Boomers dominate slopes

Scott Condon
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Aspen isn’t the only ski resort dominated by wealthy, old, white guys with a lot of time on their hands.

The ski industry’s customer base aged significantly in the last decade, according to a demographic study released this month by the National Ski Areas Association, a trade group based in Denver. Skiers and snowboarders also tend to be much wealthier and whiter than the population as a whole. And the mix is stuck at about 61 percent male, the survey showed.

NSAA said 92 of 485 ski areas in the U.S. participated in the survey last season. It talked to 138,919 customers.

The survey’s most significant findings might be on the graying of skiers and riders. The average age jumped from 33.2 years in 1997-98 to 36.6 years last season.

The number of skiers and riders 45 and older showed “strong growth” while there were proportionate declines in younger age groups, the study said.

The number of customers between ages 45 to 54 increased by 5.5 percent over the last decade. Customers 55 and older doubled over that period.

That news “is a double-edge sword,” said NSAA President Michael Berry. It shows that the ski industry is achieving its goal of retaining aging baby boomers, people roughly defined as between ages 45 and 61. There are so many baby boomers that the industry would be in deep trouble if they abandoned the sport, Berry said.

On the other hand, the aging demographics show the industry must eventually make adjustments. Even if it draws young customers, they won’t come in numbers high enough to offset future losses.

“The aging baby boomers won’t be here forever,” said Aspen Skiing Co. Senior Vice President David Perry.

A direct comparison between the national data and Skico survey results is impossible. The Skico surveys adults only. Thus, the average age of skiers and riders surveyed in Aspen-Snowmass is 43.7, Perry said. It’s been flat the past few season, perhaps reflecting success in one of the Skico’s marketing goals of attracting a younger crowd.

If kids were factored into Aspen-Snowmass data, Perry said his best guess is the average age would be between 39 and 41. The Skico has one of the oldest customer bases in the industry, he said. Destination resorts, which rely on travelers taking overnight trips, tend to have older customers.

Perry noted that while the average age nationally is climbing, it’s flat for the Skico. The number of skiers ages 55 to 64 increased last season for the Skico, he said, but so did the ranks of customers between ages 18 and 24.

The demographic study probably surprised no one by verifying the skiing appeals mainly to wealthy white people.

“My biggest concern is the whiteness of the sport,” Perry said.

The Skico regularly hosts national conferences of the National Brotherhood of Skiers, predominantly black ski clubs, and urges local Latino youth to join ski programs. But efforts to diversify locally and nationally “have a long way to go,” he said.

The NSAA study said the number of whites among the industry base has hovered between 86 and 89 percent for several years, with the level of minorities fluctuating between 11 and 14 percent.

About 30 percent of skiers and riders reported a pre-tax, household income of less than $50,000, compared to 53 percent of total U.S. households.

On the other end of the spectrum, 29 percent of ski industry customers reported household incomes between $100,000 and $199,999 compared to 14 percent of the U.S. households.

And 17 percent of skiers had incomes greater than $200,000, compared to only 3 percent of the population at-large.

Aspen-Snowmass customers are even wealthier. One-third of Skico customers have household incomes greater than $200,000, Perry said. And 8 percent top $500,000.

Aspen has always been one of the resorts that people dream about, Perry noted. The wealthy can afford to go where they want, and many choose Aspen-Snowmass. It’s always been that way, he said.

“I don’t think we need to be ashamed of that,” Perry said.

One potential red flag for the industry is that younger skiers and riders tend to have lower incomes. If they aren’t attracted to the sport, it will have repercussions down the line.

But Berry noted that small ski areas near cities are flush with youngsters. Those ski areas are regarded as “feeders” for the destination resorts that dominate in the Rocky Mountain region.

Berry maintained that the ski industry is in no danger of evolving into an elitist sport with a limited future. While baby boomers dominate now, plotting the average age would produce a “three-hump camel” graph, he said. Young skiers and generation Xers, which fall in age between boomers and kids, account for impressive subsections of the customer base, according to Berry.

The demographic survey showed that “core” skiers and riders, those truly dedicated to the sport, are hitting the slopes more than ever. A decade ago, 37 percent of skiers and riders said they would hit the slopes 15 or more times. That jumped to 45 percent last season, the NSAA survey said. Meanwhile, the number of skiers and riders who said they would venture out between four and 14 days dropped.

“We’re in really good shape in the industry,” Perry said.