Although snowfall totals improved in the latter part of the season, particularly in the west, anemic snowfall across much of the U.S. caused total skier visits to plunge over 15% from last year. According to a preliminary report released by the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), this season resulted in 51 million visits, the fewest since 1991/92. This was in comparison to a record 60.54 million visits last year.

Despite the poor season overall, the performance of various regions and individual resorts varied greatly. For example, Vail Resorts, owner of several ski areas across the western-U.S., recently reported a 12.4% decline in skier days across its portfolio of resorts. However, while its Colorado locations experienced a more-modest decline of 8.9%, its California resorts suffered a 24.2% drop in visits. Encouragingly for Vail investors, though, its revenue has remained essentially flat thanks to robust sales of prepaid season passes and a 13.4% increase in ancillary spending per visit.

Aspen and Snowmass managed to buck the trend, reporting a 2.1% increase in skier visits through the end of February, as well as solid gains in accommodation occupancy rates. These resorts have benefited from their status as destination resorts, which are less reliant on weekend car travel or last-minute domestic bookings. International travelers and those seeking longer stays tend to book far in advance and are less likely to cancel. Furthermore, the high-end consumers that such mountains cater to are attracted to the overall experience (i.e. shopping, fine dining, etc.), rather than solely optimal skiing conditions.


Other bright spots were witnessed in parts of the Northern Rockies, where snowfall totals were more substantial. Whistler Blackcomb (British Columbia, Canada) recently reported that skier visits were 5% higher than last year through April 30th and cumulative snowfall was well above its 10-year average thanks to record-breaking March snowfall. Likewise, consistent snow and promotional offers helped attract domestic skiers to Big Sky Resort in Montana, and allowed it to achieve record skier visits.

In contrast to these more resilient areas, eastern resorts were hit hard, with the NSAA estimating that days of operation declined 13.9% in the Southeast and 13% in the Northeast despite many early openings due to a freak October snow storm. Trade groups in New Hampshire and Vermont have also projected that skier visits could decline as much as 20% at some resorts. In contrast to some of their western counterparts, these resorts are more dependent on day trip and weekend skiers/riders, who are heavily influenced by snow conditions.

Considering all of this, some may question what, if any, other hangover effects the dismal 2011/12 will have on next season. While it can be argued that a lackluster season may diminish enthusiasm going into next year, pent up demand could help sustain a recovery. After the 1980/81 season, when a similar dearth of snow led to a 17.6% decline in skier visits, the following year rebounded with an increase of 27.7%.

It is interesting to note that after the struggles of the 1980/81 season, many resorts substantially increased their investment into snowmaking technologies in an effort to help insulate themselves from poor weather. This year could result in a similar push, and may also increase the emphasis on the season pass sales that buoyed companies such as Vail.


That said, early readings on sales for 2012/13 season passes have been promising, the NSAA notes that guest service satisfaction is at an all-time high, and a recent study revealed that outdoor activity participation rates are on the rise in the U.S. Against this backdrop, while this season was trying for both the industry and enthusiasts alike, whiter pastures may lie ahead next year.