Skiers ski, despite economy |

Skiers ski, despite economy

Dominique Taylor/Daily file photoSkiers and snowboarders line up at Vail's gondola in March.

ASPEN, Colorado ” Ski resorts such as Vail and Aspen might not be in trouble next winter even if the national economy still stinks, a new study suggests.

The Kottke National End-of-Season Survey, performed annually for the National Ski Areas Association, says last season proved that dedicated skiers and riders will hit the slopes with a vengeance despite soaring fuel costs, mounting debt and other byproducts of a sluggish economy. It all depends on snow conditions, the report says.

Snow conditions were superb in nearly every part of the country last season, with the Rocky Mountains enjoying near-record snowfall after November. As a result, the ski industry had a record season for lift ticket sales. A final audit by Kottke showed that the ski industry topped 60 million skier and rider visits for the first time last winter. That was an increase of nearly 3 percent over the previous record in 2005-06.

“The record season suggests that the industry has enhanced its ability to capitalize on favorable snow conditions, when the opportunity arises,” the Kottke report said.

The report painted an all-around bright picture of the current state of the ski industry: the strong performance last winter was enjoyed by resorts of all sizes in all regions of the country; the sport was drawing impressive numbers of youngsters; and the amount of business from overseas soared.

“These are, in fact, the golden years of the ski business right now,” said Michael Berry, president of NSAA, a trade association based in Lakewood, Colo.

He said the industry is in a unique position right now of drawing on three generations of customers. There are a significant number of aging Baby Boomers, who have been the bread-and-butter of the ski industry for decades. It is also drawing impressive numbers of the boomers’ kids and grandkids.

The Kottke report estimated that 30.5 percent of skier and rider visits last season were by youth under age 18. That is “a positive trend to the extent that an increased share of young participants bodes well for further growth, provided that new entrants are converted into loyal ongoing participants,” the report said.

The big challenge for the ski industry will be to make sure it converts enough new blood to offset the loss of Baby Boomers, who will ski less or even leave the sport in the next couple of decades.

Berry said the long-term health of the industry depends as much on the success of little resorts close to cities as the success of big resorts like Aspen and Vail. Most people are introduced to the sport at small resorts outside of cities like Minneapolis and Chicago. If they have good experiences, they become the destination travelers that are the bread and butter of places like Aspen-Snowmass.

The Kottke report also noted a bit of silver lining in the U.S. economic slump. The weak dollar fueled dramatic growth in the amount of international business. The number of lift tickets sold to foreign customers jumped an estimated 28 percent last season, the report said. “Larger resorts, and particularly those in the Rocky Mountains, were the greatest beneficiaries of the increased international presence, which was significantly fueled by the weak dollar.”

Customers from overseas accounted for 6.3 percent of the U.S. industry’s 60.5 million visits, the report said.

The Aspen Skiing Co.’s international business increased by about 20 percent last season, according to spokesman Jeff Hanle. International business accounts for about one in five Skico skier visits. That is one of the strong levels in the industry.

Berry will share other insights into the ski industry next week as a featured speakers at the Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s annual membership luncheon. The event will be held Thursday, Aug. 21 at the Sundeck on Aspen Mountain. The Silver Queen Gondola will haul attendees at 11:30 a.m.; the luncheon starts at noon. Officials will discuss the Aspen/Snowmass winter marketing plan and ACRA’s 2008-09 budget.

Tickets are $40 for members and $50 for non-members if purchased by Monday, Aug. 18. The prices go up $10 after that deadline. Call ACRA at 925-1940 for a purchase.

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