It was a long strange trip

About 880 visitors came to this year’s National Convention & Tradeshow organized by the American National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) and held in the Californian city of San Francisco on May 3 - 6.

NSAA President Michael Berry: “This city is a microcosm of the challenges we have to tackle in the short and long term: its many ethnic groups, revolutionary technological change, environmental aspects, today’s growing health awareness and the large numbers of Millennials. That is the generation born between1980 and 1995, who are one of the most promising target groups for the winter sports industry.” For that reason the NSAA has done some intensive research into the age group to learn all about their wishes and needs so that ski resorts can achieve a perfect fit with their offerings and marketing strategies. The opening keynote at the NSAA conference also addressed the subject, with Paul Taylor, Senior Fellow at the Pew Research Center, talking about “Demographic Shifts across the U.S.”

Focus on the Millennials

This generation must be attracted to winter sports now and not in a few years’ time, as it currently accounts for 44 % of the US population. Millennials are decision makers at an early age, including the choice of holiday destination for the family. They have grown up in the global village (Internet, Facebook) and love diversity and internationality. They have a very democratic attitude and a positive view of multicultural life as practiced in San Francisco, for example. The people in this age group are on very good terms with their parents and want to spend time doing things with them. Marriage, however, is not a priority for the Millennials. Around 1960, about 72 % of women over the age of 18 were married, compared with only 51 % today. Instead, they tend to live in multigenerational households, for which there are also multicultural and financial reasons. The Millennials have less money to spend than the preceding generations: “A household of US Americans born between 1928 and 1945, for example, has average assets totaling USD 173,439. That compares with the average assets of a Millennial household of just USD 4,151. So this generation is having a very hard time from the start,” said opening keynoter Paul Taylor. And NSAA President Michael Berry added: “That is why we have to offer an attractive price-performance ratio so as to access this important target group for winter sports.” In addition, the Millennials are people who want to improve the world and have a strong environmental awareness.

Apart from the subject of the Millennials, the unusual weather in the 2014/15 winter season was also one of the main topics at the NSAA conference. The details are provided in the traditional Kottke Report, which is based on an analysis of 168 out of a total of 470 US ski resorts.

A season of extreme weather conditions

Along the West coat, it was the warmest winter since 1895. The US State of California in particular is suffering from an extreme drought, which has now been going on for years. In contrast, the Midwest and the Northeast had Polar temperatures, while New England in the Northeast had record snowfalls, especially in Boston, Massachusetts. But that was the exception as far as snow was concerned; otherwise the heavens were less than generous with the white stuff: “Total snowfall was 28.3 % down on average for the country as a whole, which is the second lowest figure in the 24 years of the records kept by Kottke,” said Dave Belin, Director of Consulting Services at the market research organization RRC Associates. The Pacific Southwest and Northwest regions had 47 % less snow than in the previous year and the Midwest 37 %. In the Rocky Mountains snowfall was down on the 2013/14 winter season by 31 % and in the Southeast by 19 %. That situation was not without its effects on visitor totals in the US ski resorts.

Visitor downturn

For the US as a whole, winter sports visitor totals declined to 53.6 million, a drop of 5.2 % compared with the previous winter season and 11.5 % down on the record total of 60.5 million visitors in 2010/11. The biggest decline in visitors was in the Pacific Northwest (- 36.3 %), while the smallest drop was in the Northeast (- 0.8 %). The Pacific Southwest region is talking of the lowest number of visitors for twenty years, while the Pacific Northwest had its second worst season in the last twenty years. The situation was better in the Rocky Mountains (sixth best season), the Southeast (tenth best season) and the Northeast (fifteenth best season). The Midwest had a moderate season, 4 % down on the long-term average. The snowboarders helped to stem the tide. In the last two winter seasons, snowboarders have accounted for 27.2 % of the visitor total for the country as a whole, and the figure has actually increased slightly in the Pacific Southwest and the Rocky Mountains.

So the situation in the US ski resorts is not so encouraging, but the country’s ski area operators have always faced up to challenges in the past and come up with the new ideas and intelligent business strategies needed to move forward. In addition to the extreme weather conditions, the lack of dynamism in the global economy and the problems of demographic change, American ski resorts are also confronted with a winter sports clientele that now has less leisure time and a growing range of alternative leisure activities available at home and abroad.


To-do list

Marketing campaigns for winter sports in general, with a specific focus on the Millennials and the older generation, are one of the things that need to be further intensified. US ski area operators also see potential in enhancements to the infrastructure (accommodations, snowmaking, lifts and cable cars). In spite of this awareness, provisional figures suggest that investments for the upcoming winter season will be 9 % down on last year, at a predicted USD 215 million compared with USD 238 million. But the best ideas often do not cost so much money, and the networking opportunities presented by a major industry gathering like the NSAA National Convention & Tradeshow have generated a number of profitable ideas in the past.

In addition to the overview of the past season, demographic change was another central topic at the NSAA conference in San Francisco. Apart from the age group distribution, attention was also paid to the ethnic composition of the US population.

The next America

Opening keynoter Paul Taylor: “Demographic change is a development in slow motion. The US population is not only getting older and older, but the composition of the families has also changed. The United States has always been a country of immigration. In 1960 white-skinned people were the big majority in the US population (85 %), followed by people of Afro-American descent (10 %), Spanish descent (4 %) and other origins (1 %). In 2060, on the other hand, the composition of the US population will look like this: 44 % white-skinned people, 29 % Hispanics, 13 % Afro-Americans, 9 % Asians and 6 % from various other countries. That means a further increase in the cultural and ethnic diversity of our families. Such diversification offers enormous opportunities but also creates a wide range of different needs that we have to cater for if we are to continue to attract young people to winter sports.”

The next NSAA National Convention & Tradeshow will be held in Nashville, Tennessee, on May 18-21, 2016.

Claudia Mantona


The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is doubtless one of the world’s most photographed suspension bridges. It is also the hallmark of the Californian city that hosted this year’s NSAA National Convention & Tradeshow and its 880 visitors on May 3-6. Photo: C. Mantona

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