- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 15, 2003

Riding a three-year wave of exceptional turnouts at the nation’s winter resorts, the ski industry is looking at an unaccustomed trend: The sport is growing in participation and popularity.

The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) is reporting nearly 58million skier/snowboarder visits at U.S. ski resorts for the 2002-03 season, which would be an all-time high. The 57.6million visits are preliminary numbers, with a final accounting scheduled to be released in July. Some resorts were still operating when the skier visit numbers were collected this spring. Historically, the difference between preliminary and final skier visit totals has varied 1 to 2percent.

Skier visit numbers are part of the Kottke National End of Season Survey, which is prepared each year for NSAA.

“We’re pleased on several levels,” said NSAA president Michael Berry from his office in Lakewood, Colo. “The possible record number of skier visits is especially pleasing given the reality of life with the economy what it is and the war in Iraq.”

Historically, the number of people visiting ski resorts wanes with a weak economy and during times of national turmoil. That hasn’t occurred in the three most recent seasons.

The current high for U.S. skier/snowboarder visits is 57.3million, in the 2000-01 season. The 2001-02 season came in third highest in history at 54.4million skier visits, despite September11 and the ensuing focus on homeland security and a sharp downturn in the U.S. economy that winter.

Before 2000-01, skier visits had been in the 46million to 54million range for about two decades, according to Nolan Rosall, president of RRC Associates, the Colorado-based firm that prepares the Kottke report. For the 2000-01 season, the industry began to follow a growth plan developed by RRC, and results were immediate.

“The industry was essentially flat for 20 years,” Rosall said. “Then we popped 57million. The model for growth was a factor, but not the only factor. Resorts instituted programs for growth and sustained them over time.”

The industry measures the number of people participating in the sport by skier/snowboarder visits. A skier/snowboarder visit is defined as one person visiting a ski area for all or any part of a session. The Kottke survey tracks key barometers of the snow sports resorts and gives a comprehensive report on the health of the industry. Data for the survey was derived from 206 of the country’s 488 operating ski resorts. The 206 resorts account for approximately 44.3million skier visits.

All regions of the United States (except the Pacific West, down 12.6 percent) saw an increase in skier visits. The Midwest experienced the biggest jump (up 18.2 percent) followed by the Southeast (up 17 percent), Northeast (up 16.8 percent) and the Rocky Mountains (up 3.2 percent).

The report credits snowy weather in much of the country, aggressive marketing and retention of skiers by the resorts, and a sharp increase in the number of season pass sales as contributors to the estimated 57.6million skier visits.

Good snow conditions and abundant snowfall traditionally translate into increased visits. The snow fell frequently, at the right time and in the most advantageous places — centers of population. For example, the District had 40.4 inches of snow and Baltimore 58.2 inches last winter. Both numbers are near the top of all-time totals for the cities, according to the National Weather Service. The service also reported that in both, there was observable snow cover for about one-third of the winter (29 days in Washington, 31 in Baltimore).

Nationally, resorts reported 11percent more snow last season than during the 2001-02 season, according to the Kottke report. Exceptionally cold temperatures for sustained periods allowed increased snowmaking in most regions, which boosted the amount of snow on the ground at many resorts.

“It was a great [snow] year for us,” said Loryn Kasten, communications coordinator at Snowshoe Mountain Resort in West Virginia. “The continued cold temperatures allowed us to make lots of snow, and we had 215 inches of natural snow.”

As a region, the Southeast had the greatest increase in snowfall, up 237 percent compared to the previous season, according to the Kottke survey. Nationally, the only areas where snowfall took a tumble were the Midwest (down 4 percent) and the Pacific West (down 19 percent).

Marketing played a key role in the heightened number of skiers, particularly at small and mid-sized resorts in the Northeast and Midwest. Resorts developed consumer-friendly pricing strategies, increased efforts to get consumers to try skiing and snowboarding and were able to increase the number of first-time skiers and snowboarders who came back for a second and third try at the sport. It is acknowledged in the industry that most people will only become “hooked” on the sport after three to five trial sessions.

“We concentrated a lot of effort on raising the awareness of Wisp,” said Sarah Duck, marketing coordinator at that resort at Deep Creek Lake in McHenry, Md. “We focused on Washington, Baltimore and Pittsburgh and took out radio ads and ads in special ski sections in those markets for the first time.”

Wisp recorded a 40 percent increase in skier visits this past winter.

“We saw a great deal of entry pressure,” Berry said. “And resorts responded by focusing on what they could do to convert people who don’t ski or snowboard into lifetime skiers. The resorts focused on the entry [to the sport] experience and getting those three to five visits which will then get people to fall in love with the sport.”

Berry also indicated that resorts improved facilities to cater to beginners and made investments in quality rental equipment, which is what beginners generally use until they are comfortable with the sport.

The Kottke survey reported that resorts nationwide were able to successfully retain core participants through aggressive pricing and programs. The retention figures indicate that many people opted to make skiing and snowboarding a lifestyle choice rather than an occasional recreation activity.

Another factor that contributed to the increase in skier visits was a dizzying jump in season pass sales. Nationally, sales of season passes increased 60 percent since the 1999-00 season. The rate of growth has been greatest in the Southeast, 84percent since 1999-00. Other regions also show marked jumps: Pacific West up 80 percent, Northeast up 58 percent, Rocky Mountains up 52percent and Midwest up 39percent.

Comparing this past season to the previous one, season pass sales increased nationally by 13.1percent, led by the Pacific West (31percent), the Northeast (18percent), Southeast (14percent), Midwest (7percent) and Rocky Mountains (5percent).

Season passes afford skiers more flexibility of when to go skiing and how often. The discounted passes are designed for resorts close to metropolitan centers that have large day-skier and local markets. The locals responded to attractive season pass deals by scooping up passes months before the season started.

Unlike the major spectator sports that count season pass holders in attendance figures whether they show up at the game or not, ski resorts count only actual people on the slope.

But at Whitetail Resort in Mercersburg, Pa., season pass sales declined the past two winters. The reason, said marketing coordinator Chris Black, was Whitetail’s Advantage Card that siphoned off season pass sales. The card gives discounts up to 40percent on lift tickets and rental gear, and after five uses a sixth visit to the resort is free.

“We saw a huge increase in the Advantage Card sales and an accompanying increase in skier visits,” said Black, indicating that Whitetail had twice as many skier visits this past winter then during the winter of 2001-02.

In other findings from the Kottke report, snowboarding continued to grow in popularity, accounting for 29.6percent of skier visits last season. That is up from 28.2percent in 2001-02, a 5.2percent growth rate. The annual growth rate of snowboarding since 1999-00 is 6.5percent.

“The appeal of snowboarding to our under-25 customers is a big factor in skier visits,” Berry said. “Thirty percent of lift tickets sold are to snowboarders.”

The Pacific West recorded the highest rate of snowboard participation (44.5 percent) followed by the Midwest (33.4 percent), Southeast (31 percent), Northeast (25.9 percent) and the Rocky Mountains (22.4 percent).

“What the industry has been able to do is blend together a number of factors — pricing, new equipment, new facilities — and favorably demonstrate the sport’s appeal,” Berry said. “That has resonated nicely with our current customers and put the sport in a growth situation.”

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