By David & Ann Schissler – For the last decade or two the number of skiers in North America has been largely flat at around 12 million participants. In an effort to increase the skier/boarder base, Snow-Sports Industries of America (SIA) has spent much of the pandemic launching a diversity project. After many webinars and conference calls with members and the media to assess the situation, the SIA decided to engage a research firm to help determine why minorities are not entering the sport. To almost no one’s surprise the number one reason minorities are not becoming skiers/boarders is, wait for it, the cost!
After his Olympic Silver Medal performance in the Super G Ryan Cochran-Siegel was interviewed by Ski Racing. They asked him why there appeared to be no depth, no “up-and-comers” in Beijing (US Ski and Snowboard Director Jesse Hunt recently resigned in part due to the poor showing in Beijing). In response Cochran-Siegel discussed the impediments to becoming a US Ski Team member. In effect he said skiing is an elitist sport dependent on money. Ski Racing has calculated that by the time a young competitor reaches the level of being a ski team prospect the cost of equipment, coaching, school and board at a ski academy, travel, and related factors cost the family approximately $500,000. It’s no wonder minorities are finding other avenues for their interest and resources.
The situation continues to worsen. In order to pay for an expanding portfolio of resorts, expensive lift installations, and improvements in infrastructure, Vail Associates, the largest resort owner in the industry, is implementing new ways of growing revenue and cutting cost. While paying to park has been around at some western resorts for years Vail Resorts sent that policy east. Mount Snow in Vermont now charges $30 a day to park. Last fall I heard talk about some resorts considering offering line cutting privileges for an additional fee. You bought a pass but others are cutting the line in front of you because they could afford the premium. How elitist is that? In order to cut overhead some Vail resorts have reduced snowmaking, closed some terrain, closed lifts during the week, and reduced operating hours by whole days (ask customers at Mount Sunapee and Crotched Mountain, NH, or at Steven’s Pass, WA what they think of Vail’s policies). On top of this, Vail’s 20% reduction in the cost of the Epic Pass last year resulted in over two million passes sold creating Epic lines and unhappy customers. While Vail is the most visible and the leading force behind such changes it’s happening elsewhere too.
Remember when you would watch the evening or morning weather and decide where you wanted to ski? You would choose your destination and just walk up to the ticket window and buy a ticket. Just try to buy a day ticket at the window now. Sure, you can buy ahead online if tickets are available but that requires some advance planning that is not always possible or desirble. The spontaneity of just heading to a mountain for a day is disappearing. Multiple resort passes like the Epic Pass and Ikon Pass have saved riders money but restricts them to where, when, and how often they can ski a given resort. Have you heard what Steamboat is charging for a day ticket at the window? It’s $225 to $255 a day! Who pays that?
A month or so ago Vail Associates announced plans to install something like 25 new lifts across its resorts this summer. Since new high-speed lifts run into the multiple millions each where will that money come from? Why from you of course. I can’t help but wonder how resorts will pay for these improvements given the shrinking season thanks to climate change. The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) has stated resorts need 100 days of operation to stay solvent. They’ve also told their member resorts to expect to lose a couple of weeks in the early season and another couple of weeks in the spring due to climate change. That’s a month of lost revenue.
About a decade ago most ski resorts made the shift to being year-round destinations with the introduction of mountain biking, zip lines, disk golf, climbing walls and so on which certainly positively impacts revenue. However, it seems like it’s just a matter of time before a shrinking ski season catches up with over spending putting more pressure on the cost of participation thereby continuing to shrink the number of customers.
Is there a downward spiral in skiing’s future?