U.S. ski industry up, Aspen Skiing Co. down in pandemic plagued winter

Ski industry logged its fifth best season ever

A group of skiers and snowboarders make it down the mountain on Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, at Snowmass Ski Area. (Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

While the U.S. ski industry logged its fifth-best season ever in 2020-21, Aspen Skiing Co. experienced a tough winter during the pandemic.

Denver-based National Ski Areas Association announced Tuesday that the country’s resort recorded about 59 million skier and snowboard rider visits this winter. Many resorts were able to capitalize on the high desire of people to get outside during the COVID-19 pandemic. One big trend was that people stuck close to home and skied at their hometown hills or ski resorts closest to them, according to NSAA.

Aspen Skiing Co. faced a tough time because international travel was almost non-existent and fewer “long haulers” within the U.S. ventured out for trips, according to Jeff Hanle, Skico vice president of communications.

“Those two pieces are really what we didn’t see this year,” he said Tuesday.

The year started slow for Skico because Australians couldn’t travel here in droves as they usually do in January. Group business was wiped out because of capacity limits and physical distancing requirements. Numerous domestic travelers canceled trips as the pandemic worsened and Pitkin County required arrivals to sign an affidavit acknowledging they hadn’t had COVID symptoms for 10 days and have either been vaccinated or have received a negative COVID-19 test result within 72 hours of arriving in Pitkin County. Visitors also were required to quarantine for 10 days if they were not tested before arrival.

In addition, the snow was crummy in January. All those factors added up a rough start of ski season.

“January and the beginning of February were about as bad as they could be for us,” Hanle said.

Ski season by the numbers

– U.S. ski areas logged about 59 million skier visits. It was the fifth busiest season ever.

– Rocky Mountain region (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico) totaled 22.5 million skier visits. The average for the prior 10 years was about 21.1 million.

– Aspen Skiing Co. was just below 1.2 million skier visits. “It certainly wasn’t our fifth-best season ever,” spokesman Jeff Hanle said.

Sources: National Ski Areas Association and Aspen Skiing Co.

In contrast, mid-March to mid-April was better than even a “normal” year, according to Hanle.

“We came out just short of 1.2 million visits,” he said.

That was down between 3% and 4% from 2019-20, which was on pace for a record before ski season came to an abrupt end by order of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on March 14, 2020.

However, Skico was down about 20% in skier and snowboarder visits for its five-year average, according to Hanle.

Local skiers and riders took advantage of their opportunities on the slopes. Season pass sales and use soared.

“We did see really strong pass use,” Hanle said.

While Skico officials are optimistic about building off the late-season momentum next season, there is still plenty of uncertainty. The prime booking period for many overseas travelers is coming up soon. Skico and partners are providing incentives by promising full refunds on lift tickets and lodging for international guests who find they cannot travel next winter because of the pandemic.

“At this point we don’t expect to see the Australians in January (2021),” Hanle said.

For the U.S. ski industry as a whole, 2020-21 exceeded expectations. The latest season was on par with 2018-19 when there were 59.34 million visits.

The ski industry’s record season was 2010-11 when there were 60.54 million visits. The 2007-08 season was the only other one to top 60 million.

The 10-year average for national skier visits is nearly 55 million, so that puts the strength of the latest campaign into perspective.

After being forced to close abruptly starting March 15, 2020, most resorts were able to stay open the entire season this winter. The average U.S. resort was open 112 days this winter compared with 99 days the prior campaign. In NSAA’s annual Kottke End-of-Season Survey, 78% of resorts that responded said the season exceeded their expectations.

“Small- and medium-sized ski areas (defined by lift capacity) performed well this winter, with more guests choosing to stay close to home for ski trips, and increased local demand for outdoor recreation in general,” NSAA said in its statement.

Many resorts were forced to adopt capacity limits of skiers and riders on the slopes and at indoor facilities such as restaurants. The pandemic also enhanced the trend of the ski industry to encourage advanced lift ticket purchases.

Window sales of lift tickets fell from 46% in 2019-20 to just 17% in 2020-21, according to NSAA. Visits from pass use increased from 45% in 2019-20 to 51% this winter.

Skiers and riders also showed their flexibility by hitting the slopes more frequently on weekdays. Weekday visitation was responsible for 48% of total visits. That was up 27% from the season before, according to NSAA.

A strong season for skier visits didn’t necessarily mean resorts raked in the cash. Revenue data is still being analyzed, but NSAA noted that ski lessons fell by 30% season over season. Public health orders prohibited large groups, so ski areas had to offer smaller classes.

Hanle said Skico officials aren’t despairing because national visits were up while Skico was down. The 2020-21 season proved people want to be outdoors and they still want to hit the slopes, he said.

“We don’t look at it as people did better than us,” Hanle said. Instead, company officials say the message of the season is that people still want to ski and ride. “Better luck next year” is the prevailing attitude.