What’s up in the downhill ski business?

Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017 7:01 PM
Bob Kunkel

Colorado is synonymous with skiing. Our state leads the world in resort development, snow conditions, technology and ambiance. We are the champions.

So do you know your ski industry facts? For certain, skiing in the U.S. is big business, to the tune of about $6 billion a year. Over the last 10 years, the industry has averaged 56.5 million skier visits annually. For many years as baby boomers were starting to drop out, Gen Xer’s, Gen Yer’s, echo boomers and millennials were dropping in and offsetting any declines, resulting in a mostly flat industry. The high snow stake mark was 2011-12 when more than 60 million skier visits were recorded nationally. There were 54 million visits recorded this past 2015-16 season.

OK, how many ski areas are operating in the U.S.? In 1984-85, there were 727 and today only 524. Yes, the industry has been steadily declining in number because it’s a highly capital- and labor-intensive industry mostly dependent on the weather. Small local areas run by mom and pop’s have not been able to meet the many challenges, while large corporations have purchased, consolidated and invested the necessary capital to upgrade mountain hardware, expand on-mountain and base-area amenities, and aggressively market themselves to a global audience.

Which state has the most ski areas? Colorado, right? No, that honor goes to New York with 51 ski areas, then Michigan with 44, Wisconsin with 31, and Colorado with 30. Close behind are California at 29, Pennsylvania at 27 and New Hampshire at 26.

Then why is Colorado the nation’s No. 1 ski destination? Because while Colorado has only about 5 percent of the U.S. ski resorts, Colorado records 20 percent of the nation’s skier visits. That’s huge. Last season, Colorado Ski Country USA, the state’s trade organization representing 21 Colorado ski areas, reported 7.4 million skier days.

In the U.S., about 11.5 million people report that they ski at least once per year, and about 8.2 million snowboard. In Colorado, the participation number is higher for many reasons.

Colorado annually records the longest ski season (first-to-open, last-to-close) because of natural elevation and high-tech snowmaking and grooming. And in the ski business, elevation means snow, and snow means business.

Colorado has great in-bound access via Denver International Airport and direct air service into many of the major resort communities. Plus our statewide system of interstate and local highways is well-maintained throughout winter. Colorado weather also attracts winter visitors with 300 days of sunshine and bluebird skies. As Colorado residents, we are reminded by our out-of-state friends and relatives of the clean fresh mountain air and clear blue sky.

So what’s up with the downhill business is a blue-sky future. U.S. and Colorado ski resorts will continue to lead the world in winter recreation and many will fully evolve into equally successful summer resorts. Right now, conditions are at their best. Bob Kunkel is executive director of the Durango Area Tourism Office.