Despite a pandemic, Duluth’s Spirit Mountain drew more business this winter than it did the previous year.
In fact, the ski hill’s winter revenues were up 17% compared with the 2019-2020 season, said Ann Glumac, Spirit Mountain's interim executive director.
It was a pleasant surprise for Glumac, who said that heading into the season, she had anticipated just the contrary — a 15% dip in business.
During a budget presentation to the Duluth City Council on Monday night, Glumac said she expects Spirit Mountain to finish the current fiscal year with a small profit, but she said final figures probably won’t be available until early June.
Of course, the ski hill wouldn’t have even been able to reopen, after closing for the COVID-19 outbreak, if not for $300,000 in emergency funding it received from the city of Duluth.
Glumac told city councilors she hopes Spirit Mountain will begin to build cash reserves it can draw on when unexpected expenses or losses arise. At present the recreation area has no such emergency fund.
For the coming fiscal year, Glumac anticipates food and beverage sales will continue their decline, falling 10%. And she expects banquet business will remain 50% below previous years, even as pandemic restrictions begin to ease.
Following the recommendations of a task force, Spirit Mountain plans to increase its pricing, likely by 2% to 3.25%, with the exception of its Adventure Park, where lower-cost mid-week tickets will be offered to attract more local customers.
Glumac said her budget is based on conservative expectations, yet it projects an operating profit of nearly $65,500.
To increase community use of the Grand Avenue Chalet, Spirit Mountain plans to open a skating rink close by. Glumac said she hopes the chalet will become a headquarters for people interested in outdoor recreation opportunities in the area. She would like to offer snowshoes, hiking poles and binoculars for rent at a modest cost.
Glumac also talked about hiring "ambassadors" to welcome and direct guests, while also checking tickets, as lax oversight in the past has resulted in lost revenues.
She said Spirit Mountain will update and improve its food and beverage offerings. It also will look to create some quiet areas with lounge furniture, where guests can relax and unwind after hitting the slopes.
Councilor Joel Sipress praised Glumac for moving ahead with “some of the low-hanging fruit” when it comes to operational improvements which he said "can improve both financial performance and guest experience right away.”
“And I really want to thank you for moving forward with some of those low-cost recreational opportunities both for guests to our community and for local residents,” he said, pointing out that it will take a while for people to be willing to contemplate more substantial investments, such as the $23 million in upgrades proposed by SE Group, a consulting firm hired to evaluate Spirit Mountain’s operations.
“My general view is the best way to demonstrate success and build confidence is to show what we can accomplish with a little before we start asking for a lot. So, I really appreciate the approach you’re taking," Sipress said.
The city of Duluth has set aside $475,000 in tourism taxes to help Spirit Mountain make capital improvements in 2021. Glumac identified a host of potential projects, including new snow-making equipment, improvements to beginner ski terrain, mountain bike trails and drainage modifications to reduce runoff into nearby Knowlton Creek, a designated trout stream.
Councilor Gary Anderson asked Glumac about the threat of increasingly unpredictable weather to Spirit Mountain’s winter operations.
“As we look at the impact of climate change, I would assume that it’s likely we would potentially lose a weekend at the beginning of the season and a weekend at the end of the season,” he said. “I’m just hoping that yourself and the board are really being conscious of the effects of climate change on the mountain, as you go forward.”
Glumac agreed that unexpected weather conditions have presented a challenge.
“This year, we were hampered in our ability to open as fully as we would like in November — we open the Friday after Thanksgiving — because we couldn’t make snow. We had the warmest November on record, and you just can’t make snow when temperatures aren’t like in the mid-20s,” she said.
Glumac said a warm spring also forced Spirit Mountain to close a week earlier than it had hoped.