Written by Hunter Sykes
Since my last post on the future of the ski industry, I’ve had a few inquires in regards to where the information that I use, including the source data showing that skier numbers are declining, comes from, so I hope the following clears things up a bit.
The ski industry measures the health and popularity of skiing by counting the number of times skiers actually go skiing (skier visits or skier days) annually, not the number of actual skiers among the population as a whole (total skier numbers). A common misconception is that skier visits and skier numbers are the same thing when in fact they are not, and while skier visits can be a good measure of the popularity of skiing at individual resorts during a particular year, they fail to account for long-term participation trends among the public. The problem is that skier visits is a measure of the number of times each skier goes skiing while skier numbers are the total number of people that identify themselves as skiers (defined as skiers, snowboarders, telemarkers, etc).
For example, I make up one skier and in the 2009-2010 season I skied 75 times, thus I account for 75 skier visits within the ski industry’s stats even though I am only one skier. If I skied 50 of those days at Steezy Mountain Resort of Tall Tees, then I, just one skier, added 50 skier days to Steezy’s skier visits count.
As an example of why this can give the public the wrong impression, look at it this way: If, during the 2009-2010 season, 2,000 people ski at Steezy an average of 50 times a person, then Steezy records a total of 100,000 skier visits. During the 2010-2011 season Steezy only has 1800 skiers shred its slopes, but they ski an average of 75 days per skier, then Steezy records 135,000 skier visits and they tout the growth of skier visits as evidence that skiing at Steezy is becoming more popular. It’s not that skiing is becoming more popular, it’s that existing skiers are skiing more, and that is what is happening in the ski industry today.
While increasing skier visits make it look like skiing is a growing sport, the truth is that fewer skiers are skiing more often, and they are growing older all the while. The annual industry reports (these being the National Ski & Snowboard Retailers Association Snowboarding and Skiing Participation report, the Kottke National End of Season Survey, the National Ski Areas Association National Demographic Survey, and others) commissioned or prepared by the industry tend to shine a happy glow on the increasing trend of skier visits but ignore this decline in actual participants. The overall 20-year trend has been a decrease in skier numbers –the actual number of people that consider themselves skiers– but an increase in skier visits.
To quote a report I compiled in 2008, “Between 1990 and 2006, the number of snowboarders has increased from 1.5 million to 5.2 million –an increase of 288%– and has dropped from a high of 6.3 million riders in the 2004/2005 season to 5.2 million in the 2006/2007 season. In this same time period, the number of skiers has decreased from 11.4 million to 6.4 million, a decrease of 44%. Overall, total skier/snowboarder numbers have decreased from 12.9 million participants in 1990 to 11.6 million participants in 2006, an overall industry loss of 10.1%. (This decrease is quite noticeable from the preceding 2006/2007 season when there were a reported 12.9 million skier/snowboarder participants. This may be due to participants exiting the sport(s) as a result of the poor winter conditions of that particular season, as reflected in the corresponding drop in total skier visitor numbers to 55.9 million from the 58.9 in the 2004/2005 season).” This data comes directly from the National Ski & Snowboard Retailers Association: Snowboarding and Skiing Participation report published in 2006.
Furthermore, in any given year, only a portion of those that consider themselves skiers actually go skiing. Thus, this past season, approximately 7 million people went skiing, but they went skiing a total of 59.7 million times. This is up from the 6.5 million that went skiing last year, but still well below the 7.7 million that went skiing in 2001 (this data comes from the National Ski & Snowboard Retailers Association: Snowboarding and Skiing Participation report published in 2010 and does not count skiers under the age of 7).
It’s true that average industry skier visits have been slowly moving upward over the past 30 years, from 50.2 million in 1978-79 to 57.7 million last year, but the long-term trend of increasing skier visits has much more to do with the following factors: demographics, the health of the economy, snowfall, pass pricing and international tourism.
Demographically, the Baby Boomers, being the cohort that skiing and related real estate is most marketed to, have the wealth, time and investment that allows, or impels them to maximize their time on the slopes. On average, skiers have a greater annual income than the average American with 92.9% of skiers making in excess of $50,000/yr and 46.1% making in excess of $100,000/yr compared to the median American income of $49,777 (this data comes from the National Ski & Snowboard Retailers Association: Snowboarding and Skiing Participation report published in 2010), and the Baby Boomers, are (or were before the current economic malaise) the wealthiest generation in history, benefiting not only from being in mature, well paying jobs during the height of the economic boom years of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, but from also having been the beneficiaries of the largest transfer of inter-generational wealth from their parents. They have, or had, the means with which to buy vacation homes and afford the costs of taking a few trips to the mountains every season. These investments also impelled them to continue to spend their time at ski resorts rather than other destinations as they already owned and were paying for these assets.
Furthermore, Baby Boomers are nearing retirement – and for many, already have retired– and for the most part no longer have the expenses of raising families since most of their children are living independent lives. This provides them with the time and the disposable income to ski more often and they have become the primary market for the industry over the past decade.
