The ski industry is planning to adapt to the graying of the slopes – and not from lack of snow but from the aging of the ski enthusiast population. Resorts have planned for at least a decade for a dramatic decline of visits from baby boomers who helped build the industry but who will likely cut back as aching knees, hips and backs set in.
Older baby boomers, now 55 to 64, started dropping out more rapidly at 54, research firm RRC Associates shows , and now younger boomers, ages 45-54, are approaching that point. Despite a 12-year-old campaign to get snow sport newcomers to take lessons and become avid resort visitors, the conversion rate from beginner to active participant has only risen from about 15 percent since 1999 to about 16.7 percent today, according to RRC’s research.
Women are dropping out faster than men around age 40, which can strongly affect vacation plans for the whole family. And, in the midst of those shifts is a slumping economy that helped dampen skier visits to 57.3 million last season, down from a record 60.5 million or so in the 2007-2008 season, according to the National Ski Areas Association.
For now, the industry is still in the sweet spot of attracting baby boomers and their children, said Vail Resorts Inc. Chief Operating Officer Chris Jarnot. In fact, skier visits nationwide have been relatively consistent around 57 million for the last decade.
But changes are apparent – destination resorts like Aspen or Vail have watched boomers fall in love with a mountain, make a tradition of bringing their families there every year, and maybe even buy property nearby. But given forecasts that the next generation’s earning potential will be less than their parents, this may not be a long-lived trend.
Younger generations are looking for diverse, novel, extreme experiences, which might mean resorts reconnecting with visitors every four or five years, instead of every year, predicted Jarnot. Customers under 30 are also more culturally and ethnically diverse and may have other ideas for vacation besides ski resorts.
Some changes already reflect the shift in demographics. In the last decade, more resorts have embraced snowboarding, added terrain parks and boosted offerings beyond skiing, for instance with summer mountain biking. Breckenridge is considering getting into the water park business, and Vail Resorts has started offering guided skiing for groups, so customers can experience the mountains like a local without the price tag of individual private lessons.