Among ski area managers across the United States a new jauntiness is evident. Times are looking better. After sputtering for two decades, the industry is finally growing once again.
For ski areas, it’s not just a matter of stealing market share from one another. The pie of customers has actually been getting bigger, the first time since baby boomers came of age 25 years ago.
Consider the last three years. There was terrorism, stock market pneumonia and war – not once, but twice. They should have spelled disaster for the ski industry. Instead, the U.S. ski industry had three of its four busiest seasons ever, the first prolonged growth since numbers began flattening in 1979.
Canadian ski areas show similar numbers. More than 18.5 million skier visits were recorded in Canada in each of the last three winters – an increase of nearly 1.2 million skier visits over the previous record.
A miracle? Not really. Population demographics have begun to favour the industry once again. The 78 million baby boomers, who are now aged 40 to 58, are lingering on the slopes longer than expected. They are more healthy and vigorous than any generation before, and the new shaped skis combined with improved grooming may keep them on boards 10 years longer than originally expected.
Echo boomers, aged 21 and younger, are now dancing onto centre stage, about 71 million strong, providing nearly as much demographic punch as the original boomers. If the ski industry can get this generation as interested in snow sports as their elders have been about skiing, the good times will roll.
Michael Berry, president of the Colorado-based National Ski Area Association, is already upbeat. He traces the surge to the 2000-2001 season. From the previous high of 54 million skiers in the United States that had been the benchmark for a decade, the national tally leaped to 57.3 million. Added to that were a record 18.5 million skiers in Canada.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and Washington D.C., the near halt in long-distance travel, and the stock market skid, deflated skier numbers might well have been expected. Instead, they held at 54 million. Then, last season, despite the outbreak of war against Iraq during March, numbers jumped again – to a new record of 57.6 million. Canadian ski areas have totalled 18.9 million skier visits each of the last two winters.
Berry says he wouldn’t be surprised if U.S. skier numbers surpassed 60 million within the next few years.
"We would expect this growth to continue for five to 10 years – that’s what the demographic data are telling us," says Berry.