Original Post

By Jim Sloan • Truckee Times • May 26, 2009

Ski industry officials gathered for their annual conference last week in Florida to discuss where to go from here after a ski season that saw the number of skier visits drop from 60 million in 2007-08 to 57 million this season.

One message that came through clearly was that resorts cannot rely on real estate transactions to buoy the bottom line anymore, but that the trend toward year-round operations involving golf, spas and other attractions is something to pursue further.

Representatives from more than 400 resorts attended the conference and came away with the following headlines:

The days of lucrative real estate deals may be coming to an end. Stephan Kircher, president of Boyne Resorts said, "Real estate and second homes can't be a part of the big plan. All that we saw over the last 10 years won't be seen again -- at least in our lifetime."

Resorts need to recruit nonwhite skiing and riding enthusiasts. Some 50 percent of youth are nonwhite minority today, up from 20 percent in 1988, and with snow sports enthusiasts predominately white, the industry needs to sell itself to other young people if the sport is to continue to grow.

Snowboarding may have hit a plateau at 30 percent of all participants. Sales of season passes have also flattened out and are even declining for many big-name resorts -- even as more skiers eschew the destination trip in favor of skiing at backyard mountains.

Last winter was the fifth-best national ski season on record, according to preliminary numbers released last week by the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA).

During the past 10 seasons, the national ski industry has averaged 56.7 million visits. The 2008-09 season represents a 0.8 percent increase from the 10-year average, and a 5.5 percent decrease from the record 2007-08 season.

A skier visit is any skier or snowboarder hitting the hill for any part of a day.

The Northeast had a strong ski season with plentiful snow. Many skiers chose to drive to Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine instead of flying to Colorado, Utah or other destination resorts in the West.

National Ski Area Association President Michael Berry warned ski area operators that national skier visits could decline to 41.4 million in 2020-21 if ski areas don't find more effective ways to get people to try skiing and snowboarding, and do a better job of turning them into loyal customers.

The declining numbers didn't catch resort operators by surprise.

Resorts scrambled in the spring to squeeze as much business out of the 2009-10 ski season as they could. Squaw Valley was particularly aggressive, introducing "Furlough Fridays" that offered state workers $30 lift tickets when they were forced to take days off without pay, and running free shuttles from Sacramento, Reno and South Lake Tahoe. This brought hundreds of first-time skiers to Squaw, which also offered a $35 Learn to Ski package that boosted Squaw novice customers even more.

Squaw also took steps to lure more overnight guests with ski-n-stay packages. Prices varied, but resort officials said some prices hadn't been that low since the early '90s. When you booked a trip, you also got a free ski or snowboard lesson.

To spark more interest in season passes, Squaw rolled its package out March 16 at a discount. The new "50/60" passes -- so named because next season marks the 60th anniversary of the resort and the 50th anniversary of the 1960 Winter Olympics hosted there -- cost $369, $469 and $949, depending on the number of blackout dates. The $949 Gold pass was completely unrestricted, and all passes offer other perks, such as shopping discounts.

There was a sense among resort operators that these kinds of discounts and special offers were going to have to carry over to next season as well. After 10 years of steady growth in the U.S., ski industry officials said they are going to be looking for new ideas reverse the trends they saw this year.

"We know that marketing professionals and business owners are already scrambling to find and utilize every marketing tool available to strengthen their competitive position for next year," said Ralf Garrison, founder of the Mountain Travel Research Program, which analyzes lodging data for mountain resorts.

Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Areas Association, said discounts -- particularly those on resort Web sites -- will help drive business to the slopes next year.

"The Internet has become the skiers' and riders' best friend," Roberts said. "Value is the name of everyone's game."

One sign of that was the news in March that several Lake Tahoe resorts had signed up to use Liftopia.com, the online resource that allows skiers and riders to purchase lift tickets for up to 30 percent off the ticket-window price. The deal allows resorts to adjust their prices according to demand.