If you ventured out to the mountains this season—and if you’re reading this, we bet you did—the data shared this week by the National Ski Areas Association will come as no massive surprise. The pandemic was not the ski-season-killer that some thought it might be. In fact, looking at the numbers, it was a pretty darn good season when it comes to participation.
Skier visits to U.S. resorts totaled 59 million for the 2020-’21 season, eking into the top 5 best on record at No. 5. The NSAA has been keeping track of skier visitation since the 1978-’79 season.
“What a year it has been. From utter uncertainty to a top 10 season in terms of participation—it shows the wide spectrum that our industry bridged this year,” says Kelly Pawlak, president and CEO of the NSAA. “Americans yearned for safe outdoor recreation, and ski areas across the country delivered.”
In addition to basic numbers, the NSAA also shared other important takeaways from the season, many of which aligned with how most of us who visited the resorts saw the season play out.
For one thing, ski areas stayed open for an average of 112 days, so there were no widespread closures that truncated the season. Second, smaller resorts fared well, with many reporting higher visitation than usual with skiers either choosing to stay within driving distance or being forced to by pandemic restrictions.
While the NSAA’s report doesn’t include stats on revenue from food and beverage and other ancillary sales, all signs point to those numbers being down due to base lodge closures, limited or no indoor dining, and skiers using their car as a defacto warming hut/cafeteria/base lodge.
That said, the resorts did an impressive job of pivoting to offer Covid-friendly services to bridge the gap whenever possible.
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“People had to change their habits during the pandemic, and ski areas were no different,” says Pawlak. “We tried new things and quickly learned that not only did they function as planned but many of these ‘work arounds’ improved the experience for our guests and staff members. Ski area operators will use this experience to continue trying new techniques and technology.”
One of those pivots was the transition to a reservation system requiring advanced lift ticket purchases, and in turn, window sales of lift tickets plummeted from 46 percent in the 2019-’20 season to 17 percent last season.
Another significant shift was when people skied. Previous seasons saw the predictable majority of skier days on the weekends. This past season, thanks to reservations and the remote workday, weekdays accounted for 47 percent of visitation—that’s 27 percent higher than the previous year.
Aspiring ski bums, take note: One of the biggest numbers to come out of the NSAA report is around staffing. A whopping 60 percent of ski areas were short-staffed last season. Part of it was the fact that international workers weren’t allowed into the U.S. due to the pandemic, though the NSAA reports that the average ski area was down 55 employees, only half of whom would have come on visas.
Despite all the challenges, 70 percent of resort executives say that the pandemic ski season surpassed their expectations. Is that because expectations were low going into the season? Perhaps. But it’s more likely due to the ingenuity and grit that ski areas and skiers showed throughout the season, adhering to mask rules, packing lunches, and employing brand-new technologies in the name of keeping the slopes open and the lifts running all season long.
“We are proud of the collaborative adoption of COVID-19 best practices that all ski areas implemented and diligently followed from opening to closing day,” says Pawlak. And “we are very appreciative of the support and cooperation of our customers, and the tenacious and diligent work of our staff, the combination of which resulted in a successful season.”
Here’s to slightly fewer restrictions in the coming season.
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