U.S. Ski Industry Soars with Record Skier Visits, Capital Investment
Huge snowfalls, megapass proliferation, and Covid-driven outdoor boom stabilize industry operating in an unstable environment
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It’s not just the snow, Stupid.
Snow breeds skier visits. We know this intuitively and we know this factually. So the headline makes sense: in a season during which dozens of ski areas in the mountain West set all-time snowfall records, U.S. America recorded a record number of skier visits.
ChatAI or ExtremeAI or AI Unchained could write that article. In fact I asked ChatGP to try. An excerpt:
The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) has released preliminary numbers indicating a remarkable ski season for U.S. ski areas in 2022-23. With a total of 64.7 million skier visits, there has been a notable 6.6% increase compared to the previous season. … Overall, the ski industry's record-breaking visitation numbers reflect a thriving and resilient sector, driven by favorable snow conditions, enhanced infrastructure, and a growing interest in outdoor recreation. With increasing investment and a recovering workforce, the future of skiing in the U.S. looks promising, providing skiers and outdoor enthusiasts with unforgettable experiences on the slopes.
Which sounds more like it was written by a marketing intern than a supercomputer capable of pulping us back into amoebas. Which means I can probably still outsmart the robots for another six weeks or so. At which point I will either surrender my conscience to the digital void or collaborate with them on a Brobot emulator that will rewrite all of my newsletters in RadBrah patois making fun of tourists who ski with their helmets on backwards.
In the meantime, let me offer this: there is more to this record-smashing ski season than “It’s the Snow, Stupid.” Yes, the big western snows pushed the national average up to 224 inches, a 30 percent bump over the 10-year average of 173 inches. And, yes, that translated to longer average seasons: 116 days, up from 110 for the 2021-22 ski season. But to complicate the story, here are more numbers from the NSAA:
Big snows alone do not explain the strong skier visits: the Pacific Northwest set a new record with 4.5 million skier visits, despite below-average snowfall throughout much of the region. The Northeast also tallied a year-over-year increase in skier visits – for the fourth consecutive year – with lower-than-average snowfall.
U.S. ski areas invested a record $812.4 million in capital this season. That included 63 new and 86 upgraded lifts. But none of that investment reflects strong business from this ski season. This is spent money, reflecting contracts signed in 2022 or before.
For the fourth consecutive year, season passes accounted for more skier visits than day ticket sales, by a score of 50 percent to 33 percent. Much of the remaining 17 percent is also season pass adjacent: frequency products such as Indy Pass and Mountain Collective and employee passes.
Now let’s put all this together: the evolution of season passes from a niche locals’ product to a mainstream access ticket has made it easier and more convenient for anyone to ski more often at more ski areas, while simultaneously flooding ski area operators with unprecedented and ever-growing income that is secured well before winter. Flush with dollars and facing a hyper-competitive environment, operators are plowing cash back into the hill in the form of new lifts and enhanced snowmaking, which in turn creates a better experience for the skiers who do show up, especially the lapsed individuals who rediscovered their love for snow during the pandemic. Those skiers, satisfied with their experience, are more likely to buy a pass in the spring and make sure they get their money’s worth out of that pass in the winter.
In conclusion: skiing has created its own virtuous circle that has protected it both from the realities of climate change and the manufactured Climate Change Is Killing Skiing narrative that risks driving would-be skiers away from the sport.
How effective has this been? Compare this season’s skier visit numbers to 2016-17, a similarly strong winter for snowfall (the all-time records that Palisades Tahoe, Mammoth, and Heavenly broke this winter had been set that year). The NSAA counted 56.5 million skier visits that season, 8.2 million fewer than 2022-23. 2016 was basically yesterday, but it feels like 30 years ago, because of two crucial developments in the intervening half-dozen years: the proliferation of megapasses and Covid-19.
In 2016, Vail owned just 12 North American ski areas, and none in the Northeast. The company sold 650,000 Epic Passes for the 2016-17 ski season – a respectable number, but a fraction of the 2.1 million Vail sold for winter 2022-23. The Ikon Pass did not exist and would not debut for another two seasons. Indy did not arrive until 2019. And while the M.A.X., Peak, and Mountain Collective passes all marginally competed with Epic, these were mostly niche or regional products that lacked an industry-bending sales pitch.
Then, all at once, coast-to-coast megapasses proliferated. Vail bought Stowe in 2017, Okemo and Mount Sunapee in 2018, and Peak Resorts’ 17-mountain portfolio in 2019 – then cluster-bombed New England with irresistibly cheap Epic Passes. At basically the same time, Alterra cleaned out the crypt, uniting the ghosts of failed ski companies past with all of Boyne, all of Powdr Corp, and pretty much all of North America’s remaining king indies onto the inconceivable-until-it-happened Ikon Pass. The Indy Pass, improbably but with scrappy persistence, united dozens of the remaining big-but-not-big-enough-that-Jim-from-accounting-has-heard-of-them independent ski areas on its little coupon book.
Such was the state of American skiing when Covid crash-landed in March 2020. For a moment, everything, including skiing, stopped. Then everyone looked around and said, “Dang, we need something to do.” And inside was bad and outside was good and the people said, “let’s go skiing” or “let’s go skiing again.” And this version of skiing, where you buy one lift ticket all year and it’s good at Hunter and Stowe and Vail and Park City, is a lot more intriguing than the 2016 version of skiing, where everything is segmented and your day-trip turns and your long-weekend turns and your kids-spring-break turns all need to be calculated independently.
It’s a better version of skiing, both for people trying to make a living on it and people trying to do it as much as possible. Well, mostly it’s better. Our mountain transportation infrastructure has not caught up to our enthusiasm, and until U.S. Americans seriously invest in automobile and suburbia-as-mountain-town alternatives, peak-day skiing is going to continue to be a frustrating pain in the ass for anyone not staying slopeside. That explains the proliferation of paid parking and, to some extent, offensive walk-up lift ticket prices. You have to manage crowds somewhere. But as a general business model, U.S. skiing is in the best shape it’s been in generations, and two consecutive seasons of record visitation proves it.
Below the paid subscriber jump: the NSAA still won’t give me their active ski areas list, an interview with the man trying to open a new ski resort in Alaska, tolls coming to the Cottonwoods, and more.