Aspen, ski industry face challenge of replacing older, loyal skiers

Local Aspen senior skiers Judy Bleiler and Harry Richard ski on Ajax on Dec. 29.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times

Old skiers never die, most of them just don’t ski as much as they used to — and that’s creating a challenge for Aspen Skiing Co. and much of the ski industry.

The youngest of the baby boomers are now 54 years old, an age when the aches and pains increase while time on planks or bike saddle decreases.

Aspen Skiing Co. President and CEO Mike Kaplan summarized the problem succinctly earlier this winter in a meeting with the Pitkin County commissioners.

The ski industry as a whole faces a “flat skier visit environment,” he said. People have less free time and more competition for the valuable leisure time they do possess. Ski trips are competing with cruises, trips to Las Vegas and beach getaways.

On top of that, the baby boomers who led skiing through its dramatic growth in the 1970s and ’80s and have maintained the industry as loyal customers are “aging out,” Kaplan said.

“We need to work hard on diversifying our customer base,” he told the commissioners.

In 2005-06, baby boomers were responsible for 31.1 percent of skier visits nationwide. By 2014-15, that dipped to 21.5 percent, according to a demographics profile in the National Ski Areas Association Winter Journal in 2015. NSAA is a ski industry trade group based in Denver.

Last season, 14.8 percent of skier visits were attributable to baby boomers, according to NSAA’s most recent data. Many resorts offer discounted tickets to older skiers.

“It is important to introduce younger generations to skiing and riding to replace those who are aging out,” said Adrienne Saia Isaac, marketing and communications director for NSAA. “This is especially important as it becomes more difficult to take on a new activity as one gets older.”

Data show that about 56 percent of skiers and snowboarders first explore the sport at age 10 and younger. Only 5 percent have their first on-snow experience at age 31 and older.

Older skiers are valuable to the ski industry because they tend to have the time and money to spend more days on the slopes. The average number of anticipated days on the slopes was 9.1 for skiers and riders 65 years of age and older. That’s higher than any group other than 17 and younger.

Ski resorts are optimistic they are making progress replacing boomers because Generation Z, ages 21 and younger, comprised the largest percentage of the U.S. skier visit pie last season. They attributed for 34 percent of all visits and that share is “rapidly growing,” Isaac said.

Generation X, ages 38 to 53, and millennials, ages 22 to 37, are “holding steady” on skier visits, Isaac said. Gen X was at 24.8 percent of all skier visits last season, while millennials were at 25.2 percent.

NSAA based its demographic profile on surveys of 93 ski resort operators that accounted for nearly 62 percent of nationwide skier visits. There were also 195,000 on-site surveys conducted at member resorts.

Given the changing demographics, NSAA’s big push for several seasons has been growing the sport by retaining more “never-ever” skiers. A whooping 83 percent of beginners drop out of the sport, according to NSAA.

“Nineteen percent of (all) skiers and snowboarders continue in the sport long-term,” NSAA’s website said. “Millennial and Gen X participants ski and ride less than prior generations.”

The ski industry is trying to boost the retention rate by promoting lessons and offering package deals. There is no “silver bullet,” the trade association said, but the industry is making progress by working on a shared goal.

NSAA unveiled a “Conversion Cookbook” in January 2018. The exclusive information is for NSAA members to use to transform newbies to the sport into passionate, lifelong participants.

“With participation rates at a plateau, changing demographics, time constraints, and low beginner conversion rates, these challenges point to the need to dramatically improve our level of engagement with beginners, and to help them become committed skiers and riders,” the introduction to the Conversion Cookbook says. “Our collective attempts to get more people to participate in the sport have never been more relevant and urgent.”

The industry is trying to entice participants into buying season passes. Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Co., a sister of Aspen Skiing Co., are engaged in a full-fledged season pass war that’s making a multi-resort ticket more affordable. Online deals also are available for multi-day tickets. But the single-day window price at some big-name resorts is sure to cause sticker shock.

Kaplan didn’t provide details to the county commissioners on how Aspen Skiing Co. plans to recruit replacements for the baby boomers, but some of the plan is evident. Skico aggressively pursued landing the Winter X Games in 2002 and has retained them ever since at Buttermilk. The contract with the ESPN sports network is set to expire after the games are held Jan. 24 to 27.

Jeff Hanle, Skico’s vice president of communications, said special events are a key to attracting a younger crowd.

“If we can create vibrancy and action with concerts and events and new amenities like the Lost Forest — that engage and entertain visitors across all ages — we feel we can create life-long customers,” Hanle said.

Interestingly, the Lost Forest is an assembly of summer on-mountain attractions designed to lure families during the warm-weather months. Skico executives have said summer holds the greatest potential for growth.

Skico also hopes its environmental activism helps with younger customers.

“We believe that our public stance and work in sustainability and social justice resonates with a young audience, and Give a Flake is an example of that,” Hanle said, referring to the company’s activism campaign for this winter.