April 21, 2013

Skiing in Maine: It's best to keep a balance between 'sport' and 'business'

By Josh Christie

Now that the 2012-13 ski season is more or less in our collective rear view mirror (though I hope to get a few more days in), it's a good time to reflect a bit on the ski business. The end of April isn't just an opportunity to look at the season we just had, it's a chance to consider the ski business as a whole.

Unfortunately, things are a bit grim out there.

Every year, the National Ski Areas Association (the trade association for ski area owners and operators) tallies the number of skier and snowboarder visits for the season. The most recent numbers are from last year with an estimated 51 million visits. While that may sound like a lot, it's both a 15 percent drop from the prior season and the lowest number of visits in over two decades.

Certainly a lot of the issues can be blamed on the snow. Last season's dismal weather shortened the ski season everywhere, with resorts here in the Northeast operating with a season 13 percent shorter than the year before. Good weather has typically meant better numbers, and when the NSAA drops their 2013 number next month, we'll see if visits rebounded.

Anecdotally, evidence for this season is mixed. Conversations with ski area operators in Maine (some of which John Christie reported on for Skiing in Maine a few weeks ago) show a guarded optimism. Many hills, especially community resorts that rely heavily on natural rather than manmade snow, reported strong seasons both in terms of skier visits and income. On the other hand, I spent weekend days at ski areas where I could ski right onto the lift without hitting a line. Great for me as a skier but not necessarily a great sign for the resorts.

The bigger issue for resorts in Maine and around the country may not be bad weather and declining visits, but simply fewer skiers and snowboarders. In just over a decade, the number of skiers (defined as people 7 years of age and older who ski more than once in a calendar year) has remained fairly flat. The NSAA counted 7.4 million skiers in 2000, and a slight decline to about 6.9 million in its most recent count. Snowboarder numbers, once an area of steady, reliable growth, have also finally flattened out at just over 5 million.

These visitor numbers present us with the depressing fact that even when there's lots of snow on the hill, ski areas need to close if there aren't enough folks on the slopes to cover their costs. In a candid Facebook post on March 24, the Camden Snow Bowl responded to some skiers grousing they had closed;

"We have operated 70 days this year It becomes a financial decision after this time frame has been met. It costs around $4,800 per day to operate the mountain, last weekend when we ran the special of $17 tickets (half price) we sold 37 tickets."

At this time most ski areas in Maine have cut back to only running lifts on weekends or closing completely. It's a bummer to see snow on a closed mountain, but given the financial realities of the business we should probably be thankful for the resorts that stay open as long as they do -- sometimes at a loss -- to serve their communities.

With all the news of declining visits and flat growth, there are bright spots. Some particularly promising stats have come from Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month, an annual drive to bring new people to the slopes with discounted beginner packages.

The initiative, started in 2009, brought 153,000 new folks to ski areas in January -- an increase of 50,000 over 2012, and a far cry from the 20,000 participants when the program started.

The huge number is an encouraging sign. It suggests that while there are deterrents -- travel, expense, weather -- the desire to participate hasn't disappeared.

Here in the Northeast (and Maine in particular), where skier visits and participation have declined less than in other parts of the country, we're incredibly lucky to have a mix of different models serving skiers and snowboarders. From corporate ownership to community management to partnerships like the MRA, Maine is in many ways a laboratory for the ski business. Groups like Winterkids get kids started skiing, Gould and CVA turn them into world-class athletes, and Ski Maine strives to make skiing more affordable for everyone.

My father has confided to me that the easiest way to get disillusioned with the sport of skiing is to get too caught up in the business of skiing. Digging into the wax and wane of annual or decennial ski stats, it's easy to see where this sentiment came from. So I'll leave the deeper analysis to experts.

Happily, if you're looking at the skiing, it would be hard to call this season anything but a rousing success.

Josh Christie is a freelance writer and lifetime outdoors enthusiast. He shares column space in Outdoors with his father, John Christie. Josh can be reached at:

joshua.j.christie@gmail.com

 

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