Faced with predictions that say skier visits will slip away like a beginner on a green run slowly but surely the National Ski Areas Association is developing a plan it hopes will turn the trend around.
The association has released a study of demographics and sociological changes predicted to occur over the course of the next 15 to 20 years and the outlook isn't good for ski areas.
"If all basic demographic trends remain the same, this study predicts that ski visits will drop from a present 51 million ski visits a year to 37 million. That is a 27 percent decrease over the course of the next 20 years," said Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. President Chris Diamond.
The National Ski Areas Association's director of marketing, Rob Linde, says the results of the study are sobering.
"This is really important stuff," he said. "It can affect the entire economy of a town like Steamboat, and these numbers will have as much an effect on Steamboat as anyone."
But Linde sees the silver lining as well.
"Anytime you unfold something like this with the potential for the industry to head in a bad direction it has an eye-opening effect. If we don't act if we keep things status quo the effects of the changing demographics could be negative. The good side of the story is that we have the ability to change the numbers and bring them up. This 27-percent number a worst-case scenario shakes people up a little bit. But we have more control than we really thought."
The forecasted shrinkage in skier numbers can be attributed to Baby Boomers "retiring" from the sport, Diamond explained.
Members of the ski areas association and other industry representatives determined at recent a trade show in Orlando that there are two key factors in whether the sport of skiing shrinks or grows:| trial and conversion.
"What we're trying to do is seal up a leaky bucket," said Stacy Gardner of the ski areas association. "Right now about 15 percent of those who try skiing or snowboarding actually stick with it. We want to increase that percentage. That means the more people we have try it, hopefully the more will convert to full-time skiers and snowboarders."
To seal the bucket and stem the outflow of customers, the ski areas association has introduced a new plan called the "Six and One" formula.
The formula represents a specific goal. If the current number of people who try skiing and snowboarding can be increased by 6 percent a year, it would raise the number of retained, or converted, enthusiasts by 1 percent each year, Gardner said. Over the course of 15 years, then, the retention rate of 15 percent would move up to 25 percent. That would result in 60 million visits a year, Gardner said.
Because Steamboat is a destination resort, Diamond said there is not much it can do in terms of altering numbers significantly.
"We don't have the opportunity to influence large numbers of people the way, for example, Heavenly Valley in California does. They are adjacent to a larger population," Diamond said.
Nevertheless, Gardner seems to think Steamboat can contribute to the national goals.
"Right now, we're just introducing this concept of growth," she said. "It is an ongoing educational effort, and we will learn over the course of the years to come which marketing strategies work best. Basically, what we all need to do is teach a new generation to ski. Steamboat already has an excellent reputation for this because its ski school is so children-focused. Steamboat can absolutely contribute to achieving these goals."
"This forecasting model, which concentrates on trial and conversion, concentrates on our ability to bring more skiers into the sport to move them from a novice level to the 'core-group' of skiers. This is where we feel we'll have the most success in keeping numbers up," Linde said. "And Steamboat definitely has the ability to make first-time skiers' experiences more positive. Everyone knows how great skiing is in Steamboat."
The "Six-and-One" formula appears to place most of the new marketing burden on ski school instructors, but Linde said that isn't true.
"The idea is to see how people can come together to ensure that the first-time experience is a positive one," he said. "It involves lift operations, rental shops, airlines, lodging it's the whole resort experience."
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