Quebec ski hills 'always adapting' when it comes to winter weather

After the worst ski season in decades, ski hills in Quebec's Eastern Townships are hoping for better weather conditions this year — while planning for more difficult winters ahead.

After a disastrous ski season last year, winter resorts look to technology and 4-season tourism

Jean-Michel Ryan is the CEO of Mont Sutton, which is a major economic actor in the community. (CBC)

This is part of a series of CBC News features on how climate change is affecting specific communities in Canada. Read the other stories in the series:

After the worst ski season in decades, ski hills in Quebec's Eastern Townships are hoping for better weather conditions this year — all while planning for more difficult winters ahead.

Last season, mild temperatures and rain left Quebec's ski hills hurting. For many, the usually lucrative Christmas season was all but ruined by unusually warm weather.

"Last year was one of worst ski seasons in the history of the ski hill," said Jean-Michel Ryan, CEO of Mont Sutton, which has been operating in Sutton, Que., since 1960.

The Sutton, Que., economy is closely tied to the Mont Sutton ski hill. (CBC)

This year, the operator has invested $500,000 in new snow-making equipment that better responds to weather fluctuations.

"You want to protect the product, you want to protect the skiing for the customer," said Ryan. "And also for the destination — [Mont Sutton] is a major economic actor."

Sutton Mayor Louis Dandenault agrees that the hill's long-term viability is crucial. When the ski hill struggles, he said, the whole town feels it.

"Sutton is a community of mostly tourist businesses."

Industry must adapt

While last winter was exceptional, experts say that, due to climate change, there will be more warm winters in the future and more fluctuations in weather conditions.

"We're seeing some warmer winters, change in precipitation, winter precipitation, so snow coverage will change and the ability to generate snow as well," said Laurent Da Silva, chief economist at the climate change research group Ouranos.

Da Silva is studying the economic impact of climate change on Quebec's ski industry and the communities that rely on it. 

The key to ensuring their long-term viability, he said, is for ski hills to anticipate and adapt to predicted changes by investing in sophisticated snow-making equipment that can work at higher temperatures and diversifying the kinds of activities they offer, beyond skiing. 

"The ski resorts are always adapting. They're coping with Quebec winters, so some years are good, some years are bad," Da Silva said. "We need to use this capacity to adapt on a short-term to [develop] a capacity to adapt on a long-term."

Ski Bromont president Charles Désourdy said his hill has invested more than $10 million in snow-making equipment. (CBC)

At Ski Bromont, president Charles Désourdy said his hill has invested more than $10 million in snow-making equipment and technology over the past 15 years. That gives them a buffer against unpredictable weather.

"There will always be good years and bad years, so I don't think that global warming will affect that cycle," he said. "The only thing it will do is a make it a bit more warm in November and December.

"But because of technology, we will have good business in the future."

Trickle-down effect

The region's tourism agency is also diversifying, selling the Townships as a four-season destination.

"The advantage we have in Eastern Townships is we're not just a ski destination," said Danie Béliveau, with Tourism Eastern Townships.

"We also have good activities such as good restaurants, spas ... places for hiking. So those activities attract people."

Local hills are investing millions in snow machines and technology to keep their businesses alive. (CBC)

Local businesses are adapting, too.

At Les Caprices de Victoria B&B, in Sutton, co-owner Michel Lafrance acknowledges the importance of the ski hill for his business. But he also tries to sell his clients on the virtues of the region's non-ski offerings, such as restaurants, wineries, spas and its community of artists.

"You have to be thinking all the time of a plan B," he said. "If a customer comes here and expects to go skiing and the conditions are not proper … you have to take care of that customer and you have to have a plan B."

About the Author

Alison Northcott is a national reporter for CBC News in Montreal.


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