WHISTLER, British Columbia -- Innovations, both of the technical and non-technical varieties, are what the North American ski industry needs to end stagnant participation numbers, said a cross section of industry professionals at the annual Mountain Travel Symposium Forum.

"In the next 10, 20 years, do we continue to transform and innovate, or do we go into decline?" Kelly Pawlak, CEO of the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) trade organization, asked MTS attendees rhetorically.

According to the NSAA, U.S. ski areas had 9.2 million unique participants in 2018, compared with a 20-year average of 9.7 million. The last time the U.S. industry hit the 10 million mark was 2011.

Meanwhile, attracting a diverse clientele remains a challenge for ski area operators, as 85% of skiers in 2018 were Caucasian, versus 61% of the U.S. population at large.

"We are not keeping up," Pawlak said.

To attract more skiers, speakers on Wednesday called for a broader use of technology, combined with creative approaches to exposing more people to skiing and snow sports in general.

On the technical side, Mike Douglas, a pioneer of freestyle skiing and the founder of the Whistler-based production company Switchback, called for more use of gamification on the mountain to drive participation from the emerging Generation Z. Apps that count how many vertical feet skiers traverse in a day have proven exceptionally popular, Douglas noted.

He also called for ski areas to employ technology in other creative ways. For example, Douglas said, Snowbird in Utah unveiled its own carpooling app this year in an effort to reduce the notorious traffic headed toward the Cottonwood Canyon from Salt Lake City.

"It showed that they are progressive. They are thinking forward. It takes cars off the road. It's good for the environment," he said.

In a later presentation, Vail Resorts chief information officer Tim April detailed the risks Vail took as it led the industry into the age of read-through-clothing lift pass scanning. Vail then built upon that innovation to create its Epic Mix technology, which uses RFID codes from the passes to offer a variety of services, such as tracking skiers' vertical traverse and offering vertical challenges, as well as providing skiers with photos Vail takes of them at various points on the slopes.

In a new innovation, next year Vail will expand its popular Epic Pass, which offers season-long access to 25 North American ski areas at various fixed prices, to include day passes at a discount.

But while technological innovations can make skiing more accessible, less of a hassle and more engaging, they aren't a solution on their own, industry professionals said. Creative new offerings are also needed.

Loveland ski area in Colorado, for example, offers a $30 lift ticket ($25 for children), for access to a lone beginner lift. That's compared to the standard $79 full-mountain lift ticket.

Karl Kapuscinski, CEO of Mountain High ski area just east of the Los Angeles metroplex, talked about the Yeti's Snow Park the resort opened this year in order to expose people to snow. The park offers activities such as simple snow play, tubing and ice climbing for packages ranging from $20 to $70. Customers can also sample the feeling of being on skis or a snowboard.

"Everyone loves snow. Not one kid in the world doesn't love snow. So just get them there," Kapuscinski said. 

Meanwhile, Joe Hession's company Snow Operating is opening an indoor skiing facility within the massive American Dream mall that is slated for completion this year in East Rutherford, N.J. 

The 210,000 square foot attraction, called Big Snow America, will offer a two-hour experience for $69.

Hession, whose company also operates the New Jersey ski area Mountain Creek, said the goal of Big Snow is to move people onto real ski areas.

"We are going after the 97% who don't ski or snowboard," he said. 

There are close to 1,000 attendees of MTS this year. The conference is owned by Northstar Travel Group, parent company of Travel Weekly.

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