Is COVID-19 Another Nail in the Coffin for Some Ski/Ride Resorts?

Last Updated on Wednesday, November 17, 2021 @ 2:15 AM by Editor

Ski/ride resort nails in the coffin include the following:

  • Stagnant participation numbers largely rooted in unrectifiable issues.
  • The spiraling cost of participation in the sport.
  • Worsening weather conditions led by global warming.
  • Being Soft Targets and Crowded Places (ST-CP) highly vulnerable to attack.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic.

I’ve written extensively about the ski/ride industry, and ski/ride resorts in particular, for decades including both professionally researched (plausible) fiction and hard facts non-fiction and just about everything in between. But at no time has the ski/ride industry ever been as beleaguered as it is today.

Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic has decimated industries in the United States just as it has in most every place in the world. The ski/ride industry is no exception. Forced to close their ski/ride resorts in mid-March their multiple revenue streams all went dry. While many ski/ride resorts are diversified that diversification is generally seasonal. For instance, ski/ride resorts have a variety of revenue sources in summer months like brewfests, concerts, festivals, golf, mountain biking, scenic lift rides, weddings, and as sponsors of endurance and wellness events. While these things will undoubtedly be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic they’re largely easier to modify.

However, during the winter months diversification is generally nonexistent. In other words, all the revenue that flows at ski/ride resorts is derived from skiers and riders. If there’s no skiers and riders there’s no revenue.

It’s unknown at this juncture if ski/ride resorts will operate differently this winter because of the COVID-19 pandemic. If it’s necessary to modify their operations the options are limited. Like everything else related to the COVID-19 pandemic the problem for ski/ride resorts is crowds, particularly in their base, mid-mountain, and summit lodges. While social distancing can generally be maintained in lift lines and lifts can be loaded at less than capacity (which might mean limiting lift ticket sales to ensure wait times are reasonable) lodges pose a significant problem. There is also another troubling prospect. Will the base lodge for a lot of skiers and riders become their vehicle? In other words, using their season pass, will they arrive and proceed directly to the lifts? Will they tailgate for breaks and lunch? At the end of the day will they return directly to their vehicle and go home? With the possible exception of bathroom use, it’s doable. If it happens with frequency ski/ride resorts are in big trouble because a lot of their revenue comes from food and beverage and retail sales. The former in particular has become a big moneymaker for ski/ride resorts because of the number of people who partake of it and the number of times. For instance, a lot of people start the day with breakfast in a base lodge; have lunch mid-day, perhaps in a mid-mountain or summit lodge; and end the day with après ski and/or ride at a popular base-side gathering spot. There’s also often at least one beverage and/or snack break. When I skied as a kid everybody brought their meals, because most ski resorts, better known as ski areas then, offered only morning coffee and cocoa and perhaps donuts. Anyway, skiers and riders who avoid everything at the resort but the skiing and riding itself could be a huge financial blow for ski/ride resorts. Of course there’s always grab and go food and beverage, which could mitigate the financial impact, particularly if it’s made available at outdoor walk-up windows.

But long before the COVID-19 pandemic the ski/ride industry was already in big trouble. Their woes included stagnant participation numbers largely rooted in unrectifiable issues, the spiraling cost of participation in the sport, worsening weather conditions led by global warming, and being Soft Targets and Crowded Places (ST-CP) highly vulnerable to attack.

Stagnant Participation Numbers Largely Rooted in Unrectifiable Issues

For decades ski/ride industry participation has been generally declining or flat. The following graph depicts this clearly:

Estimated number of skier/snowboard visits in the U.S. from 2000/2001 to 2018/2019 (in millions).

Surprisingly, the ski/ride industry itself openly admits they need to end their stagnant participation numbers.

According to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) the United States had 9.2 million unique participants in 2018, compared with a 20-year average of 9.7 million. The last time the U.S. industry hit the 10 million mark was 2011.

The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) website states “In order for the ski and snowboard industry to grow the sport, it is necessary to overcome unfavorable demographic trends, time poverty, increased alternative leisure activities, and an overweight population need to be addressed.”[1]

An The Aspen Times article states that “Aspen Skiing Company President and Chief Executive Officer Mike Kaplan summarized the problem succinctly earlier this winter in a meeting with the Pitkin County commissioners. The ski industry as a whole faces a ‘flat skier visit environment,’ he said. People have less free time and more competition for the valuable leisure time they do possess. Ski trips are competing with cruises, trips to Las Vegas and beach getaways. On top of that, the baby boomers who led skiing through its dramatic growth in the 1970s and ’80s and have maintained the industry as loyal customers are ‘aging out,’ Kaplan said.”[2]

The ski/ride industry participation problems that need to be fixed are generally not within their control to remedy and given the state of our society today some of the issues are likely to worsen going forward.

Worsening Weather Conditions Led by Global Warming

The weather has long plagued the ski/ride industry. From the generally snowless 1976-1977 and 1979-1980 seasons to the acceleration of global warming, the highly weather dependent ski/ride industry has always been, and always will be, at the mercy of mother nature.

