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Tracking the trends

Bob Berwyn

Even as skiers bask in summer heat, resort executives around the country are plotting next season’s marketing campaigns. As they strategize over market share and ticket prices, one place they’ll turn to is the preliminary statistical data from an end-of-season survey compiled for the National Ski Areas Association by Boulder-based RRC Associates.It may already be a well-known fact in some Colorado ski towns, but the national numbers appear to confirm that the industry performed &quotsignificantly better than might have been expected&quot during the 2001-02 season. Despite a number of factors that slowed travel nationally, ski resorts tallied 54.3 million visits, the third-best season ever in terms of skier days, reflecting a &quothigh level of resiliency (that) bodes well for the future health of the industry,&quot according to the RRC analysts.The total was down about 5.5 percent from the all-time record of 57.3 million registered in 2000-01, with all regions of the country outside the Pacific West experiencing declines. Of the 195 areas reporting data from the past two seasons, 135 (69 percent) saw visits drop in 2001-02 from the previous year. One ski area remained about even, while 59 areas (30 percent) reported gains from 2000-01.Skier visits dropped 10.5 percent to 12.26 million in the Northeast region, 9.5 percent in the Southeast, 7.2 in the Midwest and 5.9 percent to 18.2 million in the Rocky Mountains. The Pacific West, encompassing Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington, saw visits climb 4.3 percent to 11.8 million visits, the highest number since the 1982-83 season. The Pacific West region was the only part of the country that saw snowfall increase over the previous season.Regionally, the greatest volatility in skier visits has been in the Southeast, where the totals fluctuate by up to 10 percent from long-term averages. The greatest stability is in the Rocky Mountain region, where, totals tend to vary by only about 2.3 percent.The report points out that the declines from the previous year should be viewed in the context of a longer time span. For example, visitation nationally was up slightly, 0.7 percent from the 10-year average.The data also indicates that almost all the decline in skier visits came during the pre-Christmas and late-season periods. Those two periods were estimated to be down by about 31 percent, while skier days during the core of the season, from Christmas through the end of March, were down by only 1 percent. Those early and late-season declines were attributed in part to the immediacy of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, poor early season snow and shifting vacation patterns associated with an early Easter.The analysis suggests that the industry may have raised the performance floor by performing well during a season with less-than-optimal operating conditions. Previously, poor seasons were marked by skier visits in the 47 million to 51 million range.Reduced snowfall is singled out as one of the biggest factors causing a drop in skier days. In 2001-02, snowfall was down dramatically from the 2000-01 season in the East and Midwest by 61 percent in the Southeast, 46 percent in the Northeast and 29 percent in the Midwest. In the Rocky Mountain region, snowfall declined by 10 percent, but it piled up 31 percent deeper in the Pacific West. As a result of less-than-stellar snowfalls, the average length of the season was down in all regions by about 12.9 percent, also contributing to the drop in skier days.As expected, snowboarding continues to grow steadily, accounting for nearly one-third (29.2 percent) of all ski resort visits, up from 27.7 percent in the previous year.Notably, season pass sales have climbed by 75 percent since the 1998-99 season, with the biggest increase coming the Pacific West region (203 percent). In the Rocky Mountain region, season pass sales have climbed by 54 percent since 1998-99. The survey added a new question this year to determine that about 20 percent of all skier visits nationally can be attributed to season pass usage. The survey results also indicate that while season pass usage is bolstering skier numbers, it’s likely cutting into per-skier ticket yields.This past season’s survey also counted snowtubing usage for the first time, establishing that the relatively new activity is taking on increase importance, especially at smaller and mid-sized ski areas. Resorts that offer tubing experienced an average of 15,650 snowtubing visits during the 2001-02 season.Snowboarding continues to be a vital and dynamic element, growing by 5.2 percent from the previous season. The percentage increases in snowboarding are not as dramatic as the 20 percent increases during the mid-1990s, but compounded annually since 1998-99, the growth rate remains strong at about 6.8 percent.The Pacific West region showed the highest rate of snowboard participation, at 41.1 percent. The Rocky Mountain region has the lowest percentage, at 21.8 percent. Snowboarding may well continue to grow significantly as aging baby boomer drop out of the sport and are replaced by younger adults and children who are much more likely to be snowboarders.The survey also shows that there may still be room to grow international skier visits. Currently, 94.2 percent of all visits are domestic. Of the foreign visitors, 1.8 percent come from Canada, primarily to visit resorts in the Northeast, while 4.0 percent are from other foreign countries. Foreign visitation is highest in the Northeast at 7.8 percent, followed by the Rocky Mountains at 6.9 percent.


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