A season of extreme weather in the US

At this year’s NSAA National Convention and Tradeshow, one thing was clear – depending on their location, the ski resorts were confronted last winter with two seasons: summer OR winter.

About 850 visitors came to the National Convention & Tradeshow held by the American National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), which this year was held in Savannah, Georgia from April 30 through May 3. The event was also the platform for the release of the provisional figures for the 2013/14 winter season according to the traditional Kottke Report based on an analysis of 182 of the US total of 470 ski resorts. One striking feature was the extreme weather conditions encountered, with a long period of drought along the West coast, a string of freeze-thaw cycles in the Northeast and extreme subzero temperatures in the Midwest. That explains why the visitor totals for the various ski resorts varied so widely. For the US as a whole, ski and snowboard visits were only slightly down on the previous year. Most US ski areas reported a positive result for the season, with visits to the resorts in the North well up on 2012/13. Thanks to good snow conditions, the ski areas from the Rockies to the Atlantic enjoyed their third best season in 36 years. In comparison, the regions on the Pacific coast, and especially in the Pacific Northwest and Southwest, had relatively little snowfall. Visits to the resorts in those areas were accordingly 27.7 % down, making it the second worst winter in 36 years. With a total of 56.2 million visitors, the US ski resorts saw their visitor totals drop by 1.3 %. They also fell short of the 60 million mark targeted by the winter sports industry, but they were well above 50 million which is generally seen as the threshold for an acceptable winter season.

Fewer snowboarders

A disturbing trend for the winter sports industry is the continued decline in snowboarding visits. Following the snowboarding boom in the 1990s, the national proportion of snowboard visits declined to 26.6 % of all ski area visits in 2013/14 compared to 28.9 % the previous season, 29.7 % in the season before that and 30.6 % in 2010/11. The snowboarders were particularly elusive in the Southwest (- 4.8 %), the Rockies (- 2.3 %) and the Northwest (- 2.1 %).

Winter sports must be affordable

A constant subject of debate in the US is the price of lift tickets. Last season, the average price for a weekend pass for an adult was USD 93.33, an increase of 6.4 % over the previous year. And yet earnings at the ski resorts were down. The price-earnings ratio for ski tickets fell from 49.8 % in 2012/13 to 47.8 % last season. One of the questions in the survey for the 2013/14 winter season was about the possible causes of the downturn in ski and snowboard visits. The answers given included distance to the resort, lack of time and growing competition from other leisure activities. The US phenomenon of the shrinking middle class also seems to be playing a role. When asked to name the factors that would have the biggest impact on business in the next five years, the ski areas most frequently mentioned the weather, the state of the economy, increasing labor costs and the healthcare system. For the future, most of the ski resorts polled have plans for a stronger focus on ski courses, student groups, the service offering and summer activities, plus snowmaking in the Northeast. There was accordingly agreement among the experts at this year’s NSAA National Convention & Tradeshow in Savannah about the importance of advertising campaigns and partnerships for attracting more people to the world of winter sports. In his opening address, NSAA President Michael Berry said, “Our job is not just to create attractive packages for winter visitors: We must also do a better of job of showing that winter sports are a healthy fun activity for the whole family. How that can be done will be addressed by some of our speakers.”

One of those speakers was David Stillman, co-founder of BridgeWorks, a company that specializes in generational issues within the market economy.

How can I attract every generation?

In his presentation, David Stillman looked at the marketing activities needed for ski resorts to attract the various age groups and make them life-long adherents of snow sports. The speaker said it was decisive for the resorts to know their target groups, and he distinguished between four generations: the Traditionalists, the Baby Boomers, Generation X and the Millennials. “Every generation is in a specific phase in life. You have to really know their needs and use them to target your marketing strategies and your winter sports offering.”

The Traditionalists

They were born before 1949, and their motto is “I can do it!”. It is a well established generation of people who survived the Second World War. This age group has time and money and the desire to consume. They believe in institutions and are very loyal visitors. This means that if everything at a winter destination is to their satisfaction, they will keep coming back. Traditionalists are looking for positive experiences, things to remember. As Stillman put it: “To woo this generation, you need to position your resort in the first instance as a family destination and only secondly as a ski resort. They want to take home memories, for example of their skiing holiday with their grandchildren.”

The Baby Boomers

This group was born between 1946 and 1969. That is the period of such things as the first moon landing, Woodstock, the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement and women’s lib. Stillman: “This is the first television generation. The age group is very optimistic and idealistic and works on the principle ‘We can do better!’ These people believe in themselves and live in a permanent state of competition with others. They suffer from stress (children, job, costs, pressure to perform) and often feel on the verge of a burnout.” The members of this generation go on holiday to relax and escape from their strenuous everyday lives. “The Baby Boomers have a growing focus on spending their free time in the outdoors, which is where skiing holidays come in. The want to experience something and feel young still. A slogan like ‘Free to do what I want’ appeals to this age group,” said the speaker.

Generation X

They were born between 1965 and 1979 and can also be called the MTV Generation. In other words, they are media-minded. The members of this age group are particularly critical and think little of institutions. Gen Xers are extremely independent and live their lives according to the motto: “I do it by myself”. Stillman: “This age group has been given all kinds of promises on TV. They question everything and want all the details explained. They are highly critical guests. At your ski resort, you must give careful thought to what you want to offer them, because promises have to be kept in full. These people mostly have children but they have a completely different view of the family. They are often patchwork families at a far remove from the traditional family. So in your ski resort you’ve got to offer experiences to interest every member of the family. Gen Xers want to enjoy winter sports as a shared family experience.”

The Millennials

Born between 1980 and 1995, these people are not the winter visitors of tomorrow but of today. “They became decision-makers at an early age, and within the family, too, they are the ones who make the holiday choices. The members of this age group have grown up in the Global Village (Internet, Facebook). They love diversity and internationality. But the Millennials also see the world as a dangerous place (nine-eleven) and are looking for security in all areas of life. Their guiding principle is ‘Safety first!’,” David Stillman explains. The Millennials have a good relationship with their parents and want to share in activities with them. It is a generation with a desire to improve the world and protect the environment.

David Stillman sees Generation X and the Millennials as the most promising target groups for the winter sports industry.

Claudia Mantona

NSAA President Michael Berry (left) presenting the Lifetime Achievement Award to Bill Marolt, former President and CEO of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. Photos: C. Mantona

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