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The Slippery Slope to Success: More people than ever before hit the slopes last winter, a good sign for the ski world 

Numbers don't lie, people are hitting the slopes like never before.

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Dang, where did all these people come from?

It's a familiar scene: As the snow dumps from above, you and your pals excitedly make plans to rise with the sun in an effort to catch the first chair at Mt. Bachelor. But after indulging in too many local brews and resulting taps of the snooze-button, it's almost 10 a.m. by the time you pull your station wagon into the already busy parking lot.

While it's easy to grumble about waiting in lift lines at your local hill, those lines mean business is good - and not just for the ski industry, but also for the economy and, ultimately, you. A bustling mountain resort can serve as a useful snapshot of the current state of the national economy, which seems to be on an upswing (albeit a slow one) given the number of skier visits during the winter of 2010-11. In July, the National Ski Areas Association announced that U.S. ski areas set a new all-time season record of about 60 million skier/snowboarder visits. Here in Oregon, resorts and vendors alike realized the uptick in skier participation. Ski resorts say that such financial success often translates to better services from the resorts and more refined products from the ski industry. Everyone wins, including you, the skier.

Doug LaPlaca, the face of Bend tourism and President/CEO of Visit Bend agrees.

"At the local level, that is absolutely true," LaPlaca says of the trickle-down effect.

How do we know things are just a little bit sunnier? Consider this: In September of 2008, as the global economy took a sharp turn for the worse, skier visits reflected that downturn, dipping by 3 million visitors (57.3 million visits nationally according to the NSAA) from the winter before. But as other industries bottomed out (think Merrill Lynch and General Motors), resorts operating during 2008-09 actually experienced a slight uptick in visitor participation from the 2006-07 season. Those numbers have continued to improve over the past three seasons, including in the Pacific Northwest where total visits climbed from 3.6 million skiers and boarders to over 4 million in the same period.

In general, skiers and snowboarders often defy national economic trends, given that snowriding tends to be an activity on which most are unwilling to compromise.

"They'll eat Ramen in order balance their household budget, buy their ski pass and get up there," says Scott Kaden, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association (PNSAA), a nonprofit trade association that represents the interests of regional alpine and Nordic ski areas.

Jeremy Nelson, owner of Skjersaa's agrees.

"We moved through our inventory more thoroughly than ever before," says the local snow sports shop owner of last year's sales.

What the economy can affect is how those same snowriders follow their passion. Often, it means that rather than traveling to destination resorts like Vail or Aspen, enthusiasts tend to stay closer to home to get their fix. The upshot for local hills is that they stand to gain from the readjustment, which is exactly what was reported last season by many smaller resorts across the country.

Across New England, skiers opted to shred regionally, rather than, say, fly to the Rocky Mountains for a full-on winter ski vacation. Instead, those skiers flocked to smaller Vermont resorts like Smugglers' Notch, Killington and Jay Peak, according to reports from the Vermont Ski Areas Association. The Northeast, like the Northwest, enjoyed ample snowfall last season.

Chuck Shepard, president and CEO of Hoodoo Ski Area offers a more focused, and not as bright, version of skier trends.

"What's going on nationally really has very little to do with us," Shepard says. "It depends on the weather locally."

In this age of instant gratification of heightened expectations, the challenge for Shepard is to lure skiers to Hoodoo when the conditions are at their best.

"We'll have two feet of lousy snow in December and it'll be packed," says Shepard, adding that in April when there are pillows of fresh powder waiting under sunny skies, the resort often appears deserted. In recent years, Hoodoo has had to close in mid April despite an abundance of fresh white stuff.

"You could ski top to bottom until July Fourth," Shepard says with a touch of remorse.

In recent years, Hoodoo has suffered. As a smaller, regional resort, it falls into a gray area somewhere between the three major resort classifications, which are, according to Dave Tragethon, director of marketing and sales at Mt. Hood Meadows: true destination, hybrid and true regional.

