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Does the U.S. Ski Industry Have a Future?

The Exchange

The winter of 2011-12 was a rough one for the U.S. ski industry. The snow wasn't falling, the economy was still in recovery mode and people just didn't go skiing. In fact, last winter was among the worst ski seasons on record, as skier visits nationwide dropped by some 10%, according to the National Ski Areas Association.

Blame the lack of snowfall, says David Belin, director of consulting services with RRC Associates, a Boulder, Colo.-based consumer research firm specializing in mountain region travel and tourism.

"The saying in the ski industry is that snow trumps the economy," he says. "If you have a bad economy and good snow, the ski industry does great. But a good economy with bad snow is worse for the ski industry."

And last season was a really bad one. The 51 million total U.S. ski visits in 2011-12 were the lowest in 20 years. And, oddly enough, the collapse came on the heels of a record high in 2010-11 when 60.5 million skiers visited U.S. resorts. "We went from a record high to a 20-year low, so we're expecting a good bounce this winter," Belin says.

It's a roller coaster business, for sure, and all of these fluctuations put pressure on the big multinationals that are behind most of the world's ski areas. Vail Resorts (MTN), for example, which operates six resorts in Colorado and California, saw a 12.1% decline in total skier visits in its fiscal year 2012 (which includes last winter), though the company did manage to eke out a 1.9% increase in mountain segment revenues for the period to $766 million, thanks largely to cost cuts, higher pricing and increased season pass sales. Vail's year was boosted by solid growth in the offseason, as well, as summer revenues across the company rose 11.3% to $46.4 million.

And the Vail experience is typical for the big corporate resorts. Despite the fact that skier visits were down almost across the board last year, many operators managed to stay in the black with cost cuts and other bottom line moves, including investments in higher efficiency snowmaking equipment.

"The resorts have always been pretty nimble in terms of modulating their costs depending how the season is going," Belin says. "There are obviously a lot of fixed costs, but they can modify their labor levels, change around shifts and do other things to make up for reduced revenue."

Still, RRC is predicting that capital expenditures will total just $189 million industry-wide this year. That's down from $300 million in 2011-12 and $277 million in 2010-11, driven in large part, Belin says, by cuts in real estate capex spending. "The demand side of real estate in these mountain towns is definitely down," he says. "It slowed way down in 2008 and in some areas it is starting to come back slowly, but it's still nowhere near where it was in the mid-2000s."

Change Is Coming

Travelers shouldn't expect to see many cutbacks at the resorts themselves this year, says Jennifer Rudolph with Colorado Ski Country USA, a trade group representing 22 of Colorado's ski resorts, though it will happen eventually.

"Anything that the resorts are doing this year is not a direct result of last season," she says. "A lot of these projects have been planned for many years, so they're going to be going forward with them. What we're seeing now are more guest facing improvements — new restaurants, more on-mountain dining, new guest activities."

But the state's ski operators aren't blind to reality, she says, and they're getting creative in coming up with new ways to offset revenue losses. More and more resorts are offering multi-area season passes that give buyers access to multiple ski areas on one pass, and other are leveraging relationships with the airlines and local lodging operators to create all-in-one packages for out of state travelers. Summer activities are also becoming more important, with resorts are adding year-round options like ziplines and mountain biking in order to offset winter season shortfalls.

"You can't help but be optimistic when you work in the ski industry," Rudolph says. "It's got to snow, that's all there is to it."

Even if it doesn't, travel habits are changing too, says John Montgomery, managing director with Horwath HTL in Denver, and the resorts are being forced to adapt. Gone are the days of the extended, one-week family vacation. Today's travelers just don't have time for that.

"If you went skiing 10 years ago you booked for a Saturday arrival and you'd leave the following Saturday," Montgomery says. "Come hell or high water, that's what you're doing. But now, with the advent of the Internet that allows people to check ski conditions and book more short-term travel, a lot of ski vacations are being book for 3-4 days at a time. They may not be able to get away for a full week but they can come for a long weekend, and that's what we're seeing."

Lodging Remains a Bright Spot

High end hotels, however, are doing better than the ski areas themselves, according to Brett Russell with hospitality industry consulting firm HVS. As a general rule, he says, resort town properties like the Ritz Carlton and the Four Seasons are less sensitive to snowfall than the resorts themselves, and so have been better able to weather this latest downturn. Those that include ownership properties — a cash cow for hospitality companies even during the real estate slump — have done even better.

"Take a place like Bachelor Gulch in Beaver Creek," Russell says. "Most people who stay there are coming out no matter what the snowfall is. They're flying in from New York or L.A. and they aren't changing their plans based on the weather."

The real trouble for ski area lodging, unlike the areas themselves, he says, has been the slumping economy. Back in 2008 many high-end ski hotels were forced to cut their rates dramatically in order to fill their rooms, and a lot of them still haven't been able to raise rates back to where they were pre-downturn.