. Perish the thought.

Neither a 14th century robber baron nor any other Grinch took responsibility for canceling Christmas at regional ski resorts last year. It was the big bad weatherman, with a little help from his dastardly media henchmen.

"It was the first time in my 40 years in this business that I missed Christmas," said Rick Certano, president and general manager of Brundage Mountain Resort, whose career includes managing resorts in Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

On Christmas Day Certano looked out his window and was greeted by a scant dusting of snow--certainly not enough to open Brundage--which has played host to holiday skiers for more than a half-century.

"We didn't open until Dec. 30 [2011]. Even then it rained," Certano remembered.

But by the time Brundage was going full-tilt in January--boasting some of its best snowfall in memory--reports in the national media were already writing the obituary of the 2011-2012 ski season.

"The media is powerful. And who were they talking to? Resorts in Colorado, Utah and Lake Tahoe, where it still looked like summer. And yes, those people got killed," said Certano. "But the media started convincing people that there simply wasn't any skiing. Well, we had very good skiing. It just started late. But by the time the news media had filed all of those reports, it didn't matter."

Certano estimated that business dropped approximately 20 percent during the 2011 holiday season at Brundage.

Traditionally, beginning in March, Brundage's customer base trails off by approximately 50 percent each weekend until the mountain closes for the season. Brundage closed April 21 this year.

"But this year, it went off a cliff," said Certano. "There was never any momentum established at the beginning of the season. There was no critical mass and I heard that from my associates throughout the industry. They just couldn't overcome the resistance."

InIdaho.com, the statewide central reservations system which books more that 1,100 rental properties throughout the Gem State--including 500 in the McCall area--reports that the 2011 holiday season was down approximately 18 percent.

"But for the season, we were actually up 1 percent," said Mike DeBoer, owner of inIdaho.com and president of Brundage Mountain's board of directors.

"The average opening at Brundage in the past 30 years has been Dec. 2," said DeBoer. "But several years ago, we opened on Nov. 12."

"That was my first year here," said Certano. "I got here Sept. 13, 2005, and we opened two months later."

But Certano, DeBoer and a group of business owners and operators who sat down with Boise Weekly on Nov. 1 in midtown McCall agreed that the past was the past and, in fact, the future is very promising.

"Bookings are up," said DeBoer. "They're up substantially. I'd say about 22 percent statewide."

DeBoer said he thinks Idahoans have "been hunkered down enough" for a while and will be returning to the ski hills at some of their highest numbers since before the recession.

"People are excited, and I just don't think they're buying the idea that we'll have two terrible years in a row," he said. "People are booking for Christmas right now, and I can tell you, that's a pent-up demand."

And some of the most recent statistics indicate that Idaho tourism may serve as a beacon through a still-foggy economic recovery in the Gem State.

"I've been looking at the bed tax numbers: the number of beds filled in resort communities in Idaho," said Certano. "And this past July, we just recorded our second-best month ever in the history of McCall."

Certano paused for emphasis.

"That's ever," he repeated. "Now, I have a theory: The previous high number was back in 2007 but if you remember, construction workers had filled our area hotels back then. That was back when construction was still booming here. So take that factor out, and I think, from a pure tourism standpoint, we're doing better now than ever before."

But Certano said none of the recent success was accidental. He didn't hesitate a beat when asked if McCall was being more aggressive.

"Absolutely. More aggressive. More organized. More people-involved," he said.

Certano wears another hat as president of the McCall Chamber of Commerce, which, he was quick to add, bears no resemblance to its previous incarnations.

"When I first got here, the old director of the McCall Chamber was literally locked in a jail for embezzlement," Certano remembered.

In fact, the McCall Chamber has had a troubled past, with more than one director behind bars. In 1990, Dennis Pierce admitted to stealing thousands of dollars from the Chamber in the 11 months that he served as executive director. And in 2004, Chamber Executive Director Tracey Smith was convicted of stealing thousands of dollars from the Chamber's bank account.

"We rebuilt the Chamber, piece by piece by piece," said Certano. "We don't even have a Chamber director right now. All of the members, the business owners and managers are packaging and promoting together."

Mike McLaughlin said there's a tangible change, all for the better, in the McCall business community.

