Fueling Change: Skiing In a Weak Economy

Rising fuel prices are altering the economics of the great American ski vacation, as skiers and resorts cope with the increased costs of flying and driving.

Harriet and Jerry Warner are waving goodbye to an old traveling companion this winter—their skis. “We’re renting this season,” Harriet Warner says, “for the first time in about 30 years.”

The reason: new airline fees of up to $150 for checked baggage. The Somerset, N.J., couple determined it would cost $500 or more to fly two pairs of skis on their five trips this winter. The fees prompted the Warners to forgo purchasing new skis. “We realized it didn’t make sense to spend almost $2,000 on new equipment and then have to pay these ridiculous fees to bring it.”

The Warners illustrate how rising fuel prices, which are increasing the cost of both driving and flying, are transforming the fundamentals of the great American ski vacation. While not all skiers are changing their habits, some are scrutinizing their recreational budgets like never before and coming up with new strategies this season, such as carpooling, vacationing at resorts closer to home or simply flying less frequently.

Many ski families are still running the numbers. “My husband and I are trying to figure out whether it might be cheaper for us to fly than drive,” says Barbara Hagin, a San Francisco public relations consultant. The couple typically drives to the Lake Tahoe region three or four weekends per winter, but fueling their SUV would cost about $150 per trip. So they were pricing out airline tickets to Salt Lake City, Utah, as an alternative. “We might just fly on one longer trip instead of doing all that driving.”

San Jose, Calif., skier Doug Anderson is taking the bus. “With gasoline at $4 a gallon, it’s cost-effective,” he says of San Francisco’s Bay Area Ski Bus, which Anderson plans to ride to Tahoe eight to 10 times this winter. Thanks to customers like Anderson, the ski-bus operator expects to run more than 350 trips to Tahoe this winter, carrying about 17,000 skiers. That’s up from 230 runs last season. Trips cost about $110 and include a lift ticket and breakfast.

Media trainer Ileah Foster and her family are cutting expenses this winter by stuffing eight people into a van and renting a house in the Lake Tahoe area instead of staying in hotels as they’ve done before. “The high gas prices have brought us closer together,” Foster says.

Destination resorts rely on airline passengers for much of their business, so they’re initiating a number of new programs to keep skiers flying this winter. Colorado’s Vail, Crested Butte and Steamboat will offset new airline baggage fees with credits of up to $50 per person. Major destination resorts also are paying higher subsidies to the increasingly struggling airline industry to prevent cuts in the number of flights to mountain airports. Steamboat will pay up to $2.8 million to airlines this winter, a 14 percent increase from last year. Crested Butte’s payment could rise $400,00, to $1.4 million, while Telluride Mountain Resort’s could go up to $1.9 million from $1.1 million.

Ironically, increased fuel costs might drive some skiers out of their vehicles and into the air. California’s Mammoth Mountain, for instance, is promoting a new $198 round-trip flight from Los Angeles, which lands you on the slopes a lot sooner than the five-hour drive from the resort’s key L.A. market.

But mostly, resorts are working to help drivers with the high cost of gas. For instance, four Colorado resorts—Powderhorn, Monarch, Winter Park and Copper—are offering two-for-one tickets to customers who buy 10 gallons of gas at Phillips 66 stations. “Everyone’s budget is a bit tighter this season, so we want to make it easy to get onto the snow,” says Powderhorn spokeswoman Sarah Allen.

Nearly 30 resorts have joined a similar program in the Pacific Northwest, where skiers can get two-for-one lift tickets for filling up at Shell stations. Participating areas include British Columbia giant Whistler Blackcomb. Last year, an estimated 60,000 lift-ticket vouchers were distributed. “I expect, with gas prices being what they are, we’ll give out even more this winter,” says Estelle West, whose promotion company runs the program. New Hampshire’s Waterville Valley has also gotten into the rebate business, awarding $40 fuel vouchers to customers who book multi-night packages. In addition, Waterville is running a daily shuttle to nearby Plymouth to pick up skiers. “We were getting a lot of calls inquiring about public transportation to Waterville,” says spokeswoman Deb Moore.

Some resorts are promoting carpooling, with state groups Ski Utah and Colorado Ski Country posting carpooling links on their websites to connect passengers and drivers. Copper Mountain is offering VIP parking to vehicles with four or more skiers, entering carpoolers into a season-pass raffle and giving out “Carpoolers Do It Together” bumper stickers. “A little humor never hurts when you’re trying to move the needle,” says Copper spokeswoman Lauren Pelletreau.

Some think the uproar over fuel prices will dissipate. “If we get lots of snow this winter, people will ski,” says David Ingemie, president of Snowsports Industries America. When Ingemie’s group conducted a survey of 5,000 skiers and boarders last season, 70 percent said they would ski fewer days because of higher gas prices. SIA conducted the same survey at season’s end and found that only 1 percent actually skied less.

Count Harriet Warner among those who will hit the slopes more than ever. In addition to Tahoe, she and her husband are flying to Vail, Colo., Snowbird, Utah, Big Mountain, Mont., and even the French Alps, though she’s still annoyed about increased baggage fees. When the new charges were announced earlier this year, Warner and a fellow member of the New Jersey–based West Long Branch Ski Club put up a protest website where skiers could email angry letters to the airlines. About 1,000 did—to no avail.

As a result, Warner is packing more creatively. She wears her parka when traveling and packs her ski boots into her suitcase instead of carrying a separate boot bag. Her helmet, however, won’t fit in her purse or laptop carry-on. “I’m thinking about wearing it to the airport,” she says. “If everyone did, it would send a message to the airlines.”

- Paul Tolme

Does a Bear Ski?

If ski industry executives aren’t losing enough sleep over rising fuel and airfare costs, add a wobbly economy to their insomnia. But perhaps the news isn’t as grim as it appears: While recessions and bear markets are linked to drops in consumer spending, skiing historically correlates weakly with economic cycles. The reason is twofold. Skiers are largely drawn from the upper economic ranks of society, so their spending habits are less affected by the market. Secondly, skiing is more closely tied to snowfall than to the economy. Typically, if it snows, people ski. If it doesn’t, they don’t.

– John Fry



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