All things considered, this may not be the best year to learn how to ski or snowboard. The snow sports industry has found it difficult to attract newbies in a “normal” year and this one is shaping up to be anything but “normal”.
Less than three percent of the U.S. population participates in the sports and the industry has been trying for years to boost its numbers. National programs such as Ski It To Believe It, Winter Feels Good, Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month have come and gone over the years and the trend line for participation has remained relatively static.
“Skier Visits” is the statistic used by the industry to calculate participation (ie the number of times skiers and/or snowboarders visit a resort in a given season regardless of ability). About 10 years ago, the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) conducted a research study called the “Model for Growth”. It made recommendations on how to attract new customers, dissected the barriers to participation and it also included a chart that compared doing nothing proactive to grow participation with doing something.
In the 2008-09 winter, there were 59.2 skier visits, according to NSAA research. The projection for the 2018-19 season was 71.3 million assuming a proactive approach and 48.7 million if the industry did nothing. The actual number was 59.3 million so about the same as ten years ago. So much for growth. This year’s shortened season garnered 51. 1 million, an almost 14 percent decline. The number of skier visits has never gotten above 60.5 million and has hovered between about 51 million and 60.5 million during the past 10 years.
Ski It to Believe It was short-lived. Winter Feels Good was discontinued in 2009 (after five years). Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month was terminated in 2019 after a ten year run. There are other “learn to” programs that still operate but none on a grand scale. A number of them focus on “underserved youths.” While none of these and other learning programs have attained the original participation goal they may have at least kept the industry relatively stable because they targeted newcomers.
The ramifications of Covid will play a large role in the industry’s ability to attract new skiers and snowboarders. Already there have been numerous cancellations of pre-season events designed to get people excited about the sports.
Cost and accessibility have long been barriers to people taking up the sports. A recent NSAA survey among lapsed skiers/snowboarders now indicates “safety” as a reason for dropping out.
Resorts nationwide are grappling with how to handle crowds this winter especially on weekends. Base lodges and cafeterias can get very crowded. “Think of your car as a base lodge” was one recommendation from a resort representative in Australia, a country now in the wind-down stage of their current winter season. Capacity will be limited at U.S. resorts. For the time being at least, they are focusing more and more on their “core customers” also known as season pass holders. Lift lines will have to be re-tooled so skiers and snowboarders can stay six feet apart. Chair lift limitations will be enforced. How do you handle rentals?
It is hard to say exactly what will happen this winter amid so much speculation. There is still time before the North American ski season kicks in and everything sorts itself out. One word of caution in these strange times – Beginners Beware.