Affordability, accessibility are ski industry challenges as revenues climb
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Today’s ski industry has a weakness.
It’s not in its ability to innovate — as Olympic gold medalist Jonny Moseley did in creating his pioneering trick, the dinner roll, ahead of the 2002 Olympic games — or in the way it can transform lives with a simple taste of the mountain — like how it took Alterra Mountain Co. CFO and Executive Vice President Tim Donahue from a corporate attorney to helping lead a global ski destination company.
Instead, the industry’s weaknesses are found in its inability to fully connect with a younger generation and its affordability. That’s according to National Ski Areas Association President and CEO Kelly Pawlak.
Pawlak joined Moseley and Donahue, along with a panel focused on sustainability, as speakers at Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp.’s 21st annual Airline Partners’ Summit on Tuesday. The event is designed to promote the area to regional airline companies but also talk about the issues facing the ski industry.
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With over 300 ski area members, the power of the ski industry is undeniable, Pawlak said. It’s an industry that has been undergoing a consolidation for over the last decade.
“For our skiers and riders, it’s a great time,” she said.
That consolidation has helped spur greater capital investment in ailing or stagnant resorts around the nation, with Ski Corp.’s parent company Alterra being the most recent company to buy up ski properties around the world. With those purchases comes capital infusion, Pawlak explained. That leads to upgraded ski lifts, better snowmaking equipment and improved skier services.
Then Alterra introduced its Ikon Pass as a head-to-head competitor to the already established Epic Pass from Vail Resorts. The rival passes have worked well to provide more access to skiers and riders.
“It’s getting them to ski around — to hit their bucket list of resorts,” she said.
For consumers, it means modernization, but there’s also a caveat.
“Our youth aren’t skiing as many days as their parents,” Pawlak said.
While the number of ski visits by millennials dropped significantly between 2004-05 and 2009-10, it’s now ski visits by Generation Z — 22 years old and younger — that have seemed to plateau. Those visits have plateaued at 30% of the overall ski visits in the last five years, while the previous generation plateaued at 40%.
“We had high hopes for Generation Z,” Pawlak said.
With a greater amount of overall skiers observed in the 2018-19 ski season, the decreasing number of young skiers aren’t such a problem in the short term, but what happens when their more frequently skiing parents age off the slopes?
That’s the question the industry will face in the years to come.
While some age groups have reached a plateau, more skiers are “coming off the sidelines,” Pawlak said. Those people who hadn’t skied in awhile helped bring the total number of skiers in 2018-19 to 10.3 million in the U.S. — an all-time record.
As the state having the biggest draw for total ski visits, Colorado also saw a 14% bump in overall ski visits in 2018-19 compared to the previous ski season with a total of 13.8 million visits.
Revenue is also healthy, according to Pawlak. There has been steady and significant growth for ski resorts in the Rocky Mountain region, with resorts collecting nearly $124 in revenue per skier visit.
But the sports’ lack of affordability has come into question, widely cited as a potential reason for fewer visits from younger skiers.
In the Rocky Mountain region, ski visits from households earning under $50,000 dropped from 21% to 15% over the last decade. Likewise, visits from households earning $50,000 to $99,000 dropped from 24% to 21%. Visits from households earning $100,000 and above saw growth. Those who fly into Colorado for a ski trip have a median income of $172,000.
“It’s a weakness,” Pawlak said. “If we want to attract a more diversified clientele … we’re going to need to get more innovative to be affordable.”
But revenue from lift tickets prices does tend to go back into infrastructure, she said. There were over $440 million in capital investments made to ski resorts in the 2018-19 season, an average of $21.27 per skier visit.
“I think the ski industry is going in the right direction,” Pawlak said. “I’m excited for the future because there’s so much more we can do for the casual skier or rider.”
Because of the cost disparity, more affordable ski resorts are seeing more business. An answer to the affordability issue will likely come from future technology, she said.
Climate change is another issue the ski industry faces.
Ski Corp. recently hired a sustainability director with a goal of expanding and improving its sustainability practices.
Sarah Jones, who was hired in that position, hosted a panel during the summit that focused on issues of sustainability with Sara Bogdan, sustainability and environment, community and business manager at JetBlue, and Adam Walters, environmental services manager with Southwest Airlines.
Because airlines are crucial to ski resorts for bringing in guests, the airlines have a vested interest in strategic partnerships with resorts. That’s seen locally with Ski Corp. and the Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden. But airlines also translate into added pollution.
“Let’s admit that we emit,” Bogdan said. “We reduce where we can and offset where we can’t.”
JetBlue recently announced it would offset all emissions from domestic flights beginning in July and going forward.
In addition to impacting the environment, climate change also affects the bottom line, which is why it’s important to “move sustainability from periphery to core,” Bogdan said.
“It’s not about flying less, it’s about flying smarter,” she added.
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