Can the Snow Sports Industry be Saved from Itself?

Inspiration can be so simple. Photo: Colton Stifter

“I vote we stop skiing by the numbers and just start skiing, as much as we can. Hopefully the industry will catch on.”

By Gavin Gibson
The snowsports industry has long hailed mega resorts like Colorado’s Vail Mountain as pinnacles of the on-mountain experience. But by the time the chairs start spinning at 8:30 am on any given powder day, thousands of people have already tackled I-70, paid $60 bucks for parking, negotiated rental and ticket lines, and maybe even had time to snag some coffee. Powder crazed parents herd confused toddlers through hoards of diehard locals, weekend warriors, and Texas vacationers—all hell bent on skiing the same snow. Opening bell’s initial rush looks like the start of an Ironman triathlon minus the wet suits and Gu Packets. Vail’s expertly laid out lift system distributes skiers so efficiently that the majority of untracked terrain on Vail’s 5,289 acres quickly becomes a distant memory.

By 2 pm when it’s time to wrestle the family back into the minivan and “beat traffic” back to the front range, Dad’s already been up for 10 hours and only gotten a total of six un-tracked turns all day. Others board shuttle vans to DIA, only to return a year later for their next skiing vacation. The resorts that fall under the Vail empire see a full 12.3 percent of US skier visits*, it’s a big number considering Vail controls only 10 of the 478 ski areas in the United States.

On January 27th, published an article titled “Can Snowboarding Be Saved?” citing the sport’s youth-driven marketing model as a limiting factor in the sport’s growth. The article pointed out snowboarding’s slow adoption of the backcountry market, and the lack of carving boards on the shelves today.

Deeper research shows that snowboarding’s numbers have only “stalled,” but as a whole, the snow sports industry has seen a decrease in participation over the last few years. According to numbers posted by the Snowsports Industries of America, the number of Alpine skiers dropped off by 2 million between the  11/12, and 12/13 seasons. Blame for poor numbers always rests on “bad” winters.

While these numbers show the most dramatic drop in Alpine skiers in the last four seasons, it’s fair to say that all markets have been holding relatively steady. So why then, does dire news about the snow sports industry keep popping up?

With the corporatization of  the snowsports industry comes the expectation for infinite growth. Unfortunately, participation is stalling.  Less people are trying the sport out, and even less are returning after their first experience. The cost of gear, lift tickets, and lodging mixed with declining on mountain experiences from overcrowding, commercialization, and an increasingly unpredictable winter weather storm cycle all prevent people from enjoying their time on the hill. This process shows no signs of slowing. In the Proxy Report of Vail’s 2013 meeting of stockholders, Vail reported the following strategy for increasing profits:

“While the ski industry has performed well in recent years in terms of number of skier visits, with the eight best seasons occurring in the past 10 years for United States visitation, a particular ski area’s growth is also largely dependent on either attracting skiers away from other resorts, generating more revenue per skier visit and/or generating more visits from each skier. Better capitalized ski resorts, including our mountain resorts, are expanding their offerings as well as enhancing the quality and experience by adding new high speed chairlifts, gondolas, terrain parks, state of the art grooming machines, expanded terrain, on-mountain dining venues as well as amenities at the base areas of the resorts, including dining, retail and lodging, all of which are aimed at increasing guest visitation and revenue per skier visit.”

The snow sports industry faces two futures. The first is to work with a flat number of participants while a cycle of price raising and brand failures becomes the result of competition for higher earnings amongst a limited pool. The second involves a monumental shift in thinking, but not necessarily a new concept. In a letter to Mike Moore of the Skiers’ Gazette , Aspen’s own Hunter S. Thompson pointed out the incredible contrast between people who ski, and people who sell skiing:

“There is a hell of a huge difference between skiing as a sport—or even skiing as a lifestyle—and skiing as an industry, a boom-time fad like golf or bowling… On one side are the Cops and the Mayor and the County Commissioners, along with local realtors and corporate land developers from Chicago &  LA & Texas—and even NY & Boston. These people see Aspen as a resort, they want to sell it. And they are. Indeed—for the last 20 years they’ve been selling harder than New Orleans street-pimps. The other side is a weird mix of locals, liberals, freaks, dropouts, ranchers, heads, geeks & other less commercially oriented types who see Aspen as a place to live—not to sell—a refuge of sorts from the same kind of rotten urban madness that these scum-sucking developers are trying to sell here in Aspen.”**

The message of bigger, better, more extreme and more expensive has proven to attract a limited audience. The simple thrill of the mountains is a lost message when the obstacles of gear, travel, and just learning how to ride scare people away before they even start. Most people never stick with it long enough to experience the powder days, Alaskan spine lines, and double corks they are sold by snowsports marketing.

It’s time to start selling the side effects of sliding down snow that keep people around. For starters, the social benefits of the sport exists regardless of snowfall. Anyone who’s skied long enough knows that it’s easy to make life long friends out of strangers mid-run. A slow double chair ride makes for great couple’s therapy. The transformation from pizza to french fries is more empowering than buying the right pair of skis ever will be. These lessons come with time on the slopes though, and for most, that just isn’t happening.

“Anyone who has skied long enough knows that it’s easy to make life long friends out of strangers mid-run.” -BS

The total number of resort visits (56.6 million) last season divided by the number of skiers and snowboarders(15.6 Million) shows that on average, people spend less than four days a season on snow.  Even though skiing and snowboarding are billed as “lifestyle” sports, it’s clear that for most, they are merely a novelty.

For most of the United States, skiing at a “premium” level resort in the West for a few days makes more sense than skiing at a local resort with inferior vertical or slow lifts. Sadly, the same money could be spent skiing at home mastering skills and making new friends. With dozens of small resorts closing across the country in the last decade, it’s getting harder to commit to turning in the first place.

If the snow sports industry wants to grow, it needs to focus on getting more people on the hill in any capacity. More chairlifts don’t breed more skiers. Better dining options don’t attract people who can’t afford to eat at them. Magazines touting the same tired resort guides year after year do little to help anything but their advertisers. Let’s put an end to playing the same broken record season after season. There’s much more to skiing than a cellphone app and a helmet cam will ever capture, and we all know it. I vote we stop skiing by the numbers and just start skiing, as much as we can. Hopefully the industry will catch on. The experiences gained in the mountains are not a one hit wonder; diversify the message, or die.

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