Contributing editor Harvey Chipkin talked to Michael Berry, President of National Ski Areas Association, about the outlook for the ski industry.

TW: How was the winter of 1998-99 for the ski resort industry?

Berry: We saw an exceptional weather pattern this past year with any mountains east of the Sierra struggling. That included much of the Rockies and New England. What really hurt was an extended period of warm weather from December into January -- peak season for us. It was often too warm even for snowmaking. Also, the weakness of the Canadian dollars had an impact on our ski areas, particularly drawing away travelers from Great Britain and Australia. And, at a time when travelers wait until the last minute to book, they were in a position to change their vacation plans. On the other hand, the Sierras and Pacific West did very well because of early season snowfalls.

TW: No matter the weather, the number of skiers has not grown for a number of years. Is there a possibility for a turnaround?

Berry: There are several reasons for optimism. The demographics of the population are favoring those who tend to ski. Also, the vitality of the real estate market in ski areas means people have confidence in the industry's future.

TW: How is technology affecting the ski market?

Berry: There is so much information now and so much of it is real time that people have the ability to make and change decisions very quickly. That gives them the kind of flexibility that didn't exist 10 years ago. Our research tells us that households that ski regularly tend to be true techies and electronic media is a good way to reach these people. They will still use travel agents but they will use the Internet to gain information.

What is both intriguing and potentially unsettling is the use of the Internet to auction off distressed inventory. We hope that doesn't result in price wars.

TW: What's the update on industry consolidation?

Berry: Consolidation has slowed measurably. We are now in for a period of vertical integration, with the construction of hotels and attractions by the large ski area operators. Research shows that more area operators are not just selling lift tickets. They are buying and managing hotels and other amenities and attractions. For agents, that should mean easier bookings through the area operator as a one-stop provider.

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