The folks who manage Mount Ashland are walking a tightrope for the next few days.

The folks who manage Mount Ashland are walking a tightrope for the next few days.

They're offering season passes for the 2010-11 season at 2005 prices — $199 — for five days only. They want to sell enough passes to bring more people to ski and snowboard, but not so many that they crowd out the occasional skiers and snowboarders.

"It's a delicate balancing act," says Kim Clark, general manager.

To understand what Clark means, you have to know a little about how ski areas earn their money. Lift tickets and season pass sales account for slightly more than 60 percent of Mt. A's income over the course of the season. The balance comes from food and beverage sales, bar sales, equipment rentals and lessons.

Wednesday's traffic on the mountain was a good example of the revenue split. The ski area sold about $3,000 worth of lift tickets and took in more than $6,000 from equipment rental, food service and everything else.

From a business standpoint, occasional skiers, like many of those on the mountain this week of spring break, tend to spend more money per visit. They buy a lift ticket, and they're more likely to rent equipment, take a lesson or buy lunch in the lodge.

Season-pass holders spend more money at the outset, but after six or seven days, they're essentially skiing for free. That's great from the skier's point of view (and from the point of view of the community benefit that a nonprofit organization like Mount Ashland provides) but it doesn't pay the bills.

Clark said if the mountain sells too many passes, the parking lot tends to fill early, and the day visitors who don't show up until 10 or 11 o'clock can't find a place to park. They might go home and never come back.

Clark wants to make sure those occasional visitors still feel welcome, but sell more passes to give the ski area some money for next fall. Hence the short window for this year's sale. After Sunday, season passes will cost $269.

The action was furious Wednesday, the first day of the sale. By midafternoon, at least 400 people had bought passes, Clark said.

The sale is part of a plan to help Mount Ashland return to profitability after the disastrous season of 2008-09. The lack of early-season snow and the toughest economy in 70 years combined to push total visits down 16 percent, and total revenue fell 27 percent. Revenue per skier visit fell 14 percent, from $28.56 to $24.42. It was one of the worst years ever for the rental shop, Clark said, and by the time the season ended, Mount A had lost about $210,000.

Clark and the Mount Ashland board of directors made dramatic changes for the 2009-10 season. Shifting to a five-day operating week and eliminating 3.5 full-time jobs cut labor costs 35 percent, or about $400,000. The employee benefits package was scaled back, and a wage freeze established two years ago continued for everyone except the minimum-wage employees, who got a state-mandated raise.

"We had to make cuts," Clark said, "just like any business in the Rogue Valley or anywhere else."

Clark said the financial outlook has improved substantially. Operating expenses are down, and the cost of diesel fuel has fallen — a major expense for an outfit that burns 15,000 gallons during the winter.

Clark said skiers and snowboarders are spending more on the mountain this year, too, which is helping push the ledger back into the black.

He acknowledged that selling heavily discounted passes is something of a gamble.

"We want to increase visits," he said, "but not to the point where we have to turn people away."

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 541-776-4492, or e-mail bkettler@mailtribune.com.