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Report: Small resorts blossom

The national ski industry has been on a roll for the last three seasons and expects another strong winter, but questions persist about the health of destination resorts like Aspen.

The ski industry experienced its best season ever in 2002-03 with 57.6 million visits by skiers and snowboarders. The past three seasons have been the best consecutive three-year run ever, according to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), based in Lakewood.

That success has come despite an anemic performance of destination resorts, which rely on customers traveling from out of the area and staying overnight.



“Where the life in the industry is isn’t where we thought it would be,” said Ford Frick, managing partner of BBC Consulting and Research, an acclaimed business consulting firm in Denver. The firm was hired this year to perform a study examining the condition of the national ski industry.

Small resorts, especially those near urban areas, have posted some of the strongest numbers, and they have successfully drawn new customers into the business, Frick said.




NSAA statistics show that the number of visits at the smallest resorts has increased from 16.4 to 17.7 percent of the market. Over that same time, the largest resorts have seen business fall from 48.1 percent to 45.3 percent. “Largest” was defined as capacity of more than 12,000 vertical transport feet per hour.

Resorts large and small that cater to urban dwellers have successfully found ways to draw newcomers into the sport, according to Frick’s report. The industry as a whole has enjoyed success thanks to snowboarding.

About 22 percent of the industry’s customers are part of the “echo boom,” meaning they are children of the baby boomers. The echo boomers were born between 1979 and 1995.

Many of the younger generation were drawn to winter resorts for snowboarding, not skiing. Over the past five years, visits by skiers have been static at about 40 million per season. Over that same period, snowboarder visits have increased from 12.1 million to 17.1 million, according to Frick’s report.

“The introduction of snowboarding, and the rapid rise in telemark skiing, free skiing and a number of other equipment variations, have been a breakthrough for the ski industry ” not just because they drew a new generation of participants, but because they reminded an increasingly stodgy industry that ‘skiing’ was fundamentally about unstructured, outdoor recreation and the individual freedom and adventure that it offers,” said the BBC report, entitled “The American Ski Industry ” Alive, Well and Even Growing.”

The report went on to credit the industry’s success in recent years to a change in attitude from resistant to one of acceptance.

“Skiing, or snow sliding of any kind, does not really need rules, regulations, accepted technique or appropriate attire,” the report said. “Once that attitude became a reality, not a marketing slogan, a new generation signed on.”

While Frick was enthusiastic about the state of the industry, he said destination resorts are fighting a tougher battle.

“It’s more difficult to be enthusiastic for destination business,” he said. Some destination resorts are starting to imitate what smaller resorts have done to draw younger customers. They offer terrain parks and tailor events for a younger crowd.

Frick said the Aspen Skiing Co. is poised to tap into the youth movement because it has four ski mountains. It’s experimenting with Buttermilk-Tiehack, where it hosts the X Games, and its backcountry terrain and bowl skiing at Aspen Highlands has been well received.

“The Aspen Skiing Co. was left for dead several years ago as old and stodgy,” Frick noted. It’s bucking that reputation.

But not all destination resorts are in a position to try changes or they refuse to make them. “I’m not ready to pronounce a revival [of destination business],” said Frick.

Michael Berry, president of NSAA, said destination resorts that are still “riding the wave of the late 1980s” are in trouble. “If they’re positioning themselves with the new customers they’re doing great.”

He noted that many small resorts were closing 10 to 15 years ago, and the remaining mom-and-pop places were trying to figure out how to survive. Now more small ski areas are opening and thriving, and some destination resorts are hurting.

Many destination resorts “weren’t paying attention” three to five years ago when signs were obvious that changes were needed to continue to be successful.

Regardless of changes in the industry, Berry anticipates another strong season, particularly if the weather east of the Mississippi River is cold enough to allow snowmaking and brings snow west of the mighty river. Assuming the weather is cooperative, the ski industry has proven it can “transcend” obstacles like war in Iraq and a slow national economy, Berry said.

“There’s no reason not to expect a year on par with last season or even better,” he concluded.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]


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