Second best season ever was deep in strong numbers

Despite falling just short of what many thought might be U.S. skiing's strongest season ever, many factors continue to point to the bright future of the sport. From skier visits to pass sales to ticket yields, SNEWS breaks out the findings of the Kottke report.

It may seem a little premature to call score on a season when the snow keeps falling and big mountains from Snowbird to Squaw to Crystal are still turning the chairs. But the folks who compile the Kottke National End of Season Survey are feeling confident enough to declare this will be the second best ski season in U.S. history, with 60.1 million skier visits nationwide.

“It marks the second time the industry has passed 60 million visits,” said Nolan Rosall of RRC Associates, the company that conducts the research for the “Kottke” every year. Rosall, who presented the news at the National Ski Areas Association Convention, said the number of visits mark “a higher plane” for skiing in the U.S., as the national average seems to grow every year. After hitting high points of 54 million skier visits four times in the 1990s, that has been the absolute low point for visits in the past 10 years. Skier visits in the past decade have been more commonly hitting the 57 and 58 million skier mark, with the 2007/08 season closing with an all-time record of 60.5 million skier visits. 

Many thought this season might actually top that mark. But according to Rosall, key skier days were most likely lost to a late Easter, and were certainly lost to “some intense and disruptive storms.” All those stormy powder days across the country that people kept posting about on Facebook were also impacting potential skier travel and even temporarily closing some areas, particularly in California where areas fought to control the massive snowfall.

No surprise then that snowfall across the country was up 27 percent compared to the previous year, and was the highest Kottke research has recorded in the past 20 years. Better snow meant more days on the mountain, as average days open increased by 3.8 percent. Except in the Southwest, where La Nina weather patterns resulted in drier conditions, and skier visits fell. Snowfall in the Southeast was also down by 42 percent. The Southeast was one of two regions to experience a dip in visits (down 3.6 percent), along with the Pacific Southwest, where skier visits fell by 5 percent. 

Substantial gains in skier visits were recorded everywhere else, however, including the Northeast (up 4 percent from last season), Rockies (up 1.7 percent), Midwest (up 1 percent), and Pacific Northwest (up 0.3 percent).

According to Rosall, the industry as a whole exceeded its 10-season average by 4.1 percent, a pattern echoed by all regions and led by the Northeast, which was up 5.3 percent, and including the Southeast, which was up 4.8 percent over its 10-year average.

Other key findings of the Kottke included: 

  • Season pass visits accounted for 36.2 percent of total visits this season, up from 34.3 percent in 2009/10, with gains occurring in every region of the country, particularly in the Pacific Southwest (i.e., California), where usage up 4.3 percent.
  • By contrast, paid visits declined to 54.2 percent of the national average, down from 55.8 percent the previous season, with declines occurring in every region except the Midwest. Rosall, who said the remaining percentage of visits “are comps,” reported that a 7.9 percent increase in season pas unit sales added to the increase in season pass visits.
  • Average adult weekend ticket prices rose 5.4 percent, while average ticket yields rose 2.2 percent. The Kottke reported that the increase in ticket prices represents “an acceleration relative to the 1.3 percent increase in prices recorded in the 2009/10 season, when many resorts priced conservatively in response to the recession.”
  • Capital expenditures are increasing according to what Rosall called, “confidence in the market,” up from $272 million in the previous season to a declared $357 million in off-season improvements, particularly in areas such as lifts, lodges and snowmaking.
  • Among the only flat tracking areas were ski and snowboard lessons, which were up 0.03 percent, perhaps because, as Rosall noted, “people don’t like to take lessons when the weather is inclement.” And snowboarding, which “has clearly plateaued,” according to the Kottke, with about 30.5 percent of the country’s overall visits, and declines over the past two years in the snowboard hotbeds of the Pacific Southwest and Pacific Northwest.

Despite its “2nd best” status in the history books, Rosall concluded that the season strongly points to a bright future for the sport. In the Kottke he noted that, “With the nation still in the midst of a slow recovery from the “Great Recession,” the ability of the ski industry to achieve its second highest visitation on record is a clear positive and testament to the industry’s resilience and continued momentum that it has maintained for a decade.”

-- Peter Kray

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