Baby boomer fade-out a key topic at ski resort meeting

Bob Berwyn
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. ” If the ski industry wants to get some idea of where it might be headed as baby boomers age and start to think about dropping out of the sport, they could check in with local life-long mountain man and skier Bob Craig.

The founder of the Keystone Center is a pre-baby boomer. He’s 85, to be exact, and this year he skied 80 days.

The industry doesn’t need to get all the boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) to ski that often. In fact, a modest percentage of that group would be enough to ensure some stability in skier numbers during the coming decade.

“I go out every day that I can,” Craig said, explaining that he’s as likely to be cruising on a bluebird day as during a powder session. He says visibility is his only handicap, so when the wind blows too hard, he takes it easy.

Craig says he’s not sure the industry has done enough draw early wave boomers to the sport, citing a recent emphasis on youth and snowboard culture. He said that advances in technology, especially skis and grooming, have made it easier than ever for older skiers to stay in the sport.

“I don’t know if the industry has reached out enough,” he said. Convincing boomers that they can continue skiing into a later age might be easy enough.

“It’s so much more appealing than it was,” said Craig, explaining how the technical refinements have added value to the sport. With fast lifts and well-groomed trails, skiers can go out at 8:30, ski for two hours and feel like they’ve had a good exercise session, he said.

“It’s an important generation. Their grandkids are coming along. Also, more and more older people are skiing independently. I don’t know that the industry has really talked to them,” Craig said.

Ski resort executives will take the boomer topic to heart this week during the annual convention of the National Ski Areas Association, May 13 -16, in Florida.

“For better or worse, our core customers are made up of baby boomers,” National Ski Areas Association president Michael Berry said in an interview with The Industry Report. “In a few years, we’ll see the leading edge baby boomers move past 65, and the likelihood of them participating in significant numbers start to diminish.”

Berry said the conference will focus on the aging of the baby boomers and what it means for the ski industry.

The convention follows a winter season that saw about 57 million skier and rider visits, in line with the industry’s five-year average.

“As the baby boomers reached their mid-50s, all we had to do was groom it up better, serve great Alfredo, and make the skis easier to turn, and we did all those things,” Berry said.

Dr. Joseph Coughlin, founder and director of MIT’s AgeLab and a member of the White House Conference on Aging, will deliver the keynote address May 14.

Berry said Coughlin would discuss implications of the aging boomer population, the impact of the reduction of older people’s net worth, and how that affects the ski industry.

The experts will try to determine whether the aging factor, as well as the economy, will affect one sector more than another, and most importantly, to develop a replacement strategy.

“For everyone that exits we need to bring 1.5. We’ve been talking about this for a decade, but it never loses its poignancy; it becomes more poignant as the leading edge baby boomers reach their mid-60s,” Berry said.

“A decade ago we were telling people we need to focus on a couple of things, in particular bringing new people to the sport ” called trial and conversion, and focusing on retention of our core customers,” Berry continued.

“Over the last decade, we’ve seen numbers grow 15 percent. Now it’s 10 years later and, within four to five years, we’re going to have to start replacing them at a significant pace, by bringing in beginners. No one segment of the industry is going to be tasked to this to the benefit of some other segment. Little guys are not going to be tasked while big guys benefit. Everybody’s tasked, everybody going to have to do it. That’s a lot of what we’re going to talk about in Marco,” Berry said.

The season that just ended turned out to be average, and better than anticipated given the free-fall of the stock market, the collapse of all facets of housing, rising unemployment, fluctuating energy costs and global economic turmoil.

“Going into this season, we said, ‘Be reasonably optimistic. If it snows, we’re going to have good numbers.’ The way the numbers shook out, even at destination resorts, there are some that are going to have a pretty good story to tell in terms of skier numbers. Some in the Northeast set records on records,” Berry said.

But as resort towns know, those numbers tell only part of the story, as resort visitors clearly cut back on spending for ski school lessons, restaurant meals and new gear.

Berry and other analysts said the ski industry held its own against competing leisure activities. Executives are hoping to see stock markets rise and consumer confidence go up. With another winter of decent snows, things could be improving in time for the crucial winter holidays next year.

“Again, we’ll be looking at weather trends; we’ll want to see good strong trends toward winter early. People book later and later; that’s been the trend for a decade or more. People want to know it’s going to be great when they get there, so with the exception of Christmas week, people are going to hedge until they know the snow is there.