Are slopes still cool?
No doubt about it, the X Games are a remarkable thing. Motorcycle riders doing flips, teen-age girls hauling down big money for snowboarding over chasms of snow and exuberant boys chanting on the sidelines, their bellies smeared with paint.
It’s a scene, in person and on television. Nearly 50,000 people this year turned out for the four-day event at Buttermilk, located near Aspen. Television viewers have annually increased 20 percent.
Compare that with World Cup skiing – a couple thousand people in the stands, if it’s a nice day.
It’s cool, huh – and exciting. The X Games that is.
But are these new wave competitors – the X-stylers – mainstream cool? Is this culture of snow, this affinity with the downhill slide, as deeply ingrained in the coming-of-age generation as it was in baby boomers 30 to 40 years ago? Time will tell, of course, but at the moment you can get arguments both ways.
“Is it mainstream? I don’t know. I might not say not yet,” says David Perry, chief operating officer for the Aspen Skiing Co. “Mainstream? I’d almost say calling it that is the death knell. It hasn’t peaked yet, and it’s still very cool.”
Jerry Jones, who worked in the ski industry from the late 1950s well into the 1990s, with stints at Snowmass, Keystone and Beaver Creek, says the coming-of-age generation needs a public figure of Justin Timberlake-level visibility to push snow sports into the same currents of popular culture as skiing in the 1970s.
“I don’t see it in the mainstream,” he says.
Arbiters of ‘cool’
This issue of cool matters fundamentally as a business proposition. The oldest of the 71 million echo boomers, a.k.a. Generation Y, are now entering their 20s. That’s the biggest demographic bulge since the late 1960s, the last time the ski industry boomed.
When Time magazine put skiing on the cover in 1972, announcing that it was the sport of the future, it was already too late. Skiing had already arrived.
But Playboy was probably the ultimate arbiter of “cool” during that time. From the knowingly naughty Vargas girl jokes to the perpetually pajama-clad publisher Hugh Hefner, the magazine defined for white, middle-class Americans what they should want in life.
Hefner’s message was so powerful, so trendy, that for a generation he made the floppy ears of a furtive, docile rabbit – the very bottom of the food chain – the prowess symbol of leisurely sexuality. The wacky wabbit, like the Nike swoosh of a later generation, seemed to say, “Just do it.”
Beyond guilt-free sex, Playboy defined the “good life.” Downhill skiing was part of that good life. It, too, was “cool.”
Aspen was in Playboy often then, if perhaps portrayed differently than the reality. Aspen was the epitome of cool. The centerfold girls hung out there, posing on shag carpets, talking about their favorite types of ski gear – Lange boots, Head skis. Ski racer Jean-Claude Killy, handsome and taut, dripped sexual charisma on the victory stand.
The good life, as defined by Hugh Hefner, very much looked like Aspen Ð but also business-like Vail, and even, in a sort of grungy way, Summit County.
These were the golden years of the ski industry. Technological changes, from grooming of slopes to easier lifts to plastic boots, had made the sport accessable to the masses. Changes in transportation, particularly wide-bodied jets and interstate highways, had made cities, where the masses lived, closer to the mountain ski areas.
A new concept in housing called condominiums had made this cool mountain lifestyle attainable on a part-time basis.
From Breckenridge to Aspen Highlands, annual increases in visitors of 10, 15, even 20 percent were common. New ski areas opened Ð Snowmass in 1968, Keystone in 1970, Copper Mountain in 1973. More yet were envisioned near Aspen, Breckenridge and Marble, but also near Twin Lakes, Eagle and Rifle.
The 78 million baby boomers born from 1946 through 1964, flush with prosperity never known before, pushed the growth in this golden era. But even in 1980-1981, when Beaver Creek opened, growth was slowing. It remains the last major ski resort to open in the United States.
From 1979 to about 2001, skier numbers fluctuated between 49 million and 54 million annually, depending upon weather and the economy. Baby boomers during this time had settled into jobs and raised families. And as 46 million members of Generation X – those born from 1965 to 1983 – came of age, the industry merely treaded water.
