The changing face of snow sports: 

Mountain planners look to non-traditional markets and mountain upgrades to change flat skiing numbers

click to flip through (5) PHOTO BY SKI CHINA/FLICKR.COM - A rental hall employee at Sun Mountain Yubuli ski resort.
  • Photo by Ski China/
  • A rental hall employee at Sun Mountain Yubuli ski resort.

After decades of no significant growth in the skiing industry, the core of the market — baby boomers — is slowly dwindling, leaving mountain resorts with a dilemma: How can they attract more people to the sport?

It seems an odd question considering Whistler Blackcomb's current season and recent Renaissance initiative. After a disappointing 2014-15 season marked by little snow and fewer visits, the resort now reports one of its most active seasons yet with a 21-per-cent increase from last year — good timing for the announcement of an $345-million investment to boost year-round visits with the Whistler Blackcomb Renaissance project. It's also a welcome milestone to mark Whistler's 50th anniversary with a total of 1.14 million visits by Feb. 10 this year — the highest number at that point of the season in the company's history.

Rob McSkimming, Whistler Blackcomb's vice president of business development, credits the increase to a massive snowfall and the low value of the Canadian dollar.

"For international markets that are choosing between us and the U.S., it gives us a 40-per-cent difference. That's something that works in our favour," he says, adding that the widening disparity between the two currencies has encouraged more Canadian skiers and snowboarders to travel west to Whistler. "If you're in Ontario and thinking of where you're going, it's getting prohibitive to go down to the states. I think we're benefitting from that."

Historical trend shows lack of growth

This season's visits are encouraging for Whistler Blackcomb, yet a look at skiing activity over the last 20 years shows the 2015-16 season to be an unusual high point for a sport that has ceased to increase its participants. Since the late 1990s, the number of seasonal visits averages two million. The busiest season on record was in 2001-02 with 2.23 million, while the lowest turnout occurred in 2009-10 with 1.67 million visits as the economic downturn took its toll on skiers' pocketbooks. Last season brought 1.77 million skier visits to Whistler Blackcomb.

The sport's lack of growth has fuelled opposition to Garibaldi at Squamish, a $3.5-billion, all-season resort proposed to be built 15 kilometres north of Squamish, and just down the highway from Whistler. With a proposed 124 runs, 18 chairlifts and three gondolas, plus a series of multi-purpose hiking and biking trails, and other summer and winter amenities the Aquilini Investment Group plans to build a version of Whistler, which will support hundreds of jobs.

But some people believe the skiing industry can't support another resort in the region. Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said the development threatens her community's viability as a tourist destination, while Whistler Blackcomb president Dave Brownlie believes Garibaldi will add to the challenges facing existing ski resorts.

"When you look at an overall flat market in North America for 20 years, you look at the climate change issues, building a resort in Squamish makes absolutely no sense," he said in a May 2015 article in Pique following a Canada West Ski Areas Association conference.

Across the continent participation in skiing and snowboarding has changed little since the late 1990s, averaging between 70 and 80 million visits from 1998-99 to last season's North American total of 70.7 million. Over the last 20 years skiing numbers have remained stable across Canada as well, usually ranging between 17 and 19 million. Skier activity peaked at 20.34 million visits during the 2007-08 season, and the final tallies from the country's resorts have been fewer than 19 million visits since.

Canadian residents have accounted for 80 per cent of this activity, a stable domestic participation in the sport. But while Canada's population has grown, the percentage of the country that regularly engages in alpine skiing and snowboarding has declined, falling from 8.6 per cent in 2002-03 to 5.9 per cent last season.

Demographics show decline in baby boomer skiers

For more than a decade Canadian Ski Council President Paul Pinchbeck has been watching visitation trends closely to find ways to grow the sport. He sees significant data in the number of skiers and snowboarders who take to the slopes at least six times a season.

"It's no secret that Canadian skiing has been flat, and the number of core skiers in Canada has been flat as well," admits Pinchbeck, noting the effects of the industry's dependence on the generation born after the Second World War.

According to the Canadian Ski Council's demographic data from 2015, the country's largest participation group is Generation Y (the Millennials), the category of 14- to 32-year-olds that has increased over the last decade from 700,000 to 845,500 annual skier visits. Generation X, aged 33-48, is second with 637,800 visits.

Since 2005 the number of 49- to 55-year-olds participating in the sport has declined from 500,000 skier visits to 361,840 in 2014-15, while older baby boomers have been more stable at just under 200,000 visits a year over the last decade.

This aging demographic accounts for a smaller portion of the industry with 41,860 visits recorded last season, but this group is the most active with an average of 13 visits in 2014-15. The typical baby boomer who skis has a dozen outings a year, a dynamic that cannot be underestimated as this group's participation declines, observes Pinchbeck.

