- Bear Cieri
- Eli Enman and Molly Peters of Sleepy Hollow Inn, Ski & Bike Center
Eli Enman had an inkling that more skiers were coming to his family's cross-country trails in Huntington this winter when he had to clear his second, overflow parking area much more often than usual. He also added a third portable toilet to handle the flow.
"We definitely had to keep an eye on our parking lot to make sure it didn't get overcrowded," said Enman, the general manager of Sleepy Hollow Inn, Ski & Bike Center.
After the ski season ended in mid-March, Enman crunched the numbers. Those extra cars reflected a 27 percent increase in revenue for the cross-country operation this winter over the previous season. The spike came despite 14 fewer ski days than in 2019-20, the product of a late start — and an early end — to the season.
When the flakes did fall, people eager to escape their COVID-19 confinement flocked to Sleepy Hollow's 35 kilometers of trails for open-air, socially distanced activity. Season pass sales climbed more than 15 percent above the previous winter; the number of day-pass buyers and equipment renters held steady, Enman said.
Other Nordic ski operations across the country saw similar boosts in traffic. In a report the Cross Country Ski Areas Association released in February, more than half of the venues that responded said their season pass sales jumped 20 percent or more. About 60 percent of operators reported an increase in day pass sales, as well.
"Ultimately, we had a fantastic year," said Reese Brown, executive director of the association, a North American group based in Woodstock. "Really, it became the perfect outdoor recreation for COVID."
Their success stands in stark contrast to what downhill resorts reported. Ski Vermont, the state's industry trade group, announced earlier this month that its members lost an estimated $100 million in revenue. It cited capacity limits and other pandemic-era restrictions, as well as the state's travel and quarantine rules, which kept many out-of-staters away.
Sleepy Hollow caters more to locals. Numerous school ski teams and youth ski clubs train and race on its trails. And the pandemic sent additional groups their way. The Mansfield Nordic Club's adult program moved to Sleepy Hollow this winter and brought 60 to 80 new season pass holders, Enman said. The club's usual home, at the Camp Ethan Allen Training Site in Jericho, has been closed to all nonmilitary traffic during the pandemic.
In March, Sleepy Hollow hosted part of the annual Bill Koch Youth Ski League Festival, which usually gathers all clubs at a single New England site. This year, it broke into smaller groups because of the coronavirus.
To adjust for COVID-19 safety, Sleepy Hollow updated its website, which already sold day passes, to add online ordering for season tickets and equipment rentals. It restricted indoor lodge access to visitors who needed to buy passes on-site or get outfitted for rentals. Its indoor bathrooms were closed to the public — hence the portable toilets.
The ski traffic helped Sleepy Hollow offset steep losses in its warm-weather wedding business. The property includes a bed-and-breakfast with eight guest rooms and views of the Green Mountains, plus a round barn and pavilion couples can use for their nuptials.
Sleepy Hollow had nearly 25 weddings booked for last summer before Gov. Phil Scott ordered nonessential businesses to close to stem the spread of the coronavirus. All events were canceled, leaving about a $150,000 hole in Sleepy Hollow's balance sheet.
There were some positives. Butternut Cabin, a rustic lodge only accessible by foot or skis at Sleepy Hollow, usually is occupied for weddings. Suddenly, it had openings. Enman listed it on Airbnb last spring, where it was a popular rental, then moved it to the Vermont Huts Association website. Overnight, the cabin garnered more than 20 bookings at $100 per night.
Two rounds of federal Paycheck Protection Program loans and a Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development grant brought in almost enough to plug the hole. Sleepy Hollow maintained its 12 to 15 mostly part-time workers to help run the ski operation.
Eli's parents, David and Sandy Enman, bought Sleepy Hollow in 1999 from previous owners, who had planned to build a golf course and condominiums on the site but sold in the face of community opposition. The Enmans took over the cross-country trail system, added lighting for night skiing, and turned the old lodge and restaurant into the inn.
Eli and his sister, Molly Peters, were both All-American skiers at Middlebury College. As adults, they both came to work at Sleepy Hollow, and each moved with their families into homes that they and their father, a builder by trade, constructed on the property.
Peters is Sleepy Hollow's events coordinator. Sandy Enman, an accountant who ran her own firm, does the books. David Enman also operates an antique-books shop in the basement of the round barn; sales there quadrupled over the past year, he said.
In winter 2012, Vermont's natural snowfall gave Sleepy Hollow just 27 days of skiing. That painfully short season prompted the Enmans to install the first leg of snowmaking equipment. They have extended it a little at a time, along with lighting, now driven mostly by solar power and covering about 2.5 kilometers of trails to date. The ski area can create its own white stuff when Mother Nature doesn't cooperate; the resulting boost in skiing days has justified the investment, Eli Enman said.
As the ski season winds down each year, the 800-acre property yields another revenue stream: maple. A March warm-up may have brought an early end to Vermont sugaring this year, but Enman collected a record 816 gallons of sap. He had recently added 400 taps, bringing the operation to 2,500 total. Enman sold a large portion of his haul to Trillium Hill Farm in Hinesburg, which ran out of its own supply.
Mountain bikers take over the Sleepy Hollow trails by mid-May. Last summer, again, Enman noticed his parking lots full — even though the closed northern border blocked the usual crowd of Canadian visitors.
Enman hopes to see similar biking numbers this year. Sleepy Hollow also has rescheduled most of last year's canceled weddings, as well as slotted in some additional ones.
All of that puts him in a more comfortable position than during the "complete roller coaster" of 2020, Enman said.
"With weddings, it was way down. With skiing, it was way up," he said. "So overall, it was just a really weird year."