Hoodoo is certainly a locals' spot, but like many of the smaller resorts across the country, the Central Oregon ski area has struggled to compete with more modern resorts. Last season, skier visits were down by 12,000 at Hoodoo, while Bachelor hosted 5,000 more skiers than they did in the 2009-10 season, according to reports from the PNSAA. Despite continued support for the ski industry as a whole, the number of ski areas operating nationally has dropped dramatically over the last three decades. Last season, 486 resorts operated in the U.S. as compared to the 735 in service during the 1982-83 season.

Those resorts that have adapted to meet the public's demands, however, are enjoying the surge that the last two seasons have provided. But the surge is just that, an increase that has been seen before in years past, only to be followed by a downturn in total skier visits some years later. In fact, while about 12 million snowriders visited resorts in the Pacific West last season, that number is almost identical to figures from the 1982-83 season - notable because 12 million skier visits in 1982 is a much higher per-capita percentage.

Mt. Bachelor, considered a hybrid resort that relies both on locals and out-of-towners alike, is one of those resorts that has benefited from the recent national trend of skiing local - thanks in part to the record-breaking 665 inches of snow that fell last winter. While last season's visitor numbers were up from the previous few seasons, they were far from record breaking, says Andy Goggins, director of marketing and communications at Mt. Bachelor. Though Mt. Bachelor didn't provide actual figures, General Manager Dave Rathbun says the increase in season pass holders has been a positive force for Mt. Bachelor over the past two winter seasons. According to Goggins, Mt. Bachelor continues to reinvest profits back into mountain services and this year spent about $3 million on lift servicing, terrain parks grooming and lodge renovations.

With gas prices on the rise and unemployment in the double digits, however, the urbanites from the Portland area opted to stay closer to home and ski on Mt. Hood this season, rather than book a full ski and stay weekend in Bend. This past year marks the first time ever that year-round visitation at Skibowl (499,000 visitors) eclipsed that of Mt. Bachelor (490,000 visitors). Kaden is quick to acknowledge that it's the summer draws such as lift-served mountain biking, the luge feature, bungee jumping and corporate picnics that gave Skibowl the edge, a factor with which Rathbun is all too familiar.

Summer may soon get even sweeter for resorts, like Skibowl and Meadows, that can cater to the public's shoulder season needs. Just last week, Congress authorized a bill that should enhance summer activities at ski areas, which operate on Forest System lands. The summer activities bill, dubbed the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act, should provide resorts with increased revenue, offer greater employment opportunities and provide the federal government with a much-needed monetary boost. The bill is expected to be signed into law by President Barack Obama soon.

Because Mt. Bachelor can't rely on lodging and has relatively limited summer offerings, the resort aggressively markets the many draws of Central Oregon in an effort to remain relevant.

"We've got to really highlight what makes us better," says Rathbun. "Leave the slopes (at the end of the day) and enjoy Bend."

Under Rathbun, Mt. Bachelor has also invested heavily in the youth, with both its kids-ski-free campaign (with an adult) and "ski or ride in five" - a program designed to attract first timers by offering five lessons and a season pass for $199 to kids aged 18 and under.

"I want Bend to be a real ski town," Rathbun says.

While Bend might not carry the same mystique as, say, Crested Butte, Central Oregon is certainly attracting more winter sports enthusiasts. LaPlaca says that total room tax collections are one of the most accurate gauges of the ebb and flow of tourism and notes that last December Bend netted about $218,000 - its best haul in four years. Still, the number is less than half of the nearly $490,000 that the City of Bend collected this past July.

"Winter tourism here is extremely important for Bend's overall tourism industry," says LaPlaca, who notes that Bend earns about 40 percent of its yearly room-tax revenue during June, July and August.

While there have been these bright spots in the ski world, nothing is ever totally certain in an industry that depends so heavily on the whims of Mother Nature. The numbers look good, but we'll have to wait for the snow to see how this year turns out.

Skjersaa's, however, is already feeling the winter buzz.

"This year we're seeing a lot more interest than in years past," says Nelson. "I think people are pretty fired up."


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