"As baby boomers move out of the sport, they're taking an average of 12 or so skier visits per year with them," he says. "We're replacing them with younger skiers who are skiing less frequently. Our research would suggest they're (skiing) about six times (a season)."

Adds McSkimming: "The baby boomers draw so much of the growth in skiing, and as they get older and participate becomes a challenge of who is going to replace that market.

Immigrants essential for skiing to grow

These demographic trends threaten the markets Whistler and other Canadian resorts have relied on for generations, a phenomenon that makes immigrants and visible minorities who have not grown up with skiing essential for the viability of the industry, says Pinchbeck. He links the future of the country's ski resorts to the ethnic composition of Canada, a nation that would not have grown to its current population of 35 million without a steady reliance on immigration. Over the last 10 years, visible minorities continue to join Canada's skiing and snowboarding community, increasing from 9.9 per cent in 2005-06 to 13.3 per cent last season, according to the ski council.

"Probably the biggest change is that the ski industry really looks like the population of Canada," says Pinchbeck. "The population of Canada is changing from a largely Caucasian population to one of...over 200 different ethnic categories."

Mountain planners across Canada have already considered this factor in their long-term strategies by placing a greater emphasis on novice runs. This is a major consideration for Whistler Blackcomb in 2016 as $8 million in capital investments include upgrades with more beginner terrain to help newcomers become comfortable in the sport.

McSkimming believes these upgrades, follow Whistler Blackcomb's goal of luring new skiers to the mountains.

"We are really active in trying to get people to try the sport for the first time, and once they do, make sure that we give them a good enough experience that they're going to want to come back," he says.

The Renaissance project, a multi-phase initiative is designed to boost the destination's year-round appeal. The first phase includes an aquatic centre at Blackcomb's upper base, 90 kilometres of additional mountain-bike trails, a treetop course with ropes, a children's snowmobile and ATV area, new snow-school learning zones, as well as a replacement high-speed lift to connect Blackcomb's lower and upper bases. Whistler Blackcomb has long-term plans to increase its skiing terrain by 25 per cent.

Brownlie says the goal of the Renaissance project is to attract new skiers.

"Ten years ago, other than kids in our kids program, you didn't see the number of new skiers and riders that we're seeing today," he says. "In a large respect we're driven by second-generation (and) new Canadians into the Greater Vancouver area. We're seeing significant demand in that area and we need to find a way to provide the terrain, facilities and the opportunity for these folks to learn how to ski and snowboard."

Of note as well, the skills of those who head up the mountain have changed over the last generation, according to Whistler Blackcomb's latest stats.

"The majority of ski resort visitors throughout the 1980s and early 1990s were middle-aged with disposable income and were relatively skilled/experienced skiers," cites the Whistler Blackcomb Annual Information report that was released in December. "However, technological progress within the ski industry, including innovations in ski, snowboard equipment, clothing, lifts, grooming and snowmaking equipment, have enabled a new, less skilled or experienced group of individuals to enjoy skiing and snowboarding."

"Everything is getting better and making it easier to learn," says McSkimming. "Those are all factors that will hopefully draw growth down the road."

Adds Pinchbeck: "There's no doubt that each resort would value more teaching terrain.

"When you think of the days of the '80s when it was, we'll drag you up to the top of the hill and sending you down is how you learn to ski with your friends — now the focus is on delivering a quality experience from the pre-arrival to the lesson experience and all the way to the followup," he says. "The leading resorts in Canada are definitely focused on terrain balance."

Looking to the Far East

Developing terrain balance that encourages new skiers and snowboarders to return to Canadian resorts is particularly important to lure travellers from outside of North America. In Whistler this market accounts for as much as one quarter of the resort's annual skier visits in recent years, and WB has high hopes that participation from countries without a long tradition in the sport will grow.

Resort operators are encouraged by recent initiatives from Ottawa's new Liberal government to make it easier for people from Mexico to get Canadian travel visas, says McSkimming, yet enormous potential lies across the Pacific Ocean in Asian countries.

"We've always done well with some of the more developed markets there, like Hong Kong, and Singapore," he says. "As the actual Chinese mainland market develops, we think again that's an area where we're looking to for some opportunity for growth in the future."

The China Ski Association estimates approximately 10 million people in the country participate in the sport — representing just one per cent of China's total population. With resort developments growing in China's mountainous regions, and the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics approaching, resort planners on both sides of the Pacific are hopeful that interest will grow to make skiing a common family activity.

A recent report presented at the Asia Pacific Snow Conference in Beijing indicates a surge has already begun. According to Vanke, one of China's largest residential real-estate developers, the country's ski resorts drew fewer than 10,000 a year in the mid-1990's —­­­ but by 2015 interest in the sport had grown to 12.5 million participants.

