This is the time of year when ski areas are busy crunching their final numbers and measuring how the ski season went. Nationally and regionally, the 2012-13 winter was a big improvement from the season prior, but the numbers varied across different parts of the country. What are some of the most important figures that ski areas track about their performance? The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) collects data on ski area operations and performance in the annual Kottke End of Season Study. A mouthful of a name for sure, but it provides a wealth of great information about the industry. Let’s dig into a couple of key indicators for ski areas in the US as documented in the Kottke report.
- Snowsports Visits. This is the Big Daddy number for the industry: how many total days did people ski and snowboard at resorts in the US? Often called skier visits or skier days, it’s the “least common denominator” figure across ski areas large and small that tells the overall volume of business in the industry. Nationally, the 2012/13 season generated 56.6 million visits at US ski areas, up 11 percent from the 2011/12 season (which was the worst season in 20 years). The rebound was the biggest percentage gain in 30 years – clearly a big relief to many in the business.
Every region in the US posted gains in visits. The Northeast and Pacific South regions witnessed the biggest bounce back, with increases of over 20 percent. Ski areas in the Southeast and Midwest also recorded double-digit gains in 2012/13. Rebounds in the Pacific North and Rocky Mountains were smaller, but still positive.
- Snowfall. Snowfall tends to be a dominant driver of visits to ski areas (pretty well stating the obvious, but it still needs to be said). Even though visits were up for the season, snowfall levels nationally were actually below average. It’s easy to forget that is was a mediocre snowfall season because it was such an improvement over the 2011/12 winter in every part of the US. But snowfall, and visits, got off to a slow start (similar to the prior winter), and many observers were anxious that the 2012/13 season would be a repeat of the season before. By mid-December, however, many ski areas across the country started to get good snow and cold temperatures, setting up the industry for a strong Christmas holiday season, a very important period for business. Due to the improved snowfall, the average ski area was able to stay open 6 more days this winter, with some ski areas extending their closing dates or even re-opening because of late-season snow conditions.
- Season Passes. The number of season passes sold per ski area declined on average, but the average number of days each season passholder used their pass went up. In total, the share of visits from people with a season pass declined, to about 37 percent from 38 percent in 2011/12.
Last season’s generally poor snow conditions discouraged many season passholders from getting out on the hill as many days as they usually do. The improved snow in 2012/13 (though still below average) had the opposite effect, when the average season passholder skied or snowboarded 10.5 days (up from 9.9 days in 2011/12). If you had a season pass, you probably made more turns this season.
- Snowboarding. Snowboarding trended down for the third consecutive season, declining to under 30 percent of total visits. This figure is down gradually from 32.0 percent four seasons ago (2009/10). As we have discussed in this blog previously, snowboarding appears to be leveling off, if not declining slightly, as it matures as a sport. Snowboarding is not the growth engine it once was, which has implications related to business volumes and spending for the industry.
Snowboarding has declined the most in the Pacific South region, though it remains the region with the highest share of visits attributable to snowboarders (42 percent). The mix of people on the hill who are on a snowboard is lowest in the Rocky Mountain and Northeast regions (24 and 26 percent, respectively). You just don’t see as many snowboarders in Vermont or Colorado as you do in California or Michigan.
Ski areas rebounded nicely this winter, with loyal season passholders and day ticket buyers returning to the slopes. Many ski areas will soon be opening for summer operations, including golf, zip lines, water parks, mountain biking, and other activities. Despite the warm weather diversions, ski areas are already planning for next winter, which will be here before you know it.