Fighting for the Little Guys

Small ski area survey sheds light on the value of the town hill

Salmo Ski Hill in the West Kootenays of British Columbia. Small ski areas like this one are a gateway to skiing. PHOTO: Dave Heath

Salmo Ski Hill in the West Kootenays of British Columbia. Small ski areas like this one are a gateway to skiing. PHOTO: Dave Heath

Chances are you learned how to ski at a small mom-and-pop ski area. Or so says the Community Ski Area Survey, which interviewed 1,400 people at the end of March to better understand the role small ski areas play in the ski industry and in the lives of avid skiers.

According to the survey, 70 percent of respondents learned to ski at areas with less than 1,600 vertical feet, confirming popular thought that small ski areas are a gateway to the sport for beginners and young families. As skiers grew older and presumably more confident in their skiing ability, the survey showed a trend of spreading out to bigger ski resorts with more vertical feet.

“The results definitely reflected my life in skiing,” says Mark Weitz, who co-organized the survey. “We all learned to ski wherever was local and many of us stayed attracted to the sport. Some of us clustered to ski areas and a few of us made it our profession, and now we’re at the point where we’re skiing with our family.”

Night skiing at Salmo. According to the Community Ski Area Survey, more than 10 percent of respondents said they started skiing with a school or club group. PHOTO: Dave Heath

Night skiing at Salmo. According to the Community Ski Area Survey, more than 10 percent of respondents said they started skiing with a school or club group. PHOTO: Dave Heath

Three organizations came together to conceptualize and carry out the survey: The Antelope Butte Foundation, Ski Essentials, and Mountain Riders Alliance. Matt McGinnis, web content specialist at SkiEssentials.com, a discount gear website with a popular blog called Chairlift Chat, recently wrote a piece about the importance of small ski areas. The article caught the eye of Weitz, who is president of the Antelope Butte Foundation. Weitz founded the volunteer group in 2010 to re-open the Antelope Butte Ski and Recreation Area, a mom-and-pop ski hill in northern Wyoming that shut down when mom and pop broke up in 2004. Weitz and McGinnis also reached out to Jamie Schectman, co-founder of the Mountain Riders Alliance, which promotes similar values in favor of community-minded ski areas.

“I was concerned about the direction the ski industry was taking. Smaller standalone ski areas closing, with a record low of 470 ski areas operating down from a high of 735,” says Schectman. “We want to help these ski areas thrive.”

Driven to get hard numbers that spoke to the philosophy of saving the little ski areas, the three men organized the voluntary response survey, published on the Ski Essentials blog. Respondents answered a series of 10 questions about their history as a skier: How old were you when you started skiing? Who first took you skiing? Where did you learn to ski—a big resort or a smaller ski area? Their answers spoke to a path typically followed by lifelong skiers.

There's always a familiar face at small ski areas like Salmo. PHOTO: Dave Heath

There’s always a familiar face at small ski areas like Salmo. PHOTO: Dave Heath

The majority of skiers polled began skiing as a kid—83 percent began skiing between age two and 17—and nearly all of them are still skiing. The survey also pointed out that skiing is a family sport with 65 percent stating that they began skiing with their families, and 77 percent saying that they continue to ski with their families.

Many of the people who took their survey are connected with one of the three organizations on the web, or they were enticed by the promise of a free pair of skis or lift tickets (the reward for a few lucky survey-takers). So taken in context, the results are understood as a poll of people who consider skiing an important element of their life—important enough to be aware of ski-related news and surveys circulating the web.

Only 3.4 percent of respondents think that $80 to $100 is a fair price for a lift ticket. PHOTO: Dave Heath

Only 3.4 percent of respondents think that $80 to $100 is a fair price for a lift ticket. PHOTO: Dave Heath

With numbers to help validate the importance of these small areas, all three organizations hope to garner more support for their own causes. Schectman hopes the survey results will help larger resorts better understand how vital their “little brothers and sisters,” as he calls them, are to their own success. Weitz also notes that he hopes this survey will be a platform to launch bigger studies into skier demographics and shed light on the importance of these smaller areas as a foundation for new skiers and the homes of skiing families alike.

