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‘A season to celebrate’ as U.S., Rocky Mountain ski areas experience record visitation

Snow always draws skiers and this winter was no exception to that industry rule
Skiers and snowboarders prepare to drop down the slopes of Breckenridge ski area, an Epic Pass destination owned by Vail Resorts, Dec., 26, in Breckenridge. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun file)

After a season of historic snowfall across the West, the nation’s ski areas logged a record 64.7 million skier visits for the 2022-23 season, up from the previous high of 61 million visits in 2021-22, amplifying hopes that the nation’s resort industry is on a sustained growth trend.

Snow always draws skiers and this season was no exception to that industry rule. The National Ski Areas Association reported the average snowfall at U.S. ski areas in 2022-23 was 224 inches, up 30% from the 10-year average. The average length of the ski season was 116 days, up six days from the previous season.

The 93 ski areas in the NSAA’s six-state Rocky Mountain Region reported a high of 27.9 million visits in the association’s preliminary tally of annual visitation for 2022-23, up from the previous record of 25.2 million in 2021-22. The 24 ski areas in Washington and Oregon also posted a record 4.5 million skier visits in 2022-23. The 41 ski areas in Arizona, California and Nevada reported a third-busiest season ever.

Ten of the busiest U.S. ski seasons on record have landed in the past 15 winters, despite a warming climate threatening snowpacks and shortening winters. The record crowds in 2022-23 indicate the resort industry is healthy. So does annual investment by resort operators.

For the 2022-23 ski season, resort companies invested a record $812.4 million into the nation’s ski mountains, with most of that going toward 63 new chairlifts and 86 upgraded lifts.

“It’s a season to celebrate,” said Adrienne Isaac with the National Ski Areas Association. While record visitation and capital investment is a benchmark, the association is still measuring the number of overall skiers in the country.

For 2021-22, a record 10.7 million individuals went skiing at U.S. resorts, up from the previous high of 10.5 million in 2020-21. That participant number is a real harbinger of growth, more so than visitation numbers, which can be inflated by avid skiers getting up on the hill as much as possible in super-snowy seasons.

The industry is giddy that the post-pandemic demand from 2021-22 spilled into 2022-23, Isaac said. That means more revenue for operators and more money for local communities.

“And we had 64 million chances to turn people into climate advocates when they visited our ski areas,” she said.

A skier gets first tracks and glides down the Sheer Bliss run after another powder day at Snowmass ski resort on Jan 7. (David Krause/The Colorado Sun file)

The industry, of course, is facing persistent, hard-to-solve challenges. Getting newcomers into the sport is difficult. There’s a decline in younger folks going skiing. There’s a vexing dip in women going skiing. The industry is exploring ways to attract skiers who aren’t white.

The 2021-22 season set a record for visitation despite average snowfall at U.S. ski areas, feeding the industry’s forever mission to reduce its live-or-die dependence on ample snowfall. The continued momentum into 2022-23 adds fuel to that hope.

“We are hoping this season shows us that the experience people have and their willingness to get out on the mountain might be overtaking the snowfall number,” Isaac said. “We’ll see.”

Vail Resorts, which hosts about one-fifth of the nation’s skier visits, led the investment for the 2022-23 season with a $300 million capital plan that included 18 new chairlifts. In late April, Vail Resorts announced that visitation to its 37 North American ski areas climbed 6.1% in 2022-23 compared to the 2021-22 season. The increased visitation accompanied a surge in spending at the company’s ski schools, on-mountain restaurants and retail shops, which was up 22% to 35% for the season.

A skier sorority group dances during a barbecue in spirit of the National Brotherhood of Skiers summit at Vail ski area Feb. 8, in Vail. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun file)

A month earlier the company reported a 3.6% increase in visits to its North American ski areas through early March. In January, Vail Resorts told investors that its ski areas in California, Colorado, Washington and Utah saw fewer than expected holiday vacationers due to extreme weather that disrupted airline travel and resort operations. But local skiers near its resorts and the removal of travel restrictions to its Whistler Blackcomb ski area in British Columbia – the most trafficked ski hill in North America – buoyed overall visitation through the 2022 holidays.

Vail Resorts does not break out visitation to its individual resorts but reported 9.3 million visits to its 37 ski areas through January 2023, up from 7.6 million for the first half of the 2021-22 ski season. The company’s year-end report for 2022 showed a total of 17.3 million visits to its mountain resorts for the year ending July 31, 2022, which compared with 14.9 million the previous year.

Colorado ski resorts do not discuss visitation numbers and the state’s resort trade group, Colorado Ski Country, which represents 21 of the state’s 28 ski areas, will report statewide visitation numbers in early June.

