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Home arrow News arrow Resort arrow Ski resorts are on the rebound
Ski resorts are on the rebound
Saturday, 17 April 2004
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Terrorism. Stock market pneumonia. And war - not once, but twice.

For the ski industry, the last several years should have been disasters.

They weren't. Instead, the industry in the United States sustained three of its four busiest seasons ever - the industry's first prolonged growth since numbers began sputtering in the late 1970s.

A miracle? Not really. Population demographics have begun to favor the ski industry once again. Baby boomers, now aged 40 to 58, linger on the slopes even as the so-called "echo boomers," age 21 and under, begin to swagger onto center stage.

What this has meant, so far, is growth during the last several years, mostly at smaller ski areas near cities, but nonetheless the first substantial rise in almost 25 years.

For an industry stewing in either self-doubt or complacency for many years, there's a new jauntiness. Instead of scrapping over the same pie, the pie - seen as a national, even international market - is actually getting bigger.

"The excitement about new people entering the sport is palpable out there," said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association. "This is at the areas that are close to the cities and that are in the business of bringing people into the sport. It bodes well in the long haul for the industry."



City slickers

This new growth can be seen particularly at smaller ski areas, from California to New Jersey, located near major cities. A case in point is Mountain High, twin resorts located in the San Gabriel Mountains about a 90-minute drive from downtown Los Angeles.

During the past seven years, business at Mountain High has soared from 182,000 users per season to 500,000 annually. But this "ski" area has little in common with Vail or Aspen.

About 80 percent of customers at Mountain High are snowboarders and 40 percent are Asian and African American.

All of this, incidentally, is happening on just 220 acres. That's 4 percent of Vail's terrain but 31 percent of its visitors.

Snowboarding is the key to this melting pot.

"Skiing has a perception of being lily white, expensive, something the elite do," said Karl Kapuscinski, Mountain High's general manager. "Snowboarding crosses all those boundaries."

At Tahoe, the story is also of changing demographics - this time with more Asian-Americans entering the market, also on snowboards.

"If you're in California or on the West Coast, and if you don't reach out to changing demographics, i.e. Asians and Latinos, you're crazy, because that's where our growth will be," said Julie Mauer, vice president of marketing and sales of Booth Creek Resorts, which operates Northstar-at-Tahoe and Sierra in addition to resorts in New England.

Or consider Ohio's Boston Mills/Brandywine Ski Resort, which is located between Cleveland and Akron. Drawing on a population of more than four million people, the resorts make a living from close-by skiers.

"We cater to the folks who live in our neighborhood, and we try to give them what they want," says Kent Graham, general manager. On weekends, that means operating into the morning's "wee hours."

Is he optimistic about the future? "Absolutely. You are always concerned about the climate - you'd be crazy not to be," said Graham, alluding to global warming. "But I still think there is room for growth."



Flex and flux

Ford Frick, an economist who has analyzed the ski industry for about 25 years, argues that the ski industry has shaken itself free from narrow habits and begun to respond to a more diverse marketplace.

Snowboarding - coming at a time when the interest in skiing itself was static, even shrinking - sparked this greater flexibility. Lower lift-ticket prices are evidence of this greater flexibility.

With that new flexibility, according to Frick, the ski industry is now being embraced not only by its mainstay - the baby boomers - but also echo boomers.

"Skiing, or snow sliding of any kind, does not really need rules, regulations, accepted technique or appropriate attire," Frick wrote last summer in a report commissioned by the National Ski Areas Association. "Once that attitude became a reality, not a marketing slogan, a new generation signed on."

A byproduct of that acceptance of change, he said, is inclusion of new racial and socioeconomic groups.

"Once again, the answer was not about selling traditional skiing to a new market," Frick said, "but rather changing the product to be attractive to new and different markets."

Frick points out that more than two-thirds of ski areas have added tubing and other similar play areas, such as Vail Mountain's Adventure Ridge. The cost for engaging in such snow sports is low, but such activities provide a clear step for users to become skiers and snowboarders. In such small ways is the number of skiers growing.



Colorado calls

Small ski areas near big cities in Massachusetts and California can be seen as the beginning of a pipeline to Colorado major resorts that cater to destination - or over-night - visitors.

