Carving up the pie
Stealing skiers is fair game in a flat industry
By Loreth Beswetherick
It’s a bitter battle that is erupting high in the Rocky Mountains and it is one that is symbolic of the state of the North American ski industry — a business that is seeing resorts scrambling to hold onto their chunk of a shrinking skier pie.
Last week Colorado’s ski resort association, which represents 25 resorts in Colorado including Aspen and Vail, took a shot at neighbouring Utah, publicly rubbing that state’s nose in the fact it lost early-season World Cup ski races to Colorado due to a lack of snow.
Some in Colorado, still smarting from last year’s snow drought which saw the area lose 633,455 skiers over the previous year, saw it as a stupid move that served only to draw attention to a lack of snow in the Rockies. As Aspen Skiing Co. chief operating officer John Norton said in an Aspen Times interview, Colorado itself doesn’t exactly have snow conditions worth bragging about right now.
The state’s swipe was apparently to give Utah a taste of its own medicine. Ski Utah’s goal for this season is to try and siphon off an extra million skiers from other resorts, thus increasing their share from 3 million to 4 million visits in what is a flat market — one that has seen no increase, or, depending on who you talk to and who does the counting, a decrease in skier participation over the last 20 years.
With the 2002 Winter Olympics approaching, Utah launched a major marketing blitz aimed at substantially boosting skier visits for this 1999/2000 season. Aspen Skico feels it is not only customers Utah could attract but employees as well.
And, it’s not only Utah that has a beleaguered Colorado nervous, Skico president and CEO Pat O’Donnell, who himself headed up Whistler Mountain from 1990 to 1994, told the Aspen Times Whistler-Blackcomb was wooing valuable skiers. He said Aspen and Snowmass cannot afford to lose customers to places like Whistler-Blackcomb because it costs so much to cultivate new business — about seven times more marketing dollars to draw a new customer than to keep an existing one. "Basically we’re in a market share battle in a flat industry." Colorado Ski Country director of communications Lisa Bremner also accused Whistler-Blackcomb earlier this year of "stealing" Colorado skiers.
Well, truth be told, yes, the local mountains did steal the skiers, said Whistler-Blackcomb vice president of marketing and sales David Perry.
Not only have the local hills managed to hang onto their share of the North American pie but have gone back to indulge in seconds while keeping their eye on a future pie in the oven.
Whistler-Blackcomb’s record 2.14 million skier visits last winter is certainly not indicative of the state of the industry. "We have seen such phenomenal growth here, in numbers of ski visitors and of business in general, sometimes it is easy not to notice what is going on in the rest of the industry," said Perry. "We have been stealing our business from other places."
The U.S industry suffered a 3.7 per cent decline, to 51.1 million skier visits last winter, while the Canadian Ski Council reported a 13.3 per cent increase to 17.35 million skier visits for Canada over the previous year. But, at the same time, the ski council also reported a drop in Canadian active skier participation rates. The CSC said following the recession years of 1981-83, alpine skiing enjoyed a growth in the size of the skier pie annually until it peaked in 1988 at 2.2 million active skiers. From there, the Canadian participation rate shrank 13 per cent from 1988-90 where it seemed to halt for a while before creeping back to almost the 2 million mark in 1996/97 and then slipping down again to 1.5 million active participants from the age of 12 and up for 1998/99. Those figures, do not include snowboarders.
But, as Ed Pitoniak, Intrawest senior vice president of resort enterprises and former SKI magazine editor, points out, how do you count active participants? He suggests skier visit counts, although they include imports from other countries plus snowboarders, are a better way to gauge a sense of participation.
"Visits are the most accurate measure, year to year, simply because there is not a lot of solid data out there on how many skiers and snowboarders there actually are — for example you don’t need to register or obtain a licence to be an active skier or snowboarder." Pitoniak said skier visits will not tell you how many participants there are but will give an indication of the overall intensity of participation. "There are different figures out there for both the U.S., and Canada." Pitoniak said some organizations don’t count participants under 18, which can skew stats. Others count from the age of seven and others from the age of 12. The American National Sporting Goods Association, for example, conducts an annual sports participation survey ranking those of seven years of age and older who partook in a sport more than once over the last year. That survey shows skier participation as having declined by 26.9 per cent since 1993. "There is a wide variability in those numbers," said Pitoniak.
Perry said if the imports from overseas markets and the snowboarders are taken out of the tallies, it would actually show North American skier participation in quite significant decline. While the stats haven’t changed much in the last 10 to 20 years, there were very few ‘imports’ 10 or 20 years ago, said Perry.
Pitoniak hesitates to say numbers have actually gone downhill. "In the U.S. stats have been flat for nearly 20 years but they have not gone down per se." But he is talking total skier visits. He said in 1979 there were 50 million skier visits with an historical high of around the 54 million mark. That peak has been hit a number of times, starting as far back as 1986 and again as recently as two years ago. "This past year was around 52 million so it is truly flat. It varies between two to four and five per cent. In Canada it’s a bit harder to say because I believe there was a change in the way skier visits were counted a couple of years ago."
