WHISTLER, British Columbia -- On a recent Friday afternoon, a snowstorm had set in on Whistler Blackcomb ski resort, leaving the upper portion of both mountains obscured in a thickening fog.
But the less than ideal visibility hadn't deterred Peggy and
Edwin Espejo of Burke, Va., from riding the new Blackcomb Gondola high up the
mountain, then transferring to the resort's extraordinary Peak 2 Peak Gondola,
an engineering marvel that took 11 minutes to carry them the nearly 3 miles
between Blackcomb and Whistler at more than 1,400 feet above the valley floor.
As the Espejos stepped off the gondola in their standard
winter clothes, they stood out among nearby riders who were decked out for
skiing and snowboarding. Still, they explained, they and Peggy's parents had
made the two-hour drive from the parents' Vancouver home primarily for the Peak
2 Peak experience.
"It's amazing," Peggy said. "How majestic. I'd
recommend it for my sons."
The North American ski industry has seen stagnant
participation numbers for decades, according to data from the National Ski
Areas Association (NSAA) trade organization. Last year, for example, U.S. ski
areas had 9.2 million unique participants, compared with a 20-year average of
9.7 million. The last time the U.S. industry hit the 10 million mark was 2011.
Industry leaders say a variety of initiatives should be
taken in an effort to replace that stagnation with growth. But as those leaders
gathered here this month for the annual Mountain Travel Symposium (MTS) Forum
(owned and hosted by Travel Weekly parent Northstar Travel Group), one
prominent theme was the need to find novel ways to attract people to the snow.
"Everyone loves snow. Not one kid in the world doesn't
love snow, so just get them there," Karl Kapuscinski, CEO of Mountain High
Resort just east of Los Angeles, said at the forum.
Ski areas have taken steps toward diversifying their winter
offerings for years, most notably through the proliferation of tubing hills.
But this past ski season, Kapuscinski decided to expand
Mountain High's off-slope options beyond its tubing course with the thought
that by offering the uninitiated a simple introduction to winter recreation,
many will eventually graduate to skiing and snowboarding.
The result was Yeti's Snow Park, which offers activities as
simple as merely sitting in the snow or building a snowman, along with
higher-level diversions such as ice climbing and the tubing course. Packages
range from $20 to $70.
Customers can also sample the feeling of being on skis or a
"What we set up with this gateway is an opportunity for
people to come up with basically no pressure," Kapuscinski said in an
interview on the sidelines of the MTS Forum. "Just park your car. If you
like it, we'll direct you to that next step of getting a sense of a lesson
This season, Kapuscinski said, more than 40,000 people
visited Yeti's Snow Park. And though he expects that less than 20% of those
visitors will ever become skiers or snowboarders, Mountain High is already
looking at new ways to diversify. Possibilities include scenic lift rides and a
winter nature trail.
Indeed, offering non-skiers access to the breathtaking views
on display from ski mountains is a diversion that an increasing number of
resorts have begun offering. At Winter Park in Colorado, for example, customers
this season could ride a new, 10-person gondola from the base to the Lodge at
Sunspot for $29 and then take in 270-degree views from a full-service
restaurant at 10,700 feet.
Similarly, at Big Sky in Montana, non-skiers this year could
pay $36 to ride the new Ramcharger chair, which has heated seats and a
protective bubble, then dine at the upscale Everett's 8800 with views of the
slopes and nearby Lone Peak Mountain.
At Whistler Blackcomb, full-service dining is offered at
restaurants at the top of both the Blackcomb Gondola, which came on line this
season, and its counterpart Whistler Village Gondola. Both restaurants can be
accessed from the Peak 2 Peak Gondola.
Indeed, during a lunch last week at Christine's on
Blackcomb, Mary Zinck, travel media manager for Tourism Whistler, said that the
Peak 2 Peak experience is her go-to activity suggestion for visitors who don't
ski or snowboard.
NSAA CEO Kelly Pawlak said she rode a gondola a couple of
times during the week of MTS with sightseers.
"If you make it available, people will take advantage
of it," she said. "Taking the Peak 2 Peak Gondola here, if you're not
a skier, that's an experience of a lifetime."
MTS Forum speakers also said the industry needs to make more
use of innovation, both of the technical and non-technical variety, to drive
Ideas proffered included development of more on-mountain "gamification"
apps to engage millennials and members of Generation Z as well as more creative
lift-ticket pricing, including offering discounted lift tickets that are only
good for lifts in beginner areas.