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January 23, 2007

New Magazine-The Ski Journal-Takes on Day Trip Resorts

The Ski Journal is a subscription financed venture that is not filled with the advertising 10 page glossies and pimping for the big resorts that seems to haunt the big publications. Call it a coffee table magazine filled with big pictures and stories that are not tainted by the need to please the big money advertisers.

This week's issue takes on four day trip areas including Jeremy's favorite, Bridger Bowl, Montana.

Condos, alpen-malls and lift-serviced snowshoe trails – resort development has overrun many of North America’s classic ski haunts. Here are four which strive to remain true to their local base while dealing with the challenges upgrading and competing. Featuring Bridger Bowl, MT Alpental, WA Powder Mountain, UT and Mad River Glen, VT.

I have to add Wolf Creek, Colorado to the list. In a recent article in Transworld Magazine, they stated the following:

If you call Colorado’s Wolf Creek Ski Area during business hours, you’ll actually get a live voice; call after 5:00 p.m, and you’ll be greeted by what sounds like an answering machine—there’s no automated voicemail system here. The venerable resort tallied around 216,000 skier visits in 2004/05—record-breaking numbers for Wolf Creek, but small potatoes compared to nearby heavyweights like Vail and its 1.5-million skier visits.

This grassroots appeal—along with an annual snowfall of 30 to 40 feet—is the very thing people love about Wolf Creek. Recently a proposed development in the middle of the resort has stirred a heated battle between resort operators, the Forest Service, Texas-based developers, the county, residents of several nearby towns, and a slew of environmental groups.

As proposed, the Village at Wolf Creek would include around 2,200 housing units—enough for up to 10,500 people—and 222,100 square feet of commercial space on 300 acres of land inside the Rio Grande National Forest. The land, acquired by Texas-based developer Red McCombs in a 1986 land swap with the Forest Service, is surrounded by acres of federal land, including the 1,600 acres that comprise Wolf Creek. The resort currently has no base-area town, and visitors head to nearby Pagosa Springs and South Fork—towns with a combined population of less than 1,000—to sleep, eat, and rent gear.

If you read my entries regularly, you will notice that I have several longstanding opinions:

  • Skiing and snowboarding are becoming increasingly exclusionary sports due to rising prices of gear, lift tickets, lodging, etc. This is making our sport the sport of the rich and super rich and pricing families out of the industry.
  • Mega-resorts that cater to big city affluent folks (read the Vails and Aspens of the world) dominate the landscape of the sport because of their tie ins with ski magazines, marketing outlets, and the big money folks that run the sport.
  • Small resorts are finding it increasingly difficult to expand or offer better terrain, snowmaking, etc., due to the economic disparity between the big resorts and small and due to the fact that most ski areas lose money on the skiing operational aspects of their business, but make money off of ancillary services such as Real Estate, Development, and Commercial businesses that cater to the affluent.
  • Housing, Wages, and Benefits for workers in the industry remain poor which further increases the gap between the wealthy folks that can afford to ski and the rest of the folks that have to work as waiters, lift operators, or hotel workers to get their season pass at the local resort.
  • When you drop $83 per day for a lift ticket and that is more than most of the employees at the resort make for that day ($9 per hour X 8 hours per day = $72), you have an industry that is priced beyond the reach of a growing number of consumers.
  • The economic forces that allow ski resorts to charge $83 are simple supply and demand. There are not enough resorts, enough runs, enough lift capacity, enough good terrain, or enough snow to support more than 60M skier visits per year and the big resorts already have their share of the affluent folks that everyone wants because they are the ones that fuel the bottom line. So the smaller day trip resorts without condos to sell, hotels to fill, shops to sell gear, and the other economic advantages of the majors, fight for the scraps of day trippers on a budget.

Ironically, the populist party lead by folks like Ted Kennedy, John Edwards, and John Kerry give their "Two Americas" speech over and over, yet they participate in a sport (see Michael Kennedy's death at Aspen in 1998 and John Kerry's snowboarding in 2004 prior to the election) that most of the people in that "other America" can not even dream of enjoying. Add in the fact that environmental groups move to block every single expansion of every single resort in an attempt to keep the world "pristine". With no expansion, resorts will continue to raise prices and the demanding and wealthy public will continue to pay it.

This is what two Americas is, my friends. One America where the rich have their own sports like polo, yachting, and increasingly skiing; another America where the rest of us save for months to afford to take day trips to places like Wolf Creek, Colorado, where we can afford to ski because they offer a no frills experience for under $50 per day. A sport where in order to snowboard, people have to steal gear since a new board and bindings run over $600. Wolf Creek, Alta, Bridger Bowl, A-Basin, Loveland, Brian Head, Arizona Snowbowl, among others, are the antidote to this world. All have lift tickets for around $50 or less. Most are no frills areas with minimal night lifes and minimal or affordable lodging.

I am not saying that we need to not allow them to ever expand because it will change their character, although some suggest just that sort of thing. I am suggesting that we indeed allow them to expand, but in measured and reasonable ways--things like adding snowmaking or installing new lifts or opening new terrain. We allow them to develop their areas, and even build reasonable base areas and condo developments. These condos and base areas help support the sport and keep these places in business. Many locals and environmentalists don't want any growth because it will change the character of their favorite spots.

I want more people to enjoy the sport. I want more folks to be able to afford to ski. I want my friends to go and to be able to afford to go more often. I want middle class people to take their kids. But strangely, a lot of the affluent folks don't want us at their areas unless we can afford to be there. As if my dad skiing on my hand-me-down skis and wearing my hand-me-down jacket diminishes their enjoyment of the sport of the super rich.

Let them keep polo and yachting. I want skiing back for the rest of us.

Posted by Justin at January 23, 2007 01:03 PM


great post. i'm in total agreement about regular families increasingly priced out of the sport. as a kid growing up I was never able to join the ski and snowboard club because my family couldn't afford the gear, lift tickets, etc -- and that was in the early 90's. now it's only gotten worse.

Posted by: ianmackenzie at January 24, 2007 12:55 PM