Whistler Blackcomb has responded to this trend by recruiting ski instructors who speak Mandarin and Cantonese. These multi-language staff members currently total 30 of WB slope experts.

"If you look at China, if the numbers that are being talked about there are even close to real, then that's a big addition to the number of skiers in the world," says McSkimming. "It's not a question of: Is the population there — it's can we provide that population with an interesting enough proposition to come up and enjoy time on the mountains?"

The proposition for Chinese visitors entails a different approach than catering to Canadians or other skiers from countries with a longer history in the sport. Some mountain planners developing resorts in China have observed that as few as half of the visitors who come to the mountain actually strap on skis or a snowboard. Others appear to be more comfortable watching the new sport and its scenery from the comfort of a restaurant or spa.

"It's a different background, a different culture," says McSkimming. "A certain element of the Chinese culture, as we understand it, is looking to go skiing the way we might think of tobogganing. It's kind of a winter (event) — we would hope that they would start to embrace it as more of a lifestyle activity."

Chinese resort development

Although it has a short history with the sport, skiing resorts have blossomed in China over recent years. By the end of 2015 Vanke counted 568 resorts — a 25-per-cent increase from the previous year. Included in the country's plans is a development near Lhasa, Tibet, a project planned to be the world's highest ski resort.

The Whistler-based Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners is at the crest of this wave, developing several large resorts in China, including the Thaiwoo Four Season Destination Resort that opened its 18 kilometres of trails in December. The facility is planning on hosting events in the 2022 Winter Olympics.

"We think the Chinese are going to learn how to ski, we think they're going to take to it like ducks to water," says Ecosign president Paul Matthews. "Once they learn how to ski, they're going to start travelling, and I would say that Whistler would be one of the first ones they would try because of the great (flight) connections we have from Beijing to Vancouver."

Ecosign was also involved in the Changbaishan International Resort that opened in 2012 within a mountain range that extends along the border with North Korea. Changbaishan offers 40 kilometres of skiable terrain, with accommodation available at Park Hyatt, Sheraton and Westin hotels.

Matthews says most of China's new ski areas are built on undeveloped land with an emphasis on magic-carpet conveyor belts and other methods to help beginners take to the sport.

"What we're doing is designing huge new resorts, most of them Greenfield resorts, brand-new ones, with huge beginner areas, like 15 football fields of beginner area with 25 magic carpets on it," says Matthews.

Adds Brent Harley, head of Brent Harley and Associates, another group of Whistler-based mountain planners who have directed their attention to China: "It's a very different market from what we have here... they haven't traditionally been skiers."

The firm is developing another resort in the Changbaishan region, where snowmaking capacity is essential for skiing destinations to deal with unpredictable weather patterns.

"Two in eight (resorts) are going to be short of snow, so you want to have that as your insurance program," says Harley. "In the case of China proper it's something that they should be very, very aware of in any of their planning, just because it's silly to build a ski resort if you can't make snow."

Harley says mountain resorts are normally designed under the formula that 20 per cent of skiers will be beginners, 60 per cent fall into the intermediate skill category, while another 20 per cent are experts on the slopes. But some different considerations come into the equation when planning a development in China.

"In China that would currently be skewed to the beginner side of the equation — but we've found that as soon as they engage, as soon as any market engages, it's going to rapidly reflect what that bell curve is all about," Harley explains. "It's part of the growth of their industry, that people will be interested in going and seeing the resorts and seeing the activity on the mountains. Maybe they'll engage, maybe it will take a generation."

The rapid growth of China's economy over the last generation has created fertile ground for resort development. Matthews has seen the effects China's growing middle class first-hand since his early trips to the country in the mid-1980s.

"In 1986 it could have been 1886, quite frankly, they were so far backwards," he recalls. "It's amazing the wealth that's been created, the size of the middle class — the number of millionaires and trillionaires, billionaires all just keeps growing."

Promoting a Canadian experience

Attracting Chinese interest to skiing — to new resorts in both China and North America — points to the industry's need to engage with unconventional markets. As is the case in North America, participation from European countries with a long tradition of skiing has levelled off, a sign that the European market has reached its "maturity," says Matthews.

"They have roughly a 350 million population and 175 million skier days in the EU region," he says. "It hasn't really moved much in the last 20 years."

Despite the lack of significant growth in skiing participation since the 1990s, those at the helm of Canada's industry are optimistic this season's encouraging numbers can continue if resorts can reach out to new skiers and snowboarders.

"Skiing to me is the only winter family sport," says Pinchbeck. "Getting our new Canadians into a snow sport is a critical thing for us. Ultimately, I believe that it's possible. I believe that it's very much a part of being Canadian, being outdoors, to be active and be a part of snow and ice sports."


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