But, although the numbers vary, no one will dispute the industry is stagnant and analysts seem to agree the future of ski resorts into the next millennium depends on keeping the ageing baby boomer generation on the slopes for as long as they can while at the same time hooking their children on the sport.
It was the boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, that really fuelled the growth of skiing in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. But with the average boomer reaching the age of 45-plus and settling into the family years, the generation’s participation is dropping off for a host of reasons.
Perry said boomers are often juggling two jobs per family, they have kids at home, they are stressed and time is at a premium. "Not enough time, that is what our research is telling us," said Perry. When it comes to making a vacation choice, ski resorts are losing out to alternative leisure and relaxation options, like beaches with deck chairs. "They are taking less active vacations," said Perry. "There are studies that show baby boomers are still very active but, as a whole, as people age, they get less active." As well, when the boomers took up the sport, they participated in vast numbers for a large number of days per person. "As they got older, that starts to decline."
The sport has also traditionally been dominated by the 18-35 age group, and that still holds true, even at Whistler-Blackcomb. It’s a matter of simple math, with the majority of participants now moving out of that age bracket, the industry is affected.
To put it in perspective, Pitoniak notes the number of people born in Canada and the U.S. in 1973 was 25 per cent lower than the number born in 1960. "There is a very neat symmetry in both Canada and the U.S.," said Pitoniak. "In the States something like 4.5 million were born in 1960 while three million were born in 1973 and in Canada it went from 400,000 to 300,000 — the old 10 to one rule — and needless to say, in 1998, you had 25 per cent fewer 25 year olds and that has no doubt affected us," he said.
"Of course it is the population of kids that have been born to baby boomers, the so-called echo boom, that is going to drive growth over the next 15 to 20 years."
By 1990 birth rates were once again on the way up, almost equalling rates in the baby boom peak years. "So, in the year 2000, you will have the greatest number of 10-year-olds around since 1970."
The industry is pinning its hopes for the future on those echo boomers. "They are very, very important," said Perry.
"That is why we are seeing a huge boom in our children’s programs. We have been building children’s facilities and we are bursting at the seams again with the number of kids in our programs because of the echo boomers. The average age of the echo boomer is now 11. It is very important we encourage their participation and there are programs that address that."
One of the industry tactics is to grow the skier pie by targeting those 10 and 11-year olds with programs like the Grade 5 SnowPass, a concept first launched in Colorado in 1996 and picked up in Canada the following season with more than 100 Canadian resorts participating. The intent is to attract kids who haven’t previously skied or snowboarded with the hope they will bring their parents along. The SnowPass gives kids free coupons good for lift tickets plus discounts on rentals, lessons or food items. The program was developed after studies found people who learn to ski or ride at age 10 are most likely to make the sport a lifetime activity. It’s also an age where they can influence parents yet still need parental supervision to participate.
Another key industry initiative is to work retaining customers once they are induced to try the sport.
"We get a lot of people coming up for a first day or novice lesson and they don’t stay with the sport. Our retention rates are not very good with men and very poor with women," said Perry.
"Across the industry we are trying to do a better job of bringing them back and that includes everything from new equipment to teaching methods and the rental shop experience." No longer stuffed in a basement, the rental shop of the future is high end with personalized service, single counter, high-tech equipment, art on the walls and a much easier process to go through than 10 to 20 years ago.
Intrawest is rolling out its new Magic Trax learn-to-ski program this winter. It was specifically developed, in partnership with Rossignol, to make the learning experience easier and fun, with incentives to return. Magic Trax uses specially-developed short, shaped skis in a sequence of lengths.
But it’s not just about growing that skier pie. Ski resorts that will survive into the next millennium are working to broaden the entire resort experience and expand appeal to keep the ageing parents coming. And, that means offering new activities apart from skiing and boarding. "What we have to do is make sure people aren’t leaving in volumes greater than they are joining the sport," said Pitoniak.
"We are diversifying what we offer from a resort perspective and not just thinking about it as a ski or snowboard experience," said Perry. "Most importantly, it’s a recreation experience. Everything is important from eating fine food to going to spas, walking, shopping, reading and snowshoeing through the woods, which is a low stress and low impact activity." Some resorts see up to 30 per cent of guests who don’t ski or ride at all. Whistler attracts around 10 per cent. "They are often here with families but they chose not to go up the mountain, so, we have to appeal to broad family desires. Dad and the 12-year old daughter may want to go skiing but mum might want to go for an aromatherapy treatment," said Perry.
Resorts overall are looking at options like putting in more hot tubs and upgrading the cafeteria experience, which was fine when the boomers were young. There is also a move to make the experience more enjoyable and comfortable for women who tend to drop out of the sport at age 45. "There is definitely a broadening of focus and of business streams. We try to make sure at Intrawest resorts we are not so dependent just on the ski experience or the lift ticket sale — it’s the resort experience," said Perry.
"The future lies both with echo boomers and with their parents," said Pitoniak. "Men or women in their 50s, 60s, 70s or even 80s, need to have activities they can do indoors and outdoors in the mountains in winter."
It is those resorts that work toward expanding the leisure experience that will continue to hang onto their share of the pie and ‘steal’ visits, if not skiers, from other areas while they wait for the little echo boomers to mature in the wings.