“We did a very, very poor job of recruiting X generation kids into skiing and it was compounded by the fact that there were fewer of them,” explains Andy Daly, a former ski executive at Vail, Copper Mountain and Eldora.
That’s the flattening national picture. Growth at Colorado resorts continued into the early 1990s for several reasons.
First, the climate of the Rocky Mountains for skiing is superior to virtually all other parts of the continent. The high, inland location means virtually no mid-winter rains and the snow is softer, more powdery and more forgiving.
Second, the public infrastructure for accommodating destination guests was, and is, unrivaled in North America. It begins with Denver’s major airport as well as the smaller mountain airports and includes a sturdy highway system and, at the resorts, a large array of lodging. Nowhere else can you find so many ski slopes so easily accessed.
Third, at specific Colorado resorts, operators continued to reinvest in their mountains, under the presumption that the public would agree that both bigger and faster are better. The public, if business volume is the guide, has largely concurred. This is most evident at Vail.
Beginning in 1985, Vail began heavily investing in high-speed quads and snow cats. With significantly upgraded on-mountain restaurants, it led the charge toward the $15 lunch. And, not least, it expanded and then expanded again – China Bowl in 1989, then in Blue Sky Basin in1999, the latter of which alone is larger than all of Aspen.
Vail was far from alone. Even before Blue Sky Basin, terrain expansion from Snowmass to Breckenridge grew four times as much as skier numbers during the late ’80s and ’90s. Across Colorado, resorts have poured more than $1 billion into expanded snowmaking, new lifts and other on-mountain improvements during the last decade.
Even so, by the mid-1990s, the only way Colorado ski areas grew was by stealing somebody else’s customers. Vail and Beaver Creek, operated by Vail Resorts, were most aggressive, sending envoys to recruit customers who had already decamped in Aspen and Summit County.
Vail even sold lift tickets in Breckenridge, to local resentment. Breckenridge, which Vail Resorts eventually bought, was then owned by competitor Ralston Purina.
Shape of survival
It could have been worse. Snowboards, and then shaped skis, saved the ski industry’s bacon.
At first, skiers – and hence ski area managers – resisted snowboards. There were concerns about compatibility, but the core worry was generational. Younger people, as younger people do, went faster and straighter, cutting corners. Their snowboards made louder sounds. They didn’t wear Bogner outfits, but outfits that looked like they came from Salvation Army surplus in Portland.
The trend was unrelenting. Young people liked snowboards, not skis. In one survey last season, more than half of those aged 10 to 24 used snowboards.
But even with snowboards, the 1990s were a tough time for ski areas. Again, technology rode to the rescue, this time in the form of shaped skis that kept baby boomers in the sport. “I still say it is probably the savior of the industry right now,” says Bill Jensen, chief operating officer for Vail Mountain.
Shaped skis have probably ensured baby boomers will remain on skis for 10 years longer than would have otherwise been the case. Already, people in their 70s are becoming common at ski slopes. Only a few years ago, the ski industry fully expected that baby boomers would be gone by age 65.
Ford Frick, in his paper titled “The American Ski Industry Ð Alive, Well and Even Growing,” argues that technological change Ð particularly snowboards Ð shook the ski industry out of its rigidity.
“The introduction of snowboarding, and the rapid rise in telemark skiing, free skiing and a number of other equipment variations, have been a breakthrough for the ski industry – not just because they drew a new generation of participants, but because they reminded an increasingly stodgy industry that ‘skiing’ was fundamentally about unstructured, outdoor recreation and the individual freedom and adventure that it offers,” says Frick.
These technological changes, combined with demographics centered on emerging echo boomers, are the key reasons the ski industry grew after decades of slumber.
But a key question remains. Do mainstream echo boomers find snow sports “cool?”
From adventure to amenity: a brief history of skiing
Skiing, as a business, began in the United States in the 1930s, with the opening of Sun Valley in 1936, arguably the nation’s first resort catering to vacationing skiers. Others soon followed.