Even as skier numbers flattened nationally, that pipeline continued to produce new customers into the early '90s at Colorado's large resorts. However, by the late 1990s, Colorado's destination business began slipping, too.

By last December, the prognosis was bad and broad: Colorado is over the hill, on a down-hill slide.

Not so fast there, ski area executives are now saying. From Aspen to Winter Park, they are reporting the return of destination skiers this season, in some cases with double-digit gains compared to last year.

They say the lesson is clear. The decline in destination visitors over the last several years was due primarily to a succession of national and international events. As those issues have faded, out-of-towners are back.

Yet despite this year's broad gains in destination visitors, challenges remain for Colorado's ski areas: new ski areas have opened or will soon open; Canadian resorts have been expanding rapidly; and questions remain about the value of slope-side lodging in Colorado, where prices during the 1990s rose even as quality declined.

Also questioned is the loyalty to snow sports of 16- to 24-year-olds. Will this younger generation, once they make their way into the world, remain as dedicated to their snowboards as baby boomers have been to their skis?

Jim Spring, who tracks the ski, golf and tennis industries at his Boulder-based Leisure Trends, says that the youngsters may be more fickle than the X Games might suggest.

"Essentially, the ski industry is being sustained by baby boomers, and it's not just here in the Rocky Mountains," he said. "The actual numbers as a percentage of 16- to 24-year-olds is declining and it has been declining as a percentage of the total skier population for the last 10 years."

In other words, Spring said, the pipeline isn't filling up rapidly enough at the bottom end to sustain growth once baby boomers begin to drift from the sport in greater numbers.



60 million

But whereas Spring divines doubts from demographic information, Berry sees cause for optimism in his post at the National Ski Areas Association.

The ski industry grew so rapidly, with Colorado resorts often recording gains of 10 to 20 percent, that nobody clearly understood what was happening when the growth slowed then stopped.

Stepping into his present job in 1993, Berry says he had no idea why the industry had been stuck at 52 million skier days for a decade.

"That's when we had the epiphany of demographics," Berry said. The story, he realized, was of baby boomers getting older. The industry didn't understand anything other than baby boomers. Had snowboards and shaped skis not arrived, skier numbers would have not only flattened, but sagged.

But three years ago, even as the stock market dived, skier days jumped - to 57.3 million, a new United States record for skiers. That was a 4.7-percent gain over the old record and a nearly 9-percent gain over the previous year.

Then just last year, despite the war in Iraq and continued economic uncertainty, the industry set yet another record, this time 57.6 million.

These gains have made ski executives along the Interstate 70 corridor upbeat.

In Aspen, where there has been no growth at ski areas since 1992, the Aspen Skiing Co.'s David Perry now predicts growth for five to 10 years.

"I'm optimistic we're going to see increases, and part of the reason for that optimism is that we're seeing that growth this year," he said.

The international business, which has been about 18 percent of Aspen's business, has increased sharply this year as trips to the United States have become more affordable compared to those in Canada and the Alps.

David Barry, senior vice president of Intrawest Colorado, which operates Copper Mountain and Winter Park, is also upbeat after double-digit gains in destination visitors this year.

"There are going to be shifts and changes, but I believe that the sport is healthy, and the sport is evolving and the future is bright," he said.

At Vail Resorts, the story is the same.

Adam Aron, chief executive officer, said he's far less worried about resorts in British Columbia than about nearby competitors in Colorado with their on-mountain improvements, expanding bed bases and new base villages. Even so, his conclusion is the same: "We're bullish."

At the National Ski Area Association, Berry also wears a grin. "We would expect this growth to continue for five to seven to 10 years - that's what the demographic data are telling us," he said. It wouldn't surprise him, if the total number of skiers in the United States surpasses 60 million.

That is a major change for an industry slumped so long at little more than 50 million.

For more information, see the National Ski Areas Association Web site, NSAA media center, for a July 2003 report by Ford Frick entitled, "The American Ski Industry: Alive, Well, and Even Growing." Address is: http://www.nsaa.org/nsaa2002/_media.asp.

EDITORS' NOTE: Today begins a seven-part series looking at the future of the skiing and snowboarding industry.

By Allen Best



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