“A community ski area is price accessible, supports local nonprofits, puts on community events. They’re soulful, full of characters, not homogenized, not a cookie cutter village at the bottom,” Schectman says. The familiar runs and cheap burgers, the owner’s wife working the ticket counter, the same liftie bumping chairs for a decade—these mountains are where many of us learned to ski, and where we learned to love to ski.

We all love our town hills. PHOTO: Dave Heath

We all love our town hills. PHOTO: Dave Heath

Add a comment

  • Dennis Greffard

    The biggest problem we run into as a small non profit resort, is our insurance. We are classified the same as any of the large resorts. Our yearly numbers don’t match the daily numbers of many large resorts, yet we are still paying crazy insurance fees.

    Dennis Greffard
    President
    Clearwater Ski Hill
    Clearwater, B.C.

    • Guest

      Dennis, just so we can put our arms around it, how much does your insurance cost per skier-visit?

    • Brian

      Dennis, just so we can understand, what does your insurance cost per skier-visit?

      • Snow Skier

        I was the owner of a small resort from 2003 to 2009. We paid 18 cents per dollar of all sales (including food). We paid an annual, non-refundable retainer of $35k which would be calculated into our sales at the end of the season. There are really only two insurers in the industry, so pricing is not an option. Worker’s Comp Insurance was another huge cost to us while fees paid to the Forest Service and taxes were relatively low. Finally, we had maintenance and capital improvements we wanted to fund too. Pretty tough to juggle all this and make it work. Our lift ticket prices were $38 for a full day.

  • Zia

    I love smaller ski areas. Monarch in Colorado and Red River in New Mexico are two of my favorite mountains to ski. But, I would bet just as many, and probably more, people have learned to ski at resorts like Copper Mountain, Vail, and Mammoth as at the smaller family owned ski areas. I’m not trying to talk down on smaller ski areas, just saying articles like this based on specifically biased surveys aren’t accurate.

    • T_Bar

      Numbers support this. Large resorts close to cities simply just have more people. Spend a few seasons in Summit County, it’s clear at least half the skiers at larger resorts are beginners who are just learning.

    • http://SnoCountry.com Tom Horrocks

      I grew up in Denver and learned to ski at Winter Park, Loveland and Arapahoe Basin – three somewhat smaller areas at the time in the mid-80s. Off the three, Winter Park is now the only one that is a full-on resort. While folks do learn to ski at the Coppers, Vails and Aspens of the world, affordable Learn to Ski/Ride prices remain at both Loveland and Arapahoe Basin for the vast majority of never-evers out there.

  • Cathy Paton

    The Salmo Ski Hill is also the main employer of youth in the community. Another plus!

  • Trevor Holsworth

    we love Salmo ski hill, also blessed with Summit Lake Ski Hill near New Denver, Nakusp in the West Kootenays. Keeps families skiing. Yeah!

  • Small town skier

    Unfortunately not all of us come from money. If it wasn’t for small locally run ski hills, many us would not have had the opportunity to ski. I personally feel the vast majority of Canadians had their first skiing experience at their local community ski hill, long before they ever saw a major resort. If it was not for these small local ski hills, the vast majority of us would never have learned to ski.

  • erin

    Hilltop Ski Area in Anchorage was where I spent about 2 hours every tuesday, wednesday, and thursday winter night from 3rd grade thru 8th grade. One chairlift for alpine and one rope tow servicing the nordic jumps. There was a small meadow half way down one run where we would sometimes play football with skis on. Talk about some skill building.

  • Amanda

    Nubs Nob FTW!

  • Jeff

    Wachusett in MA is probably responsible for more lifetime skiers than any other hill in New England. The mega resorts in VT/NH should probably be subsidizing the middle and high school ski club prices there because a big chunk of the high income customer base they require learns to ski/ride at Wach.

  • Monica & Kent DeCook

    My wife and I both learned to ski at small family-run ski areas in Minnesota. We now spend many nights and weekends at Welch Village. Great people running it, wonderful bar scene at Madd Jaxx, and wonderful runs for all levels. Couple that with a great ski school and race program and you have the best skiers paradise in MN. Not the biggest but certainly the best. “The Legend” at Madd Jaxx is simply the greatest bartender in the state.

  • bill abbott

    ilearned to ski in salmo making it all the way up to “12″ was HUGE !!!!

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