Downhill to Disneyland

The slopes are crowded, so why aren't Colorado resorts rolling in cold cash?

"Of course it's all subjective anyway," Ryberg says. "Back East, in Vermont, you can get double those numbers. In Japan, you quadruple that." In other words, Colorado skiers have been spoiled with comparatively uncrowded slopes. Ryberg adds that while the number of skiers has increased slightly over the years, so, too, has the skiable terrain. This has spread the crowds out and kept the terrain capacity near constant. (Generally speaking, anyway: Most expansions have involved expert terrain, while most skiers stick to intermediate trails.)

Still, one thing that Ryberg and other researchers did notice in their pictures was the difference between how traditional skiers used a run and how snowboarders and Telemark skiers used one. While the skiers headed more or less directly down the fall line, the other two tended to use much more of the slope to turn. This is particularly true for snowboarders, who have a blind spot on their heel-side turn.

Anyone who has tried to pass a snowboarder knows this is only common sense. But it did occur to the researchers that, even if the terrain capacity stayed exactly the same year after year, the increasing percentage of snowboarders crisscrossing the mountains had resulted in a crucial difference: The slopes now felt more crowded.

Mike Gorman

Such perceptions are becoming increasingly important. In the 1960s and '70s, the sport essentially sold itself. People who skied still had their own subculture; the sport was the thing. Today, however, with the cost of shlepping the family to the slopes for a weekend of schussing reaching upwards of $1,000, customers are demanding a better experience. It has been a transition from downhill to Disneyland.

This is a crucial distinction, because there are big differences between the two types of businesses. In one, you sell tickets. In the other, you sell everything else, too. The ski business is not alone in confronting the change. A similar trend has already taken hold of professional spectator sports. The recent rash of tearing down perfectly fine twenty-year-old stadiums and constructing new ones in their place has occurred because baseball, football and basketball bosses realized that ticket sales just weren't going to pay the bills anymore. They also needed to sell everything else: parking, hotdogs, luxury suites -- even the name of the building.

Like these sports, the skiing industry has become less and less dependent on actual ticket sales for revenue. Stacy Forbes, an industry analyst for Janco Partners, says that as recently as five years ago, the sale of lift tickets was responsible for more than half of a resort's income. Today, two-thirds of a ski area's revenue comes from non-lift-ticket sales, meaning that overpriced pizza, T-shirts, restaurant revenue, condo sales and equipment rentals are now more important than lift tickets to a resort's bottom line.

Most resorts are still scrambling to make the switch. Next year, instead of leasing out retail space to vendors, Winter Park will open its own retail and ski rental stores. Vail has entered into a joint venture with Ritz-Carlton to build a luxury hotel. Conferences and golf courses and wedding-banquet catering have become just as important to ski resorts as well-rounded moguls. With the introduction of its super-exclusive (reported joining fee: $30,000) "ski clubs," Vail has even found the skiing equivalent of luxury stadium suites.

Yet old habits die hard, and, the Forest Service's Skier At One Time guidelines notwithstanding, there is no attendance restriction on a ski area. Thus, the temptation for a ski resort is simply to get as many people on the mountain as possible. "Part of our goal is to get more people skiing," explains Joan Christensen, communications director for Winter Park Resort, which is owned by the City of Denver. "We want to grow the business."

That was the thinking this past year when, stung by two poor years in a row, the Front Range resorts offered deep discounts for their day lift tickets. With a drop in what are known as "destination skiers" -- those gold-plated tourists who fly in to Colorado for several days and splurge on meals, rentals, hotel rooms and lift tickets -- the ski areas figured that drawing more local skiers to the hills could help make up the difference.

At the ticket counter, the result for skiers was exhilarating. Winter Park offered unheard-of deals such as a carload of as many as ten people for $29. This spring, Vail offered a one-month pass, good at three resorts, for the same price. The result was predictable. "In terms of skier visits, we had a great year," says Lee Heirholzer, marketing director of Arapahoe Basin, which offered its own steep discounts. "But I can't say we were profitable."

And on many days, skiers paid a high price for the savings. Actually getting to the ticket counters to enjoy the savings was almost not worth the price. "Discounted tickets," says Ryberg, "were a mixed blessing."

As the industry prepares for the coming years, it would be worthwhile for executives to remember that their business is fundamentally different from, say, Wal-Mart. With perhaps the exception of finding a parking space, a customer's shopping experience does not fluctuate according to how many teen blouses Wal-Mart sells.

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