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The killer app that busted ski-resort snow jobs Add to ...

Do you want to know how much fresh powder has really fallen on your favourite ski hill? There's an app for that.

Ski resorts have for years pulled a subtle snow job on their customers, routinely inflating how much new snow falls on Saturdays and Sundays to lure the weekend crowd. It's why that 20 centimetres in the snow report never seemed as deep on the hill as it sounded on paper.

The deceptive advertising has been decisively busted by the internet, where skeptical skiers can now check a skireport.com application on their iPhone to vet the resort-supplied snow tally against first-hand accounts from the slopes and lifts.

Once the app was embraced around a year ago, the snow jobs suddenly ceased.

The misinformation, suspected for years by skiers, is revealed in a new study by two ski-loving economics professors from the Ivy League's Dartmouth College. They studied data from the past five seasons at 450 ski areas in Canada and the United States and weighed it against stacks of independent weather data.

It showed an obvious "weekend effect" in the industry's snow reports. Ski areas, in general, were juicing the snow numbers by an average of 23 per cent on Saturdays and Sundays, the Dartmouth study discovered.

And it's the resorts close to big cities, the ones that can pull impromptu visits inspired by new snow, as well as mountains with a lot of expert terrain (the experienced skier lusts for powder more than most), that are likelier to exaggerate.

During the final season of the study, 2008-2009, skireport.com added a feature to its popular iPhone app that let skiers opine live from the mountain. The professors found that dispatches such as this one - "Jackson Hole DID NOT get 15" today ... more like 0" - had an instant impact on the industry.

"The weekend effect drops to zero where the iPhone is heavily used," said economist Eric Zitzewitz at Dartmouth. "Consumers are getting armed with ever-more data. There's a deeper message, it goes beyond just skiing. When it's easier for consumers to share information, all of a sudden we don't see the exaggeration."

Easily accessed information, now widely available on many mobile phones, has blown open all sorts of spheres. You can consult Chowhound while standing outside a restaurant, use Yelp to acid test just about anything or Google product prices during a visit to Best Buy.

"The half-life of a lofty claim is much shorter for sure," said Kaan Yigit, a Toronto consumer research consultant.

The snow study was sparked a couple of winters ago, when the lure of an advertised six inches of powder at a resort in Vermont's Green Mountains led Prof. Zitzewitz and colleague Jonathan Zinman to skip work at Dartmouth for the day to indulge in a skier's greatest love: fresh tracks.

"It was actually more like two inches," laughed Prof. Zitzewitz, who, among perhaps more serious studies, recently researched the effect of a company's stock-price swings on the moods of workers at Google Inc.

For the study, they collected reams of past and current data and, through extensive number-crunching, the weekend effect emerged.

Ski areas used to have a lock on their own information. They'd measure it and pass it on to newspapers and TV stations, where the unaudited numbers would be relayed as fact.

In the ski business, showing off your best side starts with where snow is measured on the mountains. There are definitely ideal spots that see more snow build up with wind and other conditions - or at higher elevation where more snow will fall.

On Whistler Mountain, a five-metre-tall steel pole measures snow at a secluded station about two-thirds the way up the resort, a spot that has also served since the 1970s as an official reporting location for Environment Canada. Readings are made in the early morning and afternoon, and Anton Horvath, an avalanche forecaster at Whistler-Blackcomb north of Vancouver, assured skeptics the numbers are exacting.

"We get so much snow here we don't need to exaggerate," said Mr. Horvath.

In Ontario, at Blue Mountain near Collingwood on Georgian Bay, Paul Pinchbeck, director of marketingand a long-time skier, is skeptical of the skiers' snow report.

"I think it's a skier's myth," said Mr. Pinchbeck. "We don't inflate our snow."

At Mont Tremblant in Quebec, after years of using several methods to tally snow amounts, the resort finally settled on something simple: a table.

Each morning, any snow accumulated on the table, set in a representative spot around mid-mountain, is measured and then swept away.

"We want people to trust us," said Martin Rochon, director of mountain operations. "When it rains, we say in the snow report it's raining. If we trick the data, people will stop listening to the report. Then we lose."

 

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