Challenges facing the ski industry are driving trends and changes at Vermont resorts.
According to research for the National Ski Areas Association, a lack of leisure time, expense and the aging of baby boomers have been driving down resort visits.
“Recent NSAA research over the past two seasons identifies similar challenges faced by beginners, including travel distance/time, cost, time commitment, work responsibilities and cost of equipment,” said Earl Saline, NSAA director of education programming.
The Vermont Ski Areas Association estimates skier visits to Vermont resorts have fallen from about 4.35 million 10 years ago to 3.92 million last year.
More optimistically, the NSAA announced in May that U.S. ski areas tallied an estimated 54.7 million skier and snowboarder visits during the 2016-17 season, up 3.7 percent from the previous season’s 52.8 million total. Ski areas in the Northeast region experienced a reported rebound, as skier visits grew by 27 percent in this region to 11.8 million visits.
Yearly estimates can drop dramatically in a bad-weather year.
Suspecting an industrywide effort focused on attracting newer, younger participants and converting them into loyal skiers and riders was needed to prevent dramatic declines in visitation, NSAA launched its Conversion Cup Challenge in 2010. It is a competition aimed at inspiring ski areas to do a better job of turning first-timers into repeat guests, and of improving the conversion rate from 15 percent to 25 percent. Killington was a finalist in 2014 and won the cup in 2015.
Focused on creating experiences that inspire guests to return, NSAA urges ski areas to adopt beginner-friendly programs, and is a supporter of the January Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month campaign.
These efforts are mirrored in Vermont where innovative learning programs, amenities and events, along with new pricing, have become trends to engage people in cool winter sports. “These efforts are crucial to ensure a good first experience for new skiers and riders so they will return and become lifelong participants, as well as to keep existing aficionados interested in the outdoors in winter,” said Chloe Elliott, of Ski Vermont.
A better experience
Today’s time-pressed skiers look for memorable experiences, whether it’s more to do or easier ways to learn. And with the need to replace one baby boomer with two millennials — who have less time to ski — that also entails inspiring people to try a winter sport and addressing the expense and challenge of learning.
“We’ve designed the World Cup at Killington to inspire the next generation of skiers and celebrate the professionals’ refined excellence. With 34,000 fans at the 2017 event, we had a large-scale audience to inspire. It matters to youth — to excite them and inspire them. Part of our mission is to empower youth to enjoy and benefit from the adventure lifestyle,” said Kristel Fillmore, Killington’s communications, PR and social media manager.
To improve the learning experience, Magic Mountain in Londonderry installed a conveyor surface lift at its Nelson Family Learning Center and Beginner Area. “The new learn-to-ski area is in a less-crowded area, so beginners and their instructors have a peaceful setting. It will even have a mini warming hut for the kids, with free hot chocolate,” said Ski Magic President Geoff Hatheway.
Pricing and enticing
Efforts to make entry to snowsports affordable abound. Ski Vermont does a beginner package where first-timers get three ski/snowboard lessons with rentals and tickets for $129, and a one-day $49 learning package is offered during January Learn to Ski and Ride Month.
Killington includes new skis or a snowboard after newcomers complete three days of lessons, so that on the fourth day, the learner is on their own equipment.
Sugarbush in Warren rewards someone taking a learning package with a free season pass. “New this year, participants who choose to take an additional fourth lesson can also get a free pair of skis,” Communications Manager John Bleh said.
Okemo offers affordable season passes to college students, and something new this year called variable pricing.
“It’s as simple as viewing an online calendar, selecting a date and saving on lift access. Discounted quantities of tickets are limited with single- and multi-day options available,” Public Relations Director Bonnie MacPherson said.
Bromley also debuts variable lift-ticket pricing for those who can plan ahead and purchase tickets online.
Most areas offer deals online, with the best discounts for advance purchases. Discounted tickets can be found on websites like Liftopia, as well.
The AirBnB rentals trend is big in Vermont ski towns, for the savings and convenience afforded. Killington, Stowe, Warren and Dover are among Vermont’s top AirBnB towns. Bob Montgomery, of Killington Group, said he has put rentals he handles on AirBnB because “AirBnB offers a good experience, is well managed, handles taxes, and helped increase our occupancy rates.”
“We have more youth programs and more opportunities for intermediate and advanced skiers to take it to the next level, with tree skiing/glade clinics and backcountry and ‘side-country’ tours. We’ve added an Alpine Touring Demo and rental center … to introduce people to uphill travel (skinning),” said Hatheway, on new options for winter sports at Magic Mountain.
Other new on-snow options include a backcountry tour at Bolton Valley and a new one-day Women Alpine Adventures program at Okemo.
Off the hill, Smugglers debuts FunZone 2.0, with activities like a multi-course Warrior Challenge, laser tag arena, slot car track, arcade and transparent climbing tower. Jay Peak is debuting a 142-seat movie theater and a climbing facility, while Stratton adds winter concerts and snowcat dining.