"When I first got here, it was dog-eat-dog," said McLaughlin. "Everybody was pushing each other away."

McLaughlin is the owner of Bear Creek Lodge, hosting hundreds of visitors each year: skiers and snowmobilers in the winter; hikers, bikers and anglers in the summer.

"We've been booked pretty solid in the summer for weddings," said McLaughlin, who is anxious to welcome snow enthusiasts.

"We package it up really nicely. We hook them up with snowmobiles, dinners and, of course, Brundage supplies discounted passes," he said, indicating that the average stay during the winter is three to four days.

Certano doesn't get overly excited about whether Brundage will be open for Thanksgiving.

"It's icing on the cake. Maybe we'll get people up for a few days," said Certano. "But here's a little-known secret about this business: between Thanksgiving and Christmas, you can get absolutely bottom-dollar rates at a ski resort. You want to know why? Because people usually don't come. Everybody's caught up at work, with shopping and relatives. That time is probably the slowest time in the ski industry."

Certano called the window of time between Thanksgivng and Christmas "lost or found" business.

"There's really nothing we can do about it. In fact, we don't even budget expenses or revenues for Thanksgiving," he said. "We budget from Dec. 15 forward."

But all of that depends on the weather.

"There's nothing I can do about the weather. Let's make that real clear," said Certano. "We're like farmers. We're dictated by the weather. Everybody knows how to play this game and, yes, it's a game."

But when that first substantial snowfall sweeps through McCall and up to Brundage's 7,600-foot mountaintop, Brundage's team will spring to action.

"They have the plan. They get the core people, and we build from there," said Certano, who employs 100-120 staff at season's peak. "We don't want to hire any sooner than two weeks before we open. I just tell my staff, 'Be ready.'"

One thing that won't need to be ready is any snowmaking equipment. Brundage distinguishes itself by not pumping out manmade snow.

"You want to talk about expenses for energy and water? Believe me, I pumped 60 million gallons a year at other resorts that I managed," said Certano. "And who pays for that eventually? Customers. Over at Sun Valley, they have to have snowmaking, but I don't know how many millions that they've invested into that system."

David Carey, owner and operator of Jug Mountain Ranch and Hotel McCall, jumped in.

"That's something they bought into years ago," said Carey. "But here, we have very good terrain and a good snowstorm covers us very fast."

Carey, also a board member at the McCall Chamber, gets particularly excited when he talks about weekday visitors.

"Weekdays are the holy grail. We have more capacity for everything on weekdays here," said Carey. "And here's a secret: Even the weekdays of our winter carnival are pretty quiet."

Carey said McCall regularly hosting visitors from the Treasure Valley was "a double-edge sword."

"The bulk of our business still comes out of Boise. That business supports us, but those are not necessarily the folks who might come up on weekdays or book a weeklong vacation," he said.

Carey has been busy getting ready to reopen Hotel McCall's gourmet restaurant, Rupert's, for the fall and winter season Saturday, Nov. 17. Rupert's is just one of what Carey calls "McCall's hoods."

"'Hoods' is industry slang for a restaurant. The hood is what hangs over a large commercial oven or stove," he said. "Well, the number of hoods in McCall hasn't changed in a very long time."

And while some owners or names of restaurants may have changed in McCall over the years, the number of restaurant hoods has remained fairly stable.

"Some people walk by and say, 'Oh, my gosh, I didn't recognize this town,' and then 30 seconds later, somebody walks by and says, 'Holy cow, I haven't been here in years and it didn't change at all.'"

Carey is anxious to draw more business from the Treasure Valley, particularly those who are new to Idaho.

"People assume that everyone in Boise knows everything in McCall. That's just not the case," said Carey. "A lot of new people are moving into Boise who aren't familiar with McCall. It just takes time to expand their immediate footprint."

Certano wants newcomers, mainstays and everybody else to head back to McCall and up to his mountain. When asked whether he has detailed marketing plans for the 2012-2013, he grins a Cheshire Cat smile and simply answers, "Yes."

"Let me make it easy on you. I agree with Einstein, who defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We're always thinking of our greatest opportunities. We're planners. We spend the spring analyzing. We spend the summer planning. And currently, we're in the execution."

Now, if it would only snow.

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