For decades, ski area visits were the prime metric for measuring the health of resorts. That changed with the emergence and eventual ubiquity of discounted season passes. As the industry moves toward selling skiers season passes before the snow falls, visitation patterns have shifted and the financial impact of a skier visiting a ski area for a day has faded.

Vail Resorts, for example, sold 2.3 million Epic Passes and advanced-purchase lift tickets for 2022-23, up from 2.1 million for the 2021-22 season and 1.2 million for 2019-20.

The NSAA’s preliminary report showed season-pass sales eclipsing day ticket sales for the fourth season in a row with season-pass skiers accounting for more than half of national visits.

But traffic has an impact on mountain communities that can see populations swell exponentially during peak periods of winter. And there are ways to measure that traffic despite the reluctance of ski resorts to discuss detailed visitation trends.

Snowboarders break through the banner to ride the first chair of the season on the opening day at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area on Oct. 13, 2017, in Colorado. A-Basin is the first ski resort in North America to open for the season. (Jack Dempsey/Associated Press file)

Last June the Colorado Ski Country trade group reported a high of nearly 14 million statewide skier visits, besting the previous record of 13.8 million visits in 2018-19.

The 2018-19 season was exceptionally snowy, just like the 2022-23 season. From November through March of the 2018-19 ski season, the number of cars traveling east and west through Interstate 70’s Eisenhower Johnson Memorial Tunnel – a gateway to the busiest ski regions in the state – topped 5.35 million. In the same five months of the 2022-23 ski season, the tunnel logged 5.3 million cars. There were 5.32 million cars passing through the tunnels in the same span of the 2021-22 ski season, when Colorado’s ski areas logged 12 million skier visits.

Parking is a leading performance indicator

The Town of Vail in November budgeted $5.9 million in revenue for 2023 from the community’s 4% tax on lift tickets purchased or used at Vail ski area, which is down 6% from the previous season’s collections. The Town of Breckenridge budgeted $3.9 million in lift ticket tax collections for 2023, the same as the previous year. Vail and Breckenridge ski areas typically host more than 1.5 million skier visits a year, based on historical numbers.

With parking as an indicator of skier traffic, Vail ski area saw fewer skiers in 2022-23 than the previous season. The Town of Vail counted 27 days in 2022-23 when both its Vail and Lionshead parking structures filled, forcing skiers to park on the Frontage Road. For the 2021-22 ski season, that number was 54 days. For all of the 2022-23 ski season, Vail counted 7,176 cars parked on the road, which compares with 15,290 in 2021-22.

Skiers and snowboarders prepare to drop down the slopes of Breckenridge ski area on Dec., 26, in Breckenridge. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun file)

Inntopia’s DestiMetrics, which surveys 28,000 lodging units in 17 mountain towns in seven Western states, shows overnight visitation pretty much flat for the 2022-23 winter compared to 2021-22. Occupancy was down for November, December, February and March compared to the previous season but late-season snow in April floated seasonal tallies. While the number of overnight lodging visitors was stagnant, they paid a lot more. Compared to the pre-pandemic winter of 2018-19, innkeepers reported a 43% increase in room rates for 2022-23.

Healthy snowfall can persuade visitors to spend more on overnight lodging in the winter, but slow summer bookings indicate that travelers are less inclined to pay top dollar for lodging in the warmer months.

“The unchecked pattern of escalating daily rates appears to be coming to an end,” said DestiMetrics boss Tom Foley in a monthly report showing a 9% decline in lodging reservations in mountain towns for the coming summer.

Arapahoe Basin eschews the practice of concealing visitation trends. Arapahoe Basin manager Alan Henceroth this week released his annual “State of the Basin” report, showing visits through April up 9% over the same span in the 2021-22 ski season. The Summit County ski area in 2022-23 logged about 75% of the visits it hosted in 2018-19, when it was part of Vail Resorts’ unlimited access Epic Pass. Arapahoe Basin left the Epic Pass for the 2019-20 ski season hoping to ease crowding that was overwhelming the ski area’s parking lots.

Of the 204 days Arapahoe Basin has been open so far in the 2022-23 ski season – it’s still open, by the way – there have been nine days when “parking was a challenge,” Henceroth wrote in his annual report.

“A major goal for next year is to lower that nine number,” Henceroth said, outlining plans to continue to limit daily ticket sales as well as season passes. For next season, Arapahoe Basin will offer a value pass that limits access on the busiest days and the ski area will continue to offer only five or seven days through its partnership with the Ikon Pass.

“We will continue to control daily access on the mountain to comfortable and fun levels,” Henceroth wrote in his report, which is a model for ski area operator transparency with customers. “The atmosphere, culture and vibe will continue to shine.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.