Ski resorts must get better at luring new people to the sport and keeping them there - their futures depend upon it.
That was the message from Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association in the U.S., to ski industry leaders gathered in Whistler this week.
The writing has been on the wall for the past decade - baby boomers are hanging up their skis and no one new is replacing them on the mountains.
It's a trend that could have serious ramifications to a ski industry already struggling in the current global recession.
According to Berry, the industry as a whole has to become more strategic and savvy about how it addresses this problem in the years to come.
"Our success rate in drawing new people to the sport... has to be significantly better than it's been," said Berry at the Canadian Ski Council's annual conference in Whistler this week.
"We think it's a formidable challenge but we think it's an achievable challenge."
It was the same task that was laid out to the industry a decade ago.
Berry said they've dodged a bullet these past 10 years because they've been able to keep more boomers skiing longer. Skiing has never been better these days - relatively short lift-lines, fast chairs, great on-mountain amenities, excellent customer service. Those things are all keeping the existing customers coming back for more.
But the harder challenge, drawing new people to the sport, has proven more difficult these past 10 years.
The beginner conversion rate has jumped just a modest 1.7 per cent in that time period, from 15 per cent to 16.7.
Berry said efforts must be focused on the much more difficult and complicated task of bringing new people to the sport.
"The real issue is we've had no significant increase in trial and conversion," said Berry.
To listen to Berry is to listen to someone who lives, eats and breaths skiing. He is, like the audience he was speaking to, one of the converted.
"The lure of the sport, the lure of the activity, it changes lives," he said.
"The world is a different place for skiers and snowboarders.
"It's the phenomenon that allows people to alter their relationship with friends, family and their world view.
But how does the industry as a whole get that message to someone who's never been? Or how do they get a beginner to keep coming back?
There has to be a concerted effort by resorts, said Berry, to create a culture within the organization of valuing beginners.
Organizations must find ski school instructors who have that knack of making people fall in love with the sport, no matter how many times they fall down the mountain.
The boot fit and ski rental process must be seamless and painless and less intimidating. Take the ski shops out of the boiler rooms, said Berry.
Another point to bear in mind is that all important "value equation."
"For all groups at the end of the day, fun must outweigh the dollars spent and the hassles to get there," said Berry.
This past season more than 57 million people went skiing in the U.S. Without any intervention by industry leaders to convert more beginners to core skiers, that number could plummet to just over 40 million by the year 2020. But that's the worst-case scenario.
The best case scenario would see the visits grow to almost 79 million by retaining more baby boomers longer and converting more beginners.
What is likely to happen lies somewhere in between: the industry develops a strategy to entice more people to the sport, does more work to keep boomers skiing longer and the result is a modest growth of skier visits to between 62 to 66 million.
At the end of the day, however, those baby boomers, who make up 30 per cent of the existing customer base, are on their way out of the industry within the next decade.
It's a message the NSAA in the U.S. will be hammering home again and again, reminding the industry that it has an obligation to recognize this huge challenge.
Leaders from across Canada and the U.S. attended the CSC's conference in Whistler this week.
The Canadian Ski Council said Tuesday that 18.4 million visitors hit the slopes from roughly the November 2008 to March 2009 period, down from a record 20.5 million visitors the season before.
The 2008-09 season was the seventh best for Canada's ski and snowboard industry in the past 15 years, the council said.
Alberta had the steepest drop in visitors this past season with 17.4 per cent fewer skiers and snowboarders on their mountains compared to last year. Quebec saw its visitors fall 11.8 per cent year-over-year, British Columbia was down 11.2 per cent and Ontario was down 4.7 per cent, while Atlantic Canada was up 9.1 per cent.
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