As economic and demographic conditions change, this market is becoming less and less important and while some assert that younger participants will replace the Baby Boomers, the ski industry’s data says otherwise:
The average age of participants has risen steadily from 33.2 in 1997/1998 to 36.5 in 2006/07. Specifically, since 1997/98, the proportion of visitors aged 45 to 54 has increased from 14.0 % to 19.9 %; the proportion of visitors aged 55 to 64 has almost doubled from 4.6 % to 9.2 %; and the proportion of visitors aged 65 and older has also almost doubled, from 2.4% to 3.8%. Currently, skiers of the Baby Boom generation, and their parents, make up 33% of all skiers. Conversely, the proportion of visitors aged 35 to 44 has declined by 3%, visitors aged between 25 to 34 have declined by 5.6%, and visitors aged 15 to 24 have declined 3%. (Source: National Ski Areas Association: 2007/08 National Demographic Study; 2008)
Now granted that these figures are a few years out of date, and the trends can be reversed, but they are still indicative of the state of the industry.
Economically, data suggests that skier visits follow the ups and downs of the economy. Using the numbers from last year’s Kottke Report on skier visits, it is clear that there is a correlation between the two: the 1980 recession saw skier visits drop from 48.2 million in 1979-80 to 39.7 million in 80-81; the 81-83 recession saw a decrease from 50.7 million in 81-82 to 46.9 million in 82-83; the 90-91 recession saw a decrease from 50.0 million in 89-90 to 46.7 million in 90-91; the 2001-02 recession saw a decrease from 57.3 million in 2000-01 to 54.4 million in 2001-02 and our current “depression” saw a decrease from 60.5 million in 2007-08 to 57.3 million in 2008-2009 before recovering to last year’s 59.7 million. Being that skiing is such an expensive pastime, it is one of the first activities to be abandoned when money is tight.
Snowfall is a huge factor in skier visits. Another analysis I did compared skier visits to terrain expansions and snowfall totals at 20 areas in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico over a 10-year period. The results showed that in most of the resorts in the study, there was a much stronger correlation between snowfall totals and skier visits than any other factor. I think that anyone that has worked in the ski industry for more than a few years can attest to this relationship.
Pass pricing, especially in the case of Vail Resorts, has had a huge impact on overall national and Colorado skier visit numbers. Before Vail Resorts introduced the Buddy Pass –now Epic Pass– program in the 90’s, most season passes were prohibitively expensive. This would keep many of the day skiers from Colorado’s Front Range from skiing VR’s mountains more than a few times a year. Instead, they would head to the cheaper areas that were in the “uphill transportation business” such as Loveland and Eldora. With the low price and access to multiple VR owned mountains, more Front Range skiers are skiing more often, and the trial and retention rate for new skiers from the Front Range is increasing (which is great news as the industry doesn’t try hard enough at producing new skiers in my estimation). VR now sells in excess of 130,000 Epic Passes each season (last data I have from 2007-2008) –mostly to Front Range skiers– that give access to A-Basin, Breckenridge, Keystone, Vail and Beaver Creek as well as Heavenly, and now Northstar. Even though VR doesn’t share how many of their skier visits at their resorts are Epic Pass holders, logic, and the parking situation during the weekends in Vail, dictate that they make up a pretty hefty number of visits.
International destination skiers are a large and growing segment of the skier visit numbers nationally. Direct flights from Europe to Denver and Salt Lake City make travel easy for Western Europeans and they are increasingly taking advantage of the cheaper dollar and more consistent snow pack of North America. This past year, Colorado Ski Country USA (CSCUSA) reported that international business was up 6.5 percent for the association’s members, and this doesn’t include Vail Resorts’ mountains, among which is Breckenridge, long a favorite of British skiers (I used to have to have to make pounds-to-stone conversion charts in our shops so we could rent to the Brits even back in the 90’s).
There is also a large influx of Latin American skiers that make the trip to the Rockies for skiing and in my years working and teaching in Vail and Beaver Creek, there would be times when a 1/3 or more of our guests were Spanish or Portuguese speaking. All of these international visitors add to the total skier visits but aren’t added to the total number of skiers in the US. Last year, CSCUSA stated that international visitors played a large part in lifting the skier visits in the state above those of the previous year. While it may be tempting to count on an increase in international visitors as an increase in skier numbers, this isn’t the case. International skiers visits are dependent on the strength of the dollar, political and social issues in their home countries, price of air transport, US visa restrictions and processes, and the quantity and quality of snow closer to home.
One last worrisome trend is the declining number of ski areas in the United States and the world in general. In the past 25 years, the number of operational ski areas in the US has declined 36%, from 735 areas in 1983-84 to 471 this year. Between 1998-99 and 2007-2008, the number of areas fluctuated around 500, but began to drop again with the onset of the current economic situation. There are a few different factors in operation here, among them climate change, economic competition and demographics. With climate change comes rising snow levels and shorter seasons, thus areas located in less favorable geographies don’t have the right conditions for consistent snowfall and/or the ability to make costly investments in snowmaking to stay in business. Economically, the little guys can’t keep up with the capital investment of the big resort companies to always offer the newer, faster, fancier amenities and intermediate terrain that the skiing public has come to expect from the big resorts. Demographically, there just isn’t enough skiers out there to maintain more ski areas; it’s simple supply and demand, and skiers, being on average wealthier than most Americans, want the big mountain adventure of the major resorts. Unfortunately, as the little areas fade away, the industry loses the “nurseries” that offer affordable, convenient ski areas for kids, and adults, to fall in love with snowsports.
Please keep in mind, I’m not anti-skiing or anti-ski industry, hell, I’ve worked in it for more than 20 years and started skiing at Eldora when I was 2 1/2. I want people to learn to ski, to love it and to keep doing it, but with the direction that the industry has been heading — specifically the real-estate/resort model of business — it will be too expensive and exclusive, and the landscapes in which it occurs too messed up, to be much fun.