iPhones keeping ski resorts honest on snow reports

SkiReport app grounds resorts' inflated snowfall claims

By Lisa Rathke
Published January 29, 2010 4:01PM (EST)

Ever hit the slopes only to find 4 inches of fresh snow instead of the 8 inches you were promised? That may be because ski areas have exaggerated their snowfalls on weekends to entice skiers, according to a study by two Dartmouth College professors.

That depth deception may fall by the wayside, however, as skiers and snowboarders can now use an iPhone application to report real-time snow levels and keep resorts honest, the study said.

Economists Jonathan Zinman and Eric Zitzewitz, skiers who took offense to a fluffed-up claim, studied snow reports from 2004 to 2008 and compared them to area government weather stations. They found that ski resorts across the U.S. and Canada reported more fresh snow -- 23 percent more, on average -- on skier-coveted weekends than during the week. Resorts with more business to gain were the ones most likely to boast of deeper snowfalls, their study said.

It may not seem like much: a resort's bragging of an 8-inch snowfall when the slopes really got only 4 or 6 inches. But to a skier or snowboarder, those extra inches make slopes more desirable.

The so-called "weekend effects" in snow reporting were larger for resorts with more expert terrain and within closer driving distance to populated areas, Zinman and Zitzewitz said.

"This is consistent with expert skiers valuing fresh snow more highly and with resorts near cities having more potential to attract weekend skiers," the report said.

The resorts question the findings. For one thing, they say, the government's weather stations aren't necessarily in the same snowy spots as the slopes. And they say overreporting snow does them no good if disgruntled skiers and riders find less snow than expected.

"It doesn't serve you to overreport snow," said JJ Toland, spokesman for Sugarbush Resort. "If you do overreport and make a false promise, people show up and they just become angry that you lied to them and they won't come back."

And in the age of camera phones, Twitter, blogs and other social media, they couldn't lie if they wanted to, the resorts say.

"The resorts, now, frankly they can't get away with it," said Parker Riehle, of the Vermont Ski Areas Association. "They won't get away with it because the skiers and riders won't put up with it."

Apple Inc.'s iPhone and the application SkiReport.com are apparently helping keep resorts honest, allowing skiers to log reports in real time, from chairlifts or base lodges.

"Exaggerations fall sharply, especially at resorts where iPhones can get reception," the report said.

Anna Rosenthal, 57, of Portland, Conn., said she wasn't surprised to learn ski areas may have snowed their customers.

"I believe that they want to get people out there to ski," she said, before boarding a lift at Sugarbush resort in Vermont. "As long as the conditions are good when I get there, I'm fine."

And David Ilsley, 51, of Lexington, Mass., who has skied all over the U.S., said he expects some hype.

"I think you expect it, so you kind of plan for it," he said, standing outside a Sugarbush lodge. "So, if they're saying one thing, you know it's probably not quite that good."

He's found resorts in the East tend to exaggerate more than those in the West, which get more snow, but neither do so enough to harm the quality of the skiing, he said.

Some say it's all a bit of a gamble.

"We expect snow, and you don't always get what they tell you're going to get," said another Sugarbush skier, Lou Bizian, 45, of Rutherford, N.J. "But, fortunately, this week, we got what we thought we were going to get."

Other skiers and riders say the resorts' recent snow reports are right on.

"Usually they're pretty accurate," said snowboarder Isabel Beavers, 20, of Northboro, Mass., who reads snow reports daily. "I mean Sugarbush at least is honest because they've been saying they haven't had any snow for the past few days, and it's true."

The report's authors decided to investigate after hitting the slopes at an unnamed Vermont resort that had reported 6 inches of new snow.

"We got there, and there was like 2," Zitzewitz said.

He and Zinman compared new natural snowfall reported by more than 400 ski areas to snow amounts reported by area government weather stations. Their work, presented at a National Bureau of Economic Research conference in July, has not been published.

In calculating average daily snowfall, the researchers considered a wide range of snowfalls over time -- as deep, for instance, as the 29 inches recorded on Feb. 14-15, 2007, in Waitsfield, about 5 miles from Warren, as well as mere dustings of snow. The report did not break out individual daily reports or name resorts.

Ski areas complain there can be big variations between the amount of snow at the mountain and the amount at a weather station in a different spot.

But that's not the point, Zitzewitz said. The average match weather station was 26 miles away and 160 feet below the summit in the East; in the West it was 52 miles away and 280 feet below, he said.

"In general, if all we were finding was the resorts were reporting more snow than the weather stations, we'd probably say, well, that's because they put ski resorts in good places for snowfall. But that's not what we're finding," he said. "What we're finding is that the difference changes with the day of the week, and so that's got to be due to something man-made."

Lisa Rathke

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