Season-pass and hotel demand indicate top year for ski slopes

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T1122Aspen_c_HR [Credit: Courtesy of Aspen Snowmass]
Like ski resorts across the country, signs at Aspen-area ski mountains point to a strong 2021-22 season. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Aspen Snowmass

Record-level season-pass sales coupled with strong advance lodging bookings are pointing toward a banner season for the U.S. ski industry, provided, of course, that the snow is cooperative.

"For any of the resorts with a destination component, [travelers] should book now to make sure they can go when they want to go and to get the most favorable price," said Rusty Gregory, CEO of Alterra Mountain Co., which owns or operates 14 North American ski areas.

Reservation demand at Alterra-owned lodges, plus others lodges that service skiers at Alterra resorts, Gregory said, is up approximately 20% compared with 2019-2020, the season before the pandemic hit.

The story is similar throughout western ski towns, as the industry seeks to build on a surprisingly strong 2020-2021 season now that domestic leisure travel has resumed in force and borders have reopened to key international markets, including Canada, Brazil, the U.K. and the EU.

According to the business intelligence platform DesiMetrics, which tracks bookings in 18 western U.S. mountain resort towns, occupancy for the November-through-April season already on the books was up 18.9% as of Oct. 31 compared with the same date in 2019. (DesiMetrics is a division of Inntopia, a sister company of Travel Weekly.)

That strength is visible in the Aspen area, where Aspen Snowmass spokesman Jeff Hanle said that bookings are ahead of 2019, which was on pace to be a banner year before it was cut short by the pandemic.

T1122JayPeak_c_HR [Credit: Courtesy of Jay Peak Resort]
Ski areas like Jay Peak in Vermont are gearing up for the season. The resort will be helped by the reopening of the U.S. Canada border, though testing requirements could still be a headwind. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Jay Peak Resort

The trend also extends to the Northeast, including Vermont, where the destination ski market was especially hampered last year by a mandatory quarantine of at least a week for all out-of-state visitors.

"I have been hearing from all or our member areas that season-pass sales and reservations for the winter are pacing well," said Ski Vermont president Molly Mahar. 

Information released by Vail Resorts during its September earnings call provide one example of the burgeoning pass market. Sales of the company's Epic Pass, which provides access to up to 43 ski areas in the U.S. and Canada as well as 18 mountains in Europe, Japan and Australia, were up 67% in units through Sept. 17 compared with 2019 and up 42% compared with last year.

In Vail's case, one reason for the uptick is the 20% drop in Epic Pass prices it instituted for this season. But Alterra made no such cut for its Ikon Pass, which provides access to 38 North American ski areas and eight others around the world. And though the privately owned company doesn't release pass sales figures, Gregory called them "gratifyingly strong," adding that sales will jump by the biggest percentage in the pass' four-year history.

Industry insiders say a number of factors are driving the heavy demand, including carryover from last season's surprisingly strong skiing and snowboarding participation. 

Skiing [Credit: Yari Ghidone/Shutterstock.com]
Photo Credit: Yari Ghidone/Shutterstock.com

So much about the ski experience changed as operators scrambled to adapt to Covid-19 protocols. How much will stick? More than you might think.

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Despite the pandemic's impact, in 2020-21 U.S. ski areas enjoyed their fifth-highest number of visits since the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) began tracking participation in 1978-79. In addition, the 10.5 million individuals who skied last year in the U.S. was the most on record.

The industry achieved those metrics despite domestic and international travel restrictions that cut into destination skiing and also despite instituting capacity limitations and mandatory reservations due to the pandemic. Moreover, said NSAA spokeswoman Adrienne Isaac, snowfall is usually the leading factor in determining the strength of a particular ski season, but last year four out of the six NSAA regions had less snow than normal.

Conversely, flexible work and school schedules as well as the relative pandemic-time safety of outdoor recreation boosted skiing participation. An unusually high 47% of U.S. ski visits occurred midweek last year.

"The challenge for ski areas is retaining those people even as their schedules return to normal," Isaac said. 

Renewed enthusiasm for outdoor winter sports is helping to ease that challenge, said Tom Foley, Inntopia's senior vice president of business and analytics. So is the newfound interest many are taking in the spacious surrounds of mountain towns. 

"That's a new mindset that began during the pandemic and has just stuck," Foley said.

Daily lodging rates across the western ski towns that Inntopia tracks are up 20.9% from two years ago, but Foley noted that mountain travelers were already a high-wealth demographic before the pandemic, and many of them have prospered over the past 20 months as the stock and real estate markets have boomed. 

"More than anything, I think we simply have a desire to travel that will tolerate extremely high room rates," Foley said. 

The reopening of international borders will also be a tailwind for the U.S. ski industry compared with last season.

At Vermont's Jay Peak, for example, which sits just four miles from the Canadian border, approximately half the visitors are typically from Canada, according to Mahar. 

But ongoing testing requirements both for entry to the U.S. and for returning to Canada could still depress Canadian visitation compared to the pre-pandemic era, she said. 

At the four Aspen mountains, international visitation typically accounts for 25% to 30% of destination business, Hanle said, with Brazil and Australia being the largest source markets. The reopening will boost business relative to last year. Still, January, which is typically the month that draws the most visitors from each of those countries, is the destination's weakest month for advance bookings thus far this season. "We are seeing how that plays out," Hanle said. 

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