Going into the pandemic, the ski industry faced challenges due largely to its core constituency aging out of the activity and younger generations showing less interest in hitting the slopes.
But during Covid-19 restrictions on indoor activities, demographics at U.S. ski areas have broadened, early data suggests.
Now the question is whether ski areas can seize on that momentum by securing long-term increases in people of color as well as younger and less wealthy skiers and boarders.
"It's a big opportunity for the industry to step up," said Dave Belin, director of consulting services at RRC Associates, a market research firm that often focuses on the ski industry.
Speaking on a panel at Northstar Travel Group's virtual Mountain Travel Symposium this month, Belin added that 2021 could be "an inflection point" for the industry. (Northstar Travel Group is the parent company of Travel Weekly.)
According to a study released by the Outdoor Industries Association on March 31, new participants in outdoor sports in 2020 average 45 years of age, compared to 54 in 2019. They also were more racially diverse, with 34% being nonwhite compared to 29% a year earlier. And 59% of the new participants had an income below $100,000, compared to just 54% in 2019.
The study didn't differentiate between downhill skiing and snowboarding, but rather included skiing of all types, as well as snowshoeing.
RRC hasn't completed its ski industry report for this year yet, but Belin said he's confident it will reveal similar trends.
Carolyn Stimpson, co-owner of Wachusett Mountain, which has long enjoyed an unusually diverse customer base due to its location just 60 miles from Boston, said she has especially seen an uptick in the number of families of varied backgrounds that have visited repeatedly this year.
"If you're just doing an eyeball survey, there was definitely more diversity," Stimpson said.
Drawing participants across broader demographics has long been a goal of the ski industry. A National Ski Areas Association study found that in 2019-20 Latinos made up just 6.2% of U.S. ski area visits while African Americans accounted for only 1.8% of visits. In addition, in 2015 more than 60% of ski area visitors had household incomes of more than $100,000 compared with 24.9% of the general population.
Meanwhile, the median age of skiers and snowboarders increased by seven years between the 2004-05 season and 2019-20, to 33.
Gerilyn Davis, founder and Chief Inclusion Officer of Inclusion on the Slopes, which works with ski industry organizations on increasing diversity, said that one key to sustaining the momentum that the pandemic appears to have brought about is to debunk the myth that skiing isn't for everyone.
That goal is reflected in new marketing campaigns, such as the Epic for Everyone slogan Vail Resorts uses to promote its Epic Pass products, she noted.
But, she added, ski areas need to start by diversifying from within. "The biggest gap I've noticed in the snowsports industry is an interpersonal gap in terms of understanding people different from themselves," Davis said.
Cost remains a key factor, and Davis praised Vail for its recent decision to reduce the price of all Epic Pass products for next year by 20%.
Vail spokeswoman Marjory Elwell said the company is committed to diversifying the sport.
"That requires making skiing and riding more inclusive and more accessible and investing to protect the guest experience as we grow," she said. "We don't support efforts to reduce guest visits to mountain resorts as that would only serve to shut the door to new communities and reduce the engagement and vitality of the sport."
Some mountains, though, are taking a different tack after Covid-19 capacity limits led to an improved experience for guests. Montana's Big Sky, for example, will make most season pass holders pay a separate fee of $20 to $80 next winter for any day they choose to ride the Tram up to the expert terrain on Lone Peak. Other resorts, including Sugar Bowl in California and Arapahoe Basin in Colorado, decided to limit season pass inventory next year.
"The 2020/21 season reminded us that we're at our best when the uncrowded experience is preserved," Sugar Bowl executive director of marketing and sales Jon Slaughter said. The resort also increased pass prices.
For day passes, more aggressive capacity management is enabling a number of ski areas to turn more sharply to dynamic pricing, charging more money when demand is highest.
Speaking during the Mountain Travel Symposium panel, Tom Foley, senior vice president of business and analytics at Inntopia, questioned whether that strategy works at cross purposes with a ski area's goal of broadening demographics.
"You're going to have to watch whether dynamic pricing finds a way to include a new lower income, younger consumer," he said.