The Boom and the Bust

Are skiers being priced out?

This story originally published in the December 2014 issue of POWDER (43.4)
WORDS: Devon O’Neil

OVER THE PAST FIVE YEARS, a contrarian and divergent trend in ski-ticket prices has raised questions about the sport’s future. Thanks to collective passes between formerly competing ski areas—and ski-area acquisitions by the likes of Vail Resorts—it has never been cheaper to buy a season pass. (Vail’s Epic Pass, for example, grants resort access from Colorado to Utah to Lake Tahoe, and from the Alps to Japan, for $769.) Yet at the same time—and at many of the same resorts offering historically cheap season passes—day tickets have become more expensive than ever. The one-day, ticket-window price at Vail on a peak day last season was $139.

Are beginners and infrequent skiers, no matter how committed they are at heart, being priced out of the sport?

First: the ticket-price trend is less a coincidence than a new twist on the ski-resort model. To establish value for a season pass, it helps to sell expensive day tickets. That is why it costs the same amount to ski six days (at peak price) at Vail as it does to ski 150—and why season passes are marketed to destination travelers so heavily now, in addition to locals and weekend skiers.

Two more eye-catching stats are related to the pricing trend. According to a report two years ago from the National Ski Areas Association, the number of skier visits that came from households with an income of $100,000 and above increased by 12 percent from five years prior, to 54 percent. Meanwhile skier visits from households making less than $100,000 dropped by 12 percent, to 46 percent. The median age of skiers also rose from 34 to 38.

In the wake of the NSAA report, CNBC ran a story suggesting skiing was headed toward a damned fate (the headline: “High peaks, lofty prices as skiing prices out middle class”) and that soon enough only rich people would be able to afford to ride lifts.

Numbers don’t lie, but sometimes they don’t tell the full truth, either. A family of five living on a $100,000 pre-tax income is not a rich family. And the rise in median age could be less a result of youth deserting the sport than of middle-aged skiers sticking with skiing longer.

“We’ve spent the last 10 or 15 years making the sport easier, whether it’s the gear, the clothing, or the uphill transportation,” says NSAA president Michael Berry, 67, who grew up in upstate New York. “Think about people pushing around 210cm wooden skis like my dad used to in 1972. It was impossible.”

Regarding the rise in affluent-skier numbers, Berry says he expects it to continue as baby-boomers age and take advantage of those skiing advancements.

Then there’s the case of Ben Leoni, a 32-year-old semi-pro skier and recent law school graduate in Portland, Maine. Leoni and his friends grew up skiing Pats Peak, a small area in New Hampshire, through a program that was part of their public school curriculum. When they graduated, a handful of them moved west and found jobs in the industry. Now, Leoni is a lawyer back in Maine, “working for the weekend,” as his Meathead Films video series puts it.

He would not come close to meeting the NSAA’s $100,000 threshold if he lived by himself, but combined with his girlfriend’s salary, their household falls in the upper income bracket. Still, Leoni has not bought a season pass in three years, preferring to save the money and just ski the backcountry.

“There are days when the backcountry conditions aren’t good, but skiing at a resort would be good,” he says. “Sometimes I don’t go skiing those days, just because I don’t want to pay for a day ticket.”

“I’m actually a little concerned about people in our generation,” he continues. “A lot of my friends are skiing a lot less. Friends that I used to live with out West, who are diehard skiers, who grew up skiing with me, are struggling to afford it now. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like when they have kids and they want to teach their kids how to ski.”

Some will tell you the future is not defined by megaresorts and venture capitalists, but by those that cater to the middle class. Greg Ralph, vice president of Durango Mountain Resort in Colorado, has marketed ski areas for 35 years and says he continues to spend more money on attracting families and car travelers than destination skiers.

To that end, even well-known resorts still offer beginner packages aimed at growing the sport. Alta’s three base-area tow ropes are free every day, and it only costs $10 to ski after 3 p.m. on beginner chairlifts. At Mount Hood Meadows, you can get three two-hour lessons, a three-day equipment rental, and a three-day beginner lift ticket for $99 online. (Even Vail’s three-day first-timer package, at about $480 including rentals, is not outlandish, considering you get three days of lessons.)

Ultimately, more people from higher income brackets may be making turns, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to squeeze out people like Steve Schambach. Schambach, a 22-year-old ski tech/window washer/snow shoveler in Breckenridge, Colorado, worked 50 hours a week and skied 95 days last winter. “I could’ve skied a lot more if I didn’t have to work a second job,” he says.

Still, Schambach’s biggest lament is not how expensive the lifestyle is. It’s the fact that so many of his friends have left town, unable or unwilling to do what it takes to stay. “I’m always wondering,” he says, “who I’m going to ski with next winter?”

Mantle image: As $100-plus day tickets become the norm, ski resorts force people to buy season passes, or hang up their boots for good. PHOTO: Bruno Long