Vail Resorts, Alterra and Powdr discuss ski industry trends at Colorado Governor’s Tourism Conference
October 30, 2018
VAIL — With fresh snow blanketing Vail on Tuesday, Oct. 30, leaders in the state's ski industry continued the three-day Colorado Governor's Tourism Conference at Hotel Talisa.
A session on Tuesday titled "Trends in Ski" featured a three-person panel, including representatives from Vail Resorts, Alterra Mountain Co. and Powdr — all groups leading the way for Colorado's ski industry — and the world.
Lauren Berlamino, of marketing, design and tech company Karsh Hagan, opened the discussion with where the ski industry is as a whole in Colorado, noting an aging demographic and shorter seasons due to climate change as challenges. Opportunities include leading the way in sustainability and providing a full, unique experience beyond skiing.
One-fifth of skiers are 55 and older, Berlamino said, with some of the most avid people participating aged 70 and older. While skier and snowboarder visits in this country have increased from 8.7 million in 1996-97 to 9.2 million in 2017-18, Berlamino said that increase doesn't correlate to the overall population growth over the past 20 years, something the industry will need to address.
"It kind of sounds like we're facing an uphill battle, but really Colorado is doing amazing in this industry," she said. "I think nobody's better positioned than our state to continue to ride this momentum and be successful amidst all this change that we're seeing."
Colorado's share of overnight ski trips in the calendar year of 2017 was 21 percent, according to the National Ski Areas Association, with the next highest being California at 13.7 percent. Of the 53.2 million skier visits, that's about 11 million visitors to Colorado.
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Compared to other states in the ski industry, Colorado ranks first — and is eighth in the United States for year-round destination, Berlamino said.
"This is not new news," she said. "We've been holding the first position for several years, and it's really our position to lose."
California, Vermont, Utah and New Hampshire have been toggling back and forth the past couple of years, with Colorado firmly on top.
Another positive for Colorado is the $1,248 per capita, per trip spending within a ski trip, a sign of visitors doing more than just hitting the slopes. In the winter, skiers and snowboarders coming to Colorado participated in 6.5 other activities on average, Berlamino said, 8 percent more activities than in the summer. That includes snow biking and sledding, as well as visiting dispensaries and breweries.
"Skiers are our highest valued travelers. They're coming from the farthest distances. They're coming with the biggest groups. They're staying the longest," Berlamino said. "This is where people come to celebrate winter and celebrate snow."
PICK A PASS, ANY PASS
"This is probably the golden age if you're a skier, in terms of value that's out there for you to take advantage of," said Kieran Cain, vice president of marketing for Vail Resorts.
With the Epic Pass celebrating 10 years and the Ikon Pass hitting the market for its first year, one of the biggest shifts in the industry recently has been the focus on consolidation featuring a collection of resorts.
Alterra is in its first year and doesn't have any numbers to share quite yet, but Bob Stinchcomb, executive vice president at Alterra, answered a question from the audience saying the group expects to exceed 250,000 passes sold.
At Vail Resorts, sales on the Epic Pass are up 25 percent, in large part thanks to the new military pass that costs $99, Cain said, as well as other factors.
With so many options out there this ski season, Cain said skiers and snowboarders have a "freedom of choice."
While collective passes give people a chance to ski multiple resorts on one pass, the goal is to maintain the unique identity of each resort on the list, Stinchcomb and Cain said.
One thing that hasn't changed is that snow continues to drive visitation.
Jennifer Rudolph, of Powdr, pointed out that 10 years ago, the United States was in two wars, the recession was starting and gas was more than $4 per gallon. However, Colorado had a great snow year and showed that snow prevails over all else.
"With the ski industry here in Colorado, snow trumps everything. It trumps wars. It trumps economy. It trumps gas prices," Rudolph said. "And when it snows, people will find a way to ski in Colorado."
With the state holding a high demand in the industry and big money coming from it, groups such as Vail Resorts, Alterra and Powdr are continuing to re-invest in their resorts.
Alterra has invested $500 million in capital improvements, Stinchcomb said, with $30 million at Winter Park. Powdr takes a different approach compared to Alterra and Vail Resorts, but that organization has invested in community-focused upgrades such as providing uphill travel and Wi-Fi at Eldora and installing two new lifts at Copper Mountain this year. Vail Resorts spends upward of $100 million each year on upgrades, from restaurants to hotels and new chairlifts.
Vail Resorts, Alterra and Powdr representatives all agreed that providing the best customer experience is what Colorado does best, and must continue to do best, and that means re-investing in resorts.
On the horizon for Vail Resorts, Emma is set to debut. The app on mobile devices will answer questions, including where to apres, what trails are groomed and others. For tougher questions, Emma will direct you to a human.
"The idea a couple years ago, the thought that we'd have AI involved in resort marketing and the guest experience at a ski resort, was sort of a far-out idea," Cain said.
Alterra is excited to hit the snow and will be looking at the evolution of less mature ski resorts, as well as its larger resorts.
At Powdr, founder and chairman John Cumming has instilled a culture of sustainability, and the group is proud to have solar energy at all of its associated resorts.
For the Colorado Tourism Office, debuting this winter is a new tagline for businesses across the state to embrace: Snow's Perfect State. The project, years in the making, focuses on promoting Colorado as the top place for snowsports and activities.
Assistant editor Ross Leonhart can be reached at 970-748-2984 and email@example.com. Follow him on Instagram at colorado_livin_on_the_hill.