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Ski Resort Life

What Now: A Silver Lining for Ski Resorts?

Skiers are spending less and searching for better values—forcing ski resorts to compete harder than ever. Could the economic downturn have an upside for skiing?

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Like most skiers, Mitch Holmes is scrutinizing his budget a lot closer these days. The Cape Cod resident would like to take his wife and children on a ski vacation to Colorado, but those plans have been scrapped due to the weak economy. “I’m in commercial real estate, which isn’t exactly hot right now,” he says. Instead, Holmes is skiing more at his home-state hill, Wachusett Mountain.

Holmes is part of a growing demographic of “value” skiers, who continue to ski just as much as in winters past—but spend less to do it. Skiers are getting creative at ferreting out the best deals: Holmes plugged Wachusett’s dozen pass options into a spreadsheet and calculated which ones deliver the best value for the estimated 16 days his family planned to ski this winter. Holmes chose the $300 weekend pass for himself and his wife.

“It pays for itself in 12 days,” he says. For his son and daughter, Holmes purchased a pass that provides a $10 discount on daily tickets, with every fifth day free. “I used to buy full season passes without thinking, but this year I decided to crunch the numbers,” he says. “Those of us who love skiing have to find ways to make it affordable.”

In the midst of the worst economic downturn in the history of modern skiing, Holmes illustrates that the conventional wisdom holds true: If the snow is good, skiers will find a way to ski. Last winter, as banks teetered and the stock market tumbled, U.S. ski areas had their fourth best year ever, recording 57.4 million visits. This winter’s numbers are projected to be similar, or maybe even up slightly. “For skiers and snowboarders, there is no substitute for getting out and riding,” says Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association. “You can’t go to Disney World and get that same rush.”

However, the amount skiers are willing and able to spend on the slopes has declined sharply. Skiers are changing the way they approach the sport, staying closer to home and splurging less. “Skiers are spending more judiciously,” says Rusty Gregory, CEO of California’s Mammoth Mountain. “They’re saying, ‘Maybe it isn’t necessary to buy that new parka or take those private ski lessons.’”

Skier visits at many destination resorts, especially those that are more remote, have dropped. Airline travel has declined 20 percent since 2008. And skiers who do fly are waiting longer to book.

“Skiers who used to buy packages are now assembling their trips a la carte,” says David Belin, director of Colorado-based research firm RRC Associates. “They’re booking the cheapest airfares and holding out until the last minute for lodging deals.”

The consumer shift toward delayed bookings and the refocus on cost is putting an emphasis on competitive pricing. “We have to be much more nimble in our marketing initiatives,” says Crested Butte marketing director Daren Cole. To entice more drive-up visitors, the Colorado resort is offering “staycation” packages that include lift tickets and lodging for $99 per person nightly.

The reemphasis on value can be seen before a skier arrives at the slopes. For instance, airfares into Aspen are the lowest they’ve been in two decades.
Mammoth Yosemite Airport now offers two daily nonstops from Los Angeles for $138 roundtrip, as well as daily flights from Reno, San Jose, Portland and Seattle. “We want to make it as easy as possible for skiers to visit,” Gregory says. “Times are tough. We all have friends who have lost their jobs. Now more than ever we need to provide a great reason for skiers to continue visiting.”

While some remote resorts have seen skier visits fall, smaller New England resorts have enjoyed the opposite. “Last season was our best ever, and it came on top of our previous best the winter before,” says Wachusett CEO David Crowley. Nearby Jiminy Peak had record visits two seasons running. “Customers are telling us that they want to ski, but they chose not to travel to Europe or Colorado,” says Jiminy Peak marketing director Betsy Strickler.

Resorts are also collecting profiles of their customers and tailoring their marketing efforts accordingly. “We know which customers are last-minute bookers,” Strickler says, “and we can be more aggressive in giving them special deals.”

Season passes have never been more popular. Vermont’s Okemo Resort sold a record number this winter, and resorts including Squaw Valley, Calif., have dropped their pass rates to boost sales.
Eldora Mountain, Colo., the local hill for Boulder-area skiers, offered a last-minute discount pass last fall to entice area skiers to its slopes. “I wasn’t going to get a pass, but it was such a good deal,” says local resident Brent Griffith, sipping a $4 pint in Eldora’s base lodge. “I feel justified spending money in the bar because the pass was so cheap.”

On-mountain dining is also feeling the pressure. Mammoth severed its contract with a high-end company this season and took over in order to control, among other things, cost. “More areas are offering food vouchers along with discounted tickets,” says RRC’s Belin. “You can’t expect to sell $12 hamburgers in this economy, especially to children who only eat half of it.”

Nobody thinks the poor economy is good for skiers, but resorts are being forced to get back to basics: good skiing, good value, good service. “You can’t take the customer for granted in an economic slowdown,” Berry says.