A CNBC article states that “The amount of snow in the west has seen an average drop of 41 percent since the early 1980s, according to research just published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. As a result, the snow season shrunk by 34 days.”[3]

Even their powerful snowmaking systems—which have come at a great expense—are no panacea. While most resorts have enormous water reservoirs, the capacity to produce huge amounts of compressed air, and elaborate snowmaking infrastructure including miles of pipe and hundreds and in some cases over a thousand snowmaking guns, it’s all for not if the air temperature is above 32 degrees.

The Spiraling Cost of Participation

The spiraling cost of skiing and riding is an issue the ski/ride industry is mum about, but it is a factor.

Skiing and riding have always been an expensive sport to participate in. Like hockey, skiing and riding requires participants to have a lot of apparel and equipment to comfortably and safety partake of it. And like hockey’s expensive ice time cost, lift tickets have reached levels that were unimaginable decades ago. In 2019 in the East they’re over $100 at many of the large ski/ride resorts and in the West lift ticket prices are pushing $200 at some large ski/ride resorts and exceeds that amount at one ski/ride resort. Of course, those are the walk-up window prices. Discounted lift tickets, mostly the pre-buy variety, can be easily snared, particularly online. Also, season passes can lower the cost substantially for frequent skiers and riders. However, there’s no question lift tickets are pricey. Even if you divide the lift ticket cost by the approximately seven hours of lift use it buys and compare it to other sports it’s still prohibitive in many cases. For instance, the median cost of an 18-hole round of golf at a public golf course is $36.00 including a cart and generally it takes about four hours to play. So, two rounds would buy you eight hours and would cost only $72.00 and the cost of the cart is included unlike rental equipment at ski/ride resorts.

Another financial factor often overlooked for skiing and riding is how a lift ticket can have a diminished benefit. On a busy day when lift lines are long the number of runs possible can be half of what you’d get on a slow day. To make matters worse the busy days are weekends and holidays when lift tickets generally cost more. Using the golf analogy again if you pay for 18-holes of golf you get 18-holes of golf.

In addition, ski/ride resorts have gotten incredibly adept at picking the pockets of their customers. From rental equipment and retail shops selling apparel and equipment to lessons and daylong programs for young people to elaborate food and beverage offerings often available from dozens of outlets spread out across the resort. Then of course, is the cost of getting there. By their very nature, most large resorts are hundreds of miles from most of their customers, so travel expenses can be considerable, and of course that fact produces another big expense for people who don’t want to make the trip for the day—lodging. Obviously, there’s other ways the resorts make money, from daily newspapers to childcare to preferred and valet parking.

It’s important to note that global warming as it pertains to the ever increasing need to make snow early and often and the high expectations of skiers and riders for lots of open well-groomed terrain and a lot of fast high capacity lifts in operation to reduce time spent waiting in line, and other factors, are what has continually pushed prices higher at ski/ride resorts, led by lift tickets. In other words, the higher prices being paid by skiers and riders at ski/ride resorts are largely the product of their own high expectations.

All of this leaves ski/ride resorts in a difficult place to attract new participants and retain existing ones, particularly during regional or national economic downturns. In short, skiing and riding is one of the costliest pay-to-play sports, and considering that cost will likely continue to rise, doesn’t bode well for the ski/ride industry.

Being Soft Targets and Crowded Places (ST-CP) Vulnerable to Attack

Ski/ride resorts are the softest of all the Soft Targets and Crowded Places (ST-CP) in the United States. Their weaknesses are many and even if there was a will to become hardened—which generally doesn’t seem to be the case—many of the solutions are costly and/or unwieldy.

For a comprehensive analysis of why ski/ride resorts are the softest of the soft targets and a host of well-researched solutions to harden them refer to the recently released eBook Soft Targets and Crowded Places (ST-CP) which is available at Amazon.

Summary

So, while the COVID-19 pandemic is certainly unwanted by any industry, it’s potentially a game changer, at least in the short-term, for the already struggling ski/ride industry, and might just be another nail in the coffin of some ski/ride resorts.

1. None. None. “Model for Growth”. National Ski Areas Association (NSAA). Retrieved August 25, 20020 from https://www.nsaa.org/NSAA/Programs/Growth/Model_for_Growth/NSAA/Growth/Model_for_Growth.aspx.

2. Condon, Scott. January 1, 2019. “Aspen, ski industry face challenge of replacing older, loyal skiers”. The Aspen Times. Retrieved June 11, 2020 from https://www.aspentimes.com/section-front/aspen-ski-industry-face-challenge-of-replacing-older-loyal-skiers/.

3. Olick, Diana. March 21, 2019. “Climate change is taking a toll on the $20 billion winter sports industry — and swanky ski homes could lose value”. CNBC. Retrieved June 15, 2020 from https://www.cnbc.com/2019/03/20/climate-change-is-taking-a-toll-on-the-20-billion-ski-industry.html.


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