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Looking to the future

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Gaper Day is in the rearview mirror, the bikes are out and sales of rubber dinghies have already started.

(Please, please do NOT abandon your plastic boats in the River of Golden Dreams or in the lakes.)

So what kind of winter season was it? For the most part the conditions were great, with Mother Nature providing plenty of snow to slide on—and a couple rainy winter days as well to keep us humble.

It was the first winter season fully under the mantle of Vail Resorts after its purchase of Whistler Blackcomb for $1.4 billion, and there is no doubt that the beginning of the season left much to be desired on just about every level, from customer service to pass products to employee satisfaction.

Late last week, Pique's editorial team was offered a chance to sit down and chat with Vail Resorts' CEO Rob Katz while he was in Whistler on a whirlwind visit. He welcomed us with an open smile and a let's-get-down-to-business demeanour. But, as the questions continued, it felt a little like Mr. Katz thought maybe Whistler was a bit of a whiner. After all, the resort is incredibly successful (and we are grateful for that), and perhaps it was somewhat unrealistic of us to think it was just going to be business as usual after being purchased by one of the biggest ski resort companies in the world. Vail Resorts and its staff worked incredibly hard to honour all that Whistler Blackcomb is, he said. (See related article on pg. 26.)

Have we become complacent? Are we a bit spoiled in our bubble of success? Do we feel entitled?

After all, though we clearly are a must-see destination all year round, we are defined by our snow-sliding alpine activities, and just about every study out there right now is showing long-term numbers in these sports either flattening or in decline.

It's true that according to the latest figures from the Canadian Ski Council, B.C. saw the biggest numbers it's seen for nine years in the 2016-17 season: 6.7 million skier visits.

States the Ski Council report: "Overall, Canada performed quite well in total skier visits (18.8 MM or +14.5 per cent year over year) with the second-best showing in the last nine years. This growth is, however, deceptive, as much of the number was generated by increased visitation in the international market.

"The participation by Canadians in skiing shows a gradual, but steady, decline over the past nine years."

It goes on to say: "Overall, the Canadian market is getting slightly older (41.8 years vs. 40.5) in terms of average age. The market continues to see age-related fallout from our aging baby boomer segments and slow adoption by the youth segments in the Millennial and GEN Z categories. Certainly, the participation in terms of days skied per year is markedly lower (-30 per cent) in the younger categories."

There are myriad reasons for these changes, from the economy to the cost of skiing and boarding to changing demographics, and more.

And, of course, climate change is nipping at the heels of our ski boots.

How does an industry weather these slings and arrows? According to Katz, it does what Vail Resorts and others are doing: consolidating ownership into a few hands with resorts spread across the globe so that success and challenge balance each other out.

The other elephant in the room is simply the changing demographic of the average skier.

A Skiing Essentials survey in 2014 found that almost 32 per cent of American skiers started on the mountain between the ages of two and five years old, and a whopping 82.5 per cent began before the age of 18. Of those that started before the age of 18, 94.5 per cent are still skiing. There is no reason to imagine the same trend isn't true for Canada.

While we can each play a role in fighting climate change, we have to accept that we can't stop its impact on the ski industry at this point.

But what can be done by Vail Resorts and others is to focus on keeping the number of mountain users steady and even growing them—and that means getting them young. We need affordable ski-school programs, subsidized ski programs in elementary schools, parent ski passes, so families can enjoy the sport together, and we need to keep club programs strong all the way through high school. Whistler Blackcomb has a raft of these types of programs including a program for kids in Kindergarten, though sadly the programs that used to run throughout the elementary school years that both my kids enjoyed are gone.

"As an industry, it's a high-priority concern," Paul Pinchbeck, president of the Canadian Ski Council, told Explore Magazine in February.

"We built the sport on the feet of baby boomers. They're getting older and finding other things to do with their leisure time. The younger generation is still skiing, but not as much, and for new Canadians, skiing's not something they've been exposed to. Add it all up and fewer Canadians are skiing even though the population is growing."

As always, there's more work to be done.

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