In Colorado, Winter Park was probably the first destination resort, opening in 1939. World War II interrupted Aspen’s arrival as a resort, which did not occur until 1946, followed by Arapahoe Basin in 1947, Buttermilk in 1958 and Aspen Highlands in 1959.
When John Kennedy became president, new ski areas tumbled onto the marketplace — Breckenridge, Crested Butte, and Steamboat Springs in 1961, then Vail in 1962. Then, when Nixon was president, there was another flurry of ski area openings.
In this way the individual ski-area operators, wobbly at first then gangly with growth, became an industry. Looking back on the history of the ski industry, Bill Jensen, chief operating officer for Vail Mountain, sees six distinct phases:
’50s: Extreme sport
Skiing began in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s as an adventure. It was something different than what other people were doing. It took, in a way, a bit of courage. Given the nature of equipment, exemplified by bear-trap bindings, there was some very real danger.
“To this day we retain a customer segment that is adventure oriented, whether it is the backcountry skier or somebody who satisfies their sense of adventure by skiing something like (Vail’s) Blue Sky Basin,” says Jensen.
’60s: Racers reign
In 1960, California’s Squaw Valley hosted the Winter Olympics, sliding skiing into the living rooms of the millions of homes that had new television sets. In the 1964 games at Innsbruck, Americans Billy Kidd and Jimmie Heuga won medals. And Pepi Steigler, the Austrian gold medalist, later became skiing ambassador at Jackson Hole.
Ski racing drew interest into the sport. This interest peaked in 1968 with the three gold medals won by Jean-Claude Killy at Grenoble. Killy’s sexual magnetism rubbed off on the industry in general. It was a time for exploding growth.
’70s: High life
By the late 1960s, skiing had become a lifestyle: hot tubs, condominiums and parties into the night. For the baby boom generation coming of age, the lifestyle and skiing became synonymous.
Harnessing this impulse, the ski industry expanded rapidly. Snowmass was one response, Vail’s Lionshead Mall another. Curiously, these “planned” developments have not stood the test of time.
’80: Recreation rules
In the 1980s, accustomed to growing rapidly, the ski industry tried to make the sport accessible to still more people. Grooming technology advanced. Lifts became faster and easier to ride.
“To this day you can ask somebody from Texas, for example, ‘Are you a skier?’ and they might well say, ‘Yes, I’m a recreational skier,'” says Jensen. “What they mean is that they come a few days every two or three years.” Recreational skiers, he adds, tend to be people from warm-weather homes.
’90s: Entertaining peaks
During the 1990s the ski industry worked harder to hold onto baby boomers. Technology became even more important. New groomers attacked even the steepest slopes. Expensive quad lifts allowed the average customer to ski 30,000 vertical feet per day, something that previously had only been possible in four days.
This left more idle time at on-mountain restaurants. Burger and fries became passe, and longer, healthier and more elaborate lunches the norm.
2000: Amenity abound
An overhaul of the federal tax laws in 1986 gave wealthy people more income to invest in vacation homes. It gave owners of existing homes incentives to remove them from rental pools. The new law launched the continuing boom in second homes.
The homes since then have become generally bigger as more people have adopted the “mountain lifestyle” in a more grandiose way. Amenities have proliferated. Skiing is just one among many mountain attractions ranging from kayaking to seminars.
Coupled with this second-home phenomenon has been a graying of the resort valleys. People are finding resort valleys wonderful places to spend the first decade or two of retirement. That means that instead of skiing perhaps 10 days a year during their working years, they’re spending 30 days a year skiing while in retirement.
Now, says Jensen, ski areas cater to all six phases – with some twists. For example, 16-year-old snowboarders in the terrain parks may best represent the ski racers from the sport phase of the ’60s as well as the adventure skiers of the ’50s. But others remain the “recreational skiers.”
“Our business has become more complex, ” he says, “because ultimately, for many resorts, you have to address all of these segments.”