When Jonathan Hiller of Gales Ferry arrives in Ludlow, Vt., on a Friday night, ready for a weekend of skiing at Okemo, he feels right at home. He pulls into the driveway at a three-story house on Pleasant Street, stores his gear, and visits with dozens of friends.
After an evening of hanging out (there's no TV in the place, but there are foosball and Ping-Pong tables and plenty of sofas), folks retreat to bunkrooms and hit the hay. In the morning, the group shares a hearty breakfast, suits up for fun on the slopes, and waits for the shuttle to Okemo Mountain Resort. The grand total for overnight lodging: $20 per person.
Hiller and his friends have found a way to make skiing a more affordable proposition. He and his housemates are members of the Manchester Ski Club, which owns and maintains the Ludlow house, equipped with commercial kitchen equipment and an attached barn. Most every weekend throughout ski season, club members enjoy that enviable lodging rate and the fellowship of like-minded skiers who relish traversing Okemo's 120 trails.
"Our clubhouse has cockeyed floors and crooked doors and all that kind of charm,'' says Hiller, club president. "It's like your grandmother's house. And the beauty of it is, you pull your car in on Friday night and you don't need it til Sunday."
One of 42 clubs that are members of the Connecticut Ski Council, the Manchester Ski Club was founded in 1942. Membership is open to all, but there is the expectation members will attend club meetings and pitch in on projects at the eight-bedroom house, purchased by the club in 1968. Members include skiers from ages 7 to 70, who hail from all parts of Connecticut (95 percent are not from Manchester), as well as Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. For a full membership, the rate is $150 annually, which includes discounted lift tickets, access to the Ludlow clubhouse, and invitations to club events.
This year, the Manchester club is stoked that Okemo has invested nearly $1 million in high-powered tower guns and pump and pipeline upgrades, maximizing snowmaking potential.
"It's rewarding to return to the same place and become so familiar with it," says Hiller. "You learn where to go to avoid crowds, you get to know the staff. And you're doing this with people who share the same passion for skiing and become lifelong friends."
The Mt. Laurel Skiers Club, which meets at the Whinstone Tavern at Stanley Golf Course in New Britain, also maintains a Ludlow clubhouse. That's good for Okemo, which enjoys an influx of loyal skiers on a repeat basis. The resort also benefits from pre-season sales of bulk lift tickets by the Connecticut Ski Council, which has about 30,000 members.
"The social aspect of being with a group of people with like-minded interests who can share the cost of having a vacation home in the mountains is an advantage for club members," says Dave Kulis, vice president of marketing at Okemo Mountain Resort. "Those clubs that have a house in Ludlow become members of our extended family. We get to know them, we ski with them, and it's always a great time."
There's A Club For That
While access to a clubhouse is an enticing reason to join a ski club, returning to the same locale isn't every skier's cup of cocoa. Some folks want to visit multiple mountains in a season, routinely race, or meet in summer for cycling and fishing expeditions. Whatever a person's preference, there's probably a ski club for that.
"Each club has its own personality," says Jonathan Houck, president of the Mt. Laurel Skiers Club, founded in 1946, which bills itself as Connecticut's premiere ski, sports and social club. "We're a four-season organization, and we're social."
In addition to maintaining their Ludlow ski lodge, a former bed and breakfast that sleeps 40, club members gather for Halloween costume parties, Christmas celebrations, wine tastings, lobster cookouts, and vacations out west (in February, the club heads to Jackson Hole, Wyoming). Dues to the organization run $55 per year for skiers 18 and older, and there are discounts for students and families.
The country's first ski clubs were founded in 1861 in California, according to a historical timeline prepared by Jeff Leich for the New England Ski Museum in Franconia, N.H. Connecticut's oldest clubs launched in the 1940s, appealing to soldiers who had returned home after World War II and sought recreational outlets. In the 1950s, Mount Snow, Jay Peak, Killington, Sugarloaf, Sugarbush and Okemo opened, boosting the appeal of regional skiing. Over time, Connecticut clubs have been formed by company co-workers and by neighbors sitting around a kitchen table. There is power in numbers, and bonafide ski clubs (there are requirements clubs must satisfy to join the Connecticut Ski Council) qualify for discounts on lift tickets, lodging, air travel and gear.
"If you go skiing twice at a reduced member rate, you've saved more than it costs you to join," says Marie Carparelli, founder of the South Windsor-based Central Connecticut Snow Snakes, where dues run $20 annually. The club started in 1986 with a handful of people and now boasts 1,800 members.
Expectations for club members vary between groups. Since the Snow Snakes don't own a lodge, there aren't as many duties associated with membership, though attendance at monthly meetings is encouraged. Along with other clubs affiliated with the Connecticut Ski Council, the Snow Snakes enjoy Council Awareness Days, when regional resorts offer reduced rates on lift tickets to club members (on November 29th at Killington, the rate is $37).
"Over time, our popularity has snowballed, no pun intended," says Carparelli. In 2014, the Snow Snakes plan to visit Jay Peak, Sugarloaf, and Stowe, and fly out to Whistler/Blackcomb, about 70 miles hours north of Vancouver, British Columbia.
The Long View
The popularity of local clubs seems to be holding steady in a challenged economy. Five new clubs have formed in the past decade, says Bob Kaczmarczyk, past president of the Connecticut Ski Council. In fact, Kaczmarczyk founded one himself — the Talcott Mountain Ski & Sport Club. "There was nothing for skiers in the Bloomfield-Windsor-Granby area," he says, "so a bunch of my friends and I started a club."
Today, the club has 150 members, some from New Jersey, who are eager to tap into benefits that make skiing more cost-effective.
"There's a perception out there that ski clubs are like bowling leagues — they're on their way out," says Kaczmarczyk, who owns the Avon Country Deli at Riverdale Farms in Avon. "We have not found that to be true." In fact, he estimates approximately a third of the ski council's membership is comprised of skiers age 17 and under.
THE CONNECTICUT SKI COUNCIL website provides links to 42 clubs across Connecticut; www.skiclub.com.