VAIL, Colo. - As a Brooklyn transplant, Denver businessman Sid Wilson didn't start skiing until he was 43, at the urging of a Colorado co-worker.
Now at 65, he won't ski anymore. "The last thing you want to do when you're in your 50s or 60s is break something," Wilson said.
Yet the ski and snowboard industry could use more people like him: While his friends are shifting to cross-country skiing or snowshoeing as they age, Wilson still goes to ski areas regularly to foster his newer love for snowboarding.
"To be my age and be able to still participate in a new venue, there's a great 'cool factor.' It's really fun," said Wilson, who has a season pass to Echo Mountain outside Denver.
Resorts have planned for at least a decade for a fast and furious drop-off of visits from baby boomers who helped build the industry but who will likely cut back as aching knees, hips and backs set in.
Older baby boomers, now 55 to 64, started dropping out more rapidly at 54, said Nate Fristoe of the research firm RRC Associates, and now younger boomers, ages 45-54, are approaching that birthday.
"It's pretty darn urgent. Now we're on a roller coaster that we're just at the crest of," Fristoe said Wednesday at an industry conference sponsored by Avon-based Resort Technology Partners.
Despite a 12-year-old campaign to get snow sport newcomers to take lessons and become avid mountaingoers, the conversion rate from newbie to active participant has only risen from about 15 percent since 1999 to about 16.7 percent today, according to RRC's research.
Women are dropping out faster than men around age 40, Fristoe said, which in turn can affect vacation plans for the whole family.
In the midst of those shifts is a slumping economy that helped dampen skier visits to 57.3 million last season, down from a record 60.5 million or so in the 2007-2008 season, according to the National Ski Areas Association.
For now, the industry is still in the sweet spot of attracting baby boomers and their children, said Vail Resorts Inc. Chief Operating Officer Chris Jarnot. In fact, skier visits nationwide have routinely been around 57 million for the last decade.
Yet there are shifts.
Destination resorts like Aspen or Vail have watched boomers fall in love with a mountain, make a tradition of bringing their families there every year, and maybe even buy property nearby, Jarnot said.
"I think that pattern is going to die with that generation," Jarnot said.
Younger generations are looking for diverse, novel, extreme experiences, which might mean resorts reconnecting with visitors every four or five years, instead of every year, he said.
Customers under 30 are also more culturally and ethnically diverse and may have other ideas for vacation besides ski resorts, Fristoe said.
"For years, the infrastructure was set up to appeal to the 55-year-old white male," Fristoe said.
Things are changing though. In the last decade, more resorts have embraced snowboarding, added terrain parks and boosted offerings beyond skiing, for instance with summer mountain biking. Blue Mountain Ski Area in Palmerton, Penn., is considering getting into the water park business, CEO Barbara Green said.
Vail Resorts has started offering guided skiing for groups, so customers can still ride the mountains like a local without shelling out big bucks for individual private lessons.
Customer service is key, and so is grooming for families, resorts said.
And there's room for growth, said Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort CEO Matthew Drake, who expects low, double-digit percentage growth in skier visits this season, thanks to good snow.
His region of the Pacific Northwest places a strong value on outdoor recreation over sitting on the couch.
"The snow sports industry can do a lot to improve the health of the nation, get folks out improving their fitness with family and friends," Drake said.
That sounds about right to Wilson.
"It's no fun to go up and just watch other people ski," he said.