Winter Sports

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Ski Tourism: Up? Down? Who Knows?

18 May, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Depending on Who’s Doing the Talking, Winter of 2014-2015 was the Best of Times, Worst of Times

When it comes to ski tourism and travel for the winter of 2014-2015, statistics have been floating around; basically, they can be categorized as follows:

  • The ski resort industry has never been better

  • The ski resort industry has never been worse.

  • It’s not an exaggeration. SDM has been following the reports throughout the year – and learned there seems to be very little dependable info. For example, according to data released by DestiMetrics, ski resorts in the Western U.S. were expecting record lodging sales based on booking patterns and economic indicators for the 2014-15 winter season despite a lack of snow in some areas. The final tally was expected to put revenues more than 10 percent ahead of last year and 4.6 percent above the pre-recession record established in the 2007-08 season, according to DestiMetrics. And yes, that was an early report. But in New England, the Boston Globe gleefully reported that President’s Day weekend saw packed resorts and that business was booming for New England’s resorts. In fact, noted the article, the snow was expected to result in a longer, more profitable ski season. Resorts including Killington, Sunday River, and Sugarloaf, each year compete to be “king of spring,” staying open longer than their competitors and allowing skiers and snowboarders to take their final runs as late as June.

Out west, the news was also good. Even as late as April 28, SGB Sports One Source noted that Vail Resorts, Inc. reported retail/rental revenue for resort store locations was up 3.8 percent for the ski season through Apr. 19. And not to be outdone, Intrawest Resorts Holdings reported an increase in skier visits in its fiscal third quarter, ending March 31. (Intrawest owns Blue Mountain in Ontario, Canada, and also owns controlling interest in five other North American mountain resorts, including Steamboat and Winter Park in Colorado, Stratton in Vermont, Snowshoe in West Virginia and Mont Tremblant in Montreal).

So far, so good, right? Well,after that, all the news went down that slippery slope. On May 6, a report came out (also from SGB), that ski resort visits for 2014-2015 had declined to a 16-year low.

Really? Says who?

The Denver Post, that’s who. In an article published on May 5, the Post noted that data from the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) showed total visits fell five percent to 53.6 million during the 2014-15 winter season. The newspaper noted that even New England resorts, which enjoyed abundant snow and cold weather, reported a decline in visits, while dry conditions in the Pacific Northwest, the drought in the Sierra Nevada and below average snowfall in Utah and parts of Colorado also resulted in lower visitation.

"The resorts in the Pacific Northwest, from California's bone-dry Lake Tahoe area to Washington State, endured a crippling 36.3 percent decline in visitation from 2013-14 season, which saw a 19.4 percent drop," the article states.

Confusion reigned. Colorado’s Summit Daily, SnoCountry and Ski Area Management, three media outlets serving the winter resort communities, all quoted Destimetrics as follows:

As of March 31, occupancy rates at resorts were up 5.9 percent over previous years, which the media called ‘nearly an all-time record.’

So what changed? Well, the weather, for one. The Summit County News in Colorado noted that a dry, warm spring had negatively impacted resort business.  And the Denver Post said that California’s snowless winter had also played a key role.

But even so – why the lack of data that across the board, would explain success or failure for the ski resort industry? One reason might be that some resorts are actively pursuing tourism in non-snow arenas, which skews the data. In an article entitled “Even when skier visits fall, resort revenues climb, the Denver Post noted that many areas are seeking to host other activities, such as mud runs, mountain biking and more. (And there's always the darker possibility that nobody, particularly those who market destinations, wants to spread bad news.)

At least the sports tourism industry isn’t the only area confused by the conflicting reports pouring out this winter. In a late December article entitled, “Up or Downhill with these Ski Resort Stocks? Do NOT buy or sell SNOW, MTN or SKIS until you have read everything,Snow Cap Network discussed the inconsistencies among various resort properties and the way these properties performed – and the way they predicted their performances in advance.

But as the winter of 2014-2015 fades in the rear-view, resorts are already looking forward to the next season. And when that happens, the industry may be able to expect another bumpy ride on the moguls of statistics.

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