With historic droughts affecting one coast, and record snowfall on the other, skier visits across the United States dropped five per cent during the 2014/15 season, according to preliminary figures from the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA).
The U.S. ski industry posted the second-worst season of the last 16 years, with a total of 53.6 million skier visits — still above the 2010/11 season, when skier visits plunged 16 per cent to 51 million.
Overall, visits fell 3.8 per cent below the five-year average.
"The good news is that despite the vagaries of Mother Nature, ski areas have adapted and responded with dramatic expansions and investments in energy-efficient snowmaking," said NSAA president Michael Berry in a statement. "Even in a season where snowfall is off, our guests still get an incredible skiing or riding experience."
Nationwide, snowfall was down 28 per cent, according to early results from the NSAA, even with record snowfall in the Northeast region, where skier visits stayed flat.
Resorts in the Pacific Northwest, stretching from drought-ravaged Lake Tahoe in California to Washington State, were hit the hardest, with a devastating 36.3-per-cent drop in visitation from 2013/14.
While Whistler is able to capture some of those destination skiers from the Pacific Northwest, the severe lack of snow and resulting decline in visitation raises some serious questions across the industry, said Dave Brownlie, Whistler Blackcomb's president and CEO.
"The big concern for the industry is: are we potentially losing a whole generation of skiers and snowboarders?" he asked.
"What's the saying — 'the rising tide lifts all boats?' Well everything sinks in a low tide. It's really not good for anybody, so we want to see those local and regional mountains do well."
The situation was less dire in the Rocky Mountain region, where visits decreased by 2.1 per cent, but remained above the five-year average.
Of course, ski areas on Canada's West Coast weren't immune from the same trends seen south of the border. According to preliminary numbers from the Canada West Ski Areas Association (CWSAA), skier visits to B.C. dipped to five million this season, down 1.5 million from just two years ago.
Whistler Blackcomb saw skier visits drop 9.3 per cent for the quarter, which was primarily attributed to a decline in regional skiers.
Much of the discussion at the NSAA's annual convention this month surrounded the best ways for the ski industry to reach millennials, aged 18 to 34, who account for roughly $430 billion in discretionary income each year.
While other resorts may struggle to attract an age group that is skiing less than past generations, Whistler Blackcomb has managed to strike a demographic balance, according to ski industry consultant Roger McCarthy.
"We have real polarity in the market," he said. "We've got a really strong, young market and then we've got a really strong market of people that have time and money to ski, being retired or semi-retired. In the middle, we've got huge kids' programs."
In order to stay relevant with the younger generation, Brownlie said it's essential Whistler Blackcomb regularly reviews "our product, our experience and our pricing." He also mentioned the growth of the so-called "sharing economy" among millennials, an area with real potential for Whistler Blackcomb — particularly around ride-sharing programs.
"One thing with the millennial group is they love to share, and they're used to buying that way, and I think that's a strong, viable opportunity for them," Brownlie said. "We need to figure out how to capitalize on that or work within their purchasing behaviour and habits to make it easier for them."
Reducing travel costs for visitors — particularly destination skiers — would go a long way towards combating external factors, like weather and the exchange rate, that resorts have no control over.
In fact, a recent study co-authored by Eastern Washington University's Mark Holmgren found that, for some groups, gas and airfare costs actually impacted ski ticket purchasing more than weather.
"The bottom line is we tend to not be competitive on air access costs relative to the States, and that is a significant consideration in terms of purchase decisions for destination skiers," said CWSAA president David Lynn.
To combat that, Holmgren suggested resorts subsidize gas or airfare costs for ticket buyers — a tactic that was more prevalent at Whistler Blackcomb several years ago through "air buy-down programs," Brownlie said.
Holmgren also said offering a wide range of ticket pricing options is key.
"Economic theory says you should charge as many different prices of tickets as you can. We call that price discrimination," he said. "At the ski resort I was analyzing (outside Salt Lake City), they had over a thousand different types of tickets they offered to customers, so that's going to increase your revenues because you can attract people who weren't coming before who are now coming to the resort by offering a discount."
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