The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) announced that skier visit numbers to U.S. areas totaled 59 million for the 2020/21 ski season, the fifth-best season on record and a strong recovery from the pandemic-shortened 2019/20 season.
A skier visit is counted every time a skiing or snowboarding customer visits a ski area or resort. These numbers are compiled annually as part of NSAA’s Kottke End-of-Season and Demographic Studies. NSAA began surveying visitation in the 1978/79 season.
“What a year it has been. From utter uncertainty to a Top 10 season in terms of participation. It shows the wide spectrum that our industry bridged this year,” said Kelly Pawlak, NSAA President and CEO. “We are proud of the collaborative adoption of COVID-19 best practices that all ski areas implemented and diligently followed from opening to closing day. Americans yearned for safe outdoor recreation, and ski areas across the country delivered.”
Additional data shows that the average U.S. ski area was open for 112 days this past season, up from 99 days in the pandemic-shortened 2019/20 season. While forced closures impacted many ski areas last season, this year that was not the case. Ski areas, for the most part, remained open for their planned season duration.
Small and medium-sized ski areas (defined by lift capacity) performed well this winter, with more consumers choosing to stay close to home for ski trips and increased local demand for outdoor recreation in general.
The pandemic affected both ski area operations and consumer behavior. Among responding ski areas, the most common COVID-19 adjustments were skier capacity limits, both indoor and on-mountain; advance purchase or reservation requirements for both lift access and rental equipment; and changes to, or elimination of, group lessons. Despite these challenges, 78 percent of ski area operators said the season exceeded their expectations.
“People had to change their habits during the pandemic, and ski areas were no different,” Pawlak said. “We tried new things and quickly learned that not only did they function as planned, but many of these ‘work arounds’ improved the experience for our guests and staff members. Ski area operators will use this experience to continue trying new techniques and technology.”
These new technologies included online reservation systems and updated e-commerce solutions as many ski areas required the advance purchase of lift tickets to ensure compliance with local capacity restrictions. This resulted in the decline of window ticket sales from 46 percent in 2019/20 to 17 percent in 2020/21. As expected, the percentage of visits from season pass holders rose to 51 percent from 45 percent in the previous season.
In previous seasons, consumers skied most often on weekends and holidays, making it a consistent challenge to fill the slopes midweek. This past season, weekday visitation was responsible for 48 percent of total visits, a 27 percent increase from the previous season. Capacity restrictions, remote work and school flexibility allowed for more skiers and riders to visit ski areas midweek.
The implementation of public health best practices kept consumers, staff and communities safe, but also posed challenges for the industry. Lessons decreased in number by 30 percent, owing to the prohibition of group lessons, which are traditionally popular. Conversely, participation in a solo activity like snow tubing, which can be enjoyed by a group, but in your own tube distant from others, doubled.
These same public health practices led to the cancellation of large-scale events and imposed severe limitations on dining services. As a result, it is expected that revenues in these ancillary lines of business will be down in 2020/21. That data is still being analyzed. However, ski areas adapted to these changes with 41 percent implementing online ordering for food and beverage outlets.
Like many industries, ski areas struggled to find workers this season. Sixty percent of responding ski areas stated that they were not fully staffed this winter. The pause on J-1 and H-2b international worker visa programs was a contributing factor. The average ski area was short 55 employees, half of whom would have come on an international work visa.