Beyond the Ski Slopes

The introduction to the winter issue of our magazine:

“Make your business about much more than the snowfall.” — Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz

The “snowmageddon” in the Sierra last season—over 60 feet of glorious white stuff—reminded us of skiing’s glory days over 40 years ago when the sport boomed as a mainstream leisure activity.

We were in high school, schussing down the slopes at a newly opened resort called Northstar and enjoying a near-record snowpack and new lifts at Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. At Tahoe, “ski bums”—then a budding profession—shredded the slopes from 9 to 5 while subsisting on Top Ramen and PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon).

“Man that was freakin’ cool,” summed up “Tweeker Shred Master” in a song by Lake Tahoe singer-songwriter Darin Talbot that perfectly captured this carefree winter lifestyle.

Fast forward to 2017-18. This season’s snowfall got off to a slow start—a sober reminder that times have changed. Snowfall totals often are “iffy,” thanks to global warming; skiers spend less time on the slopes (an average of four hours instead of six); and they spend more time indulging in good food, spa treatments, fine wine and craft beer tastings, live music and other après ski activities. In addition, millennials aren’t as enthusiastic about skiing as baby boomers, studies show.

Ski resorts and mountain towns aren’t sitting flat footed. The CEO of Vail Resorts (which now owns Northstar, Heavenly and Kirkwood) has a simple strategy to cope with the changes: Make your business about much more than snowfall.

Tahoe ski resorts have invested in “weatherproofing” to ensure they can attract visitors regardless of snowfall totals. This includes snowmaking (now essential) but also adding other winter activities such as tubing and sledding, XC skiing, snowshoe hikes, snowcat tours, zip lines, gondola rides, and sleigh rides. Heavenly in South Lake Tahoe features the Ridge Rider Mountain Coaster.

The resorts also seek to “own more of the mountain,” which means owning more hotels, restaurants and other attractions to boost revenue. The aggressive sale of season passes also helps cover fixed costs and hedges against unpredictable snowfall.

Ski resort owners continue to expand rapidly to diversify risk. A good year in Canada may make up for a bad year in California. Is skiing dying? No, but it sure is changing. Read our special report in this issue.

(Photo: Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows)

Author: jeffpelline

Jeff Pelline is a veteran editor and award-winning journalist - in print and online. He is publisher of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine and its website Jeff covered business and technology for The San Francisco Chronicle for 12 years, and he was a founding editor and Editor of CNET News for eight years, among other positions. Jeff has a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Northwestern University. His hobbies include sailing, swimming, and trout fishing in the Sierra.

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