The issue of growth in snowsports is at the top of every mountain resort’s agenda. But where will that growth come from? Diversifying the participation in snowsports by being more inclusive of groups and people who are not currently participating would contribute to growth in the industry.
Growth has been the focus of NSAA president Michael Berry’s presentations at national conferences and regional trade shows for years. Both the “Growth Model,” developed by NSAA to help resorts understand the dynamic of the skiing and riding consumer, and the NSAA Demographic Study have helped draw a picture of the market and how it might evolve.
The key, of course, is to find new customers. What resort doesn’t want to broaden its customer base? If that is to mean more than simply stealing market share, though, resorts much reach out to people who match the profile of skiers and snowboarders, but who don’t currently participate. This was the focus of RRC’s David Belin at the New England Summit in September. Let’s take a fresh look at some of these potential customer groups that might be underrepresented at your resort.
For the past two or three decades, much of the focus of the snowsports resort industry has been on appealing to a relatively narrow group of customers, predominantly composed of white, middle- to upper-class families who generally live within proximity to ski areas. Several trends are making that strategy problematic, including a general stagnation of wages and salaries for the middle class, increasing racial diversity in the population base, and continued concentration of the U.S. population in urban areas—not to mention a decline in the percentage of two-parent households with children under 18.
Diversifying the customer base for snowsports participants can mean different things to different areas, but likely includes some combination of diversifying in terms of age, family status, gender, household income, participation frequency, and race/ethnicity.
The median age of snowsports participants (the age where half are that age or younger, and half are that age or older) has risen nationally by four years over the past ten seasons. The median age was 38 in the 2012-13 season, up from 34 in 2003-04 (Graph 1). This trend signifies that the participant base is getting older by an average of half a year each season over the past decade.
Certainly, having more older skiers and snowboarders has some positives (many have more free time and discretionary income, and can spend more days per person on the hill), but the directional trend of increasing age is negative for the long term. In particular, the age stats from NSAA’s National Demographic survey indicate that those under the age of 25—our long-term customers—comprise a smaller share of national visits.
Gen Y (born between 1980 and 2000 and currently aged 13 to 33) is a large and key group to reach out to when talking about age diversity. For the most part, this generation consists of children of the Baby Boomers, a group that has historically high participation in skiing and snowboarding.
Programs for teens, college students, and post-college individuals are critical to broadening the age profile of the sport. In recent years, we’ve seen fewer visits by teens, and fewer pass sales to teens. Since collegians, grads, and 20-somethings are generally earning less (see next section), these programs will probably involve price, and might also involve more singles’ action (more on that later).
A greater emphasis on special programs, from 5th-grade passports to college passes and learn-to programs, among others, remains essential to introducing and engaging with this generation.
Several Eastern areas—Killington, Pico, Okemo, Mount Snow, Stratton, Loon, Sugarloaf, and Sunday River among them—are offering discounted passes for 20-somethings this winter, plus a variety of options to collegians, recent grads, and in some instances, anyone under 30.
One key national trend is the concentration of visits attributable to households earning in excess of $150,000 (Graph 2). Over the past five seasons, the share of visits from this cohort has increased to 32 percent (from 27 percent), while at the same time the share of visits from those earning under $50,000 has shrunk to 21 percent (from 30 percent). The data suggest that the industry has succeeded in catering to more high household income (HHI) participants, but at the cost of more moderate income households.
One of the biggest complaints that we all hear is that skiing is too expensive. The question is, has the industry made it too expensive by chasing after those high income households, and in the process losing potential visits from what should be the sweet spot: households in the $75,000 to $150,000 range?
If, as seems likely, that is so, then it’s a problem. Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau show that the number of households earning $75,000 or more has been stable the past four years, at about 8 million total households. But of those 8 million households, the share that are aged 25 to 44—prime early-parenting years—is actually shrinking, dropping from 40 percent in 2005 to only 36 percent in 2011 (the most recent year for which this data was available). The only $75,000+ HHI age group that is growing? Those age 65 and older, which is no longer our core audience.
Aside from the financial pinch felt by many current snowsports participants, there’s another reason for concern here: The 25- to 44-year-old age range is the sweet spot for adult beginners to take up the sport; very few first timers are over the age of 45. And the children of this group are the ones opting into those 5th and 6th grade programs. But because there are fewer households in that age range in the $75,000+ income bracket, the potential upside with this group is limited. The ethnic mix of this group is also changing, as the next section shows.
These statistics suggest that snowsports might need to broaden their appeal to a wider range of household incomes, creating economic diversity in the participation base. One means to that end: reach out to singles and couples without children in the $50,000 to $75,000 household income range, particularly those who live closer to the ski area and don’t have to buy a plane ticket to slide on the hill. Given the underlying economic realities, this large group of singles and couples without children—currently nearly half of first time/beginner skiers and snowboarders (Graph 3, “single, no children” and “couple, no children”)—warrant more attention from snowsports marketers.
This is not to say that families with children are not still a critical component of our customer mix. But it’s also not the only slice of the U.S. population resorts can appeal to. Question is, are you marketing to these other groups as much as to families?
Snowsports has consistently underperformed in terms of attracting its fair share of non-white customers. The potential here may be larger than resorts believe.
For the past decade, the percent of non-white racial groups on the slopes has been steady at about 13 percent overall, and more than half of that group is Asian (Graph 4). Yet nationally, 24 percent of those with HHI above $75,000 are non-white (according to figures for 2011, the most recent year for which this data is available; see Graph 5). The non-white percentage has remained steady even as the percentage of non-whites in the $75,000+ group has grown; this figure was 21.6 percent in 2005.
Middle- and upper-class non-whites will be a growing and is an important audience in the future. And resorts are already drawing these customers: 22 percent of first-timers at resorts nationwide are non-white (Graph 3). It is imperative that resorts find the means to retain and convert this group of beginners.
This percentage of non-white first-timers is bound to rise, too. At present, almost half of all 6- to 12-year-olds are non-white, and the percentage has been growing for decades.
Not that it will be easy to attract non-white participants. Aside from a lack of familiarity with winter resorts, non-white groups participate at a lower level in sports generally. For example, about 63 percent of whites ages 6 to 24 participate in sports; for Asians, that figure drops to 59 percent; Hispanics, 53 percent; and African-Americans, 48 percent. Even so, the rising percentage of non-white beginners shows that there’s room for growth in the non-white population.
Some regions of the country are doing better with non-white audiences already. In the Mid-Atlantic region, where ethnic groups make up more than 25 percent of those with HHI above $75,000, non-whites make up 17 percent of the participant population.
But even New England, which has the lowest rate of non-white participation, is home to some strong programs for ethnic participation. Pats Peak launched its “Pay One Price” program for lift ticket, rentals, and lesson tips several years ago. The program has been aggressively marketed in the greater Boston area. Valid on Saturdays from 3 to 8 p.m., the program has consistently drawn an audience that’s 75 percent non-white. Initially priced at $21, the program was so successful that it overwhelmed the area’s rental shop—as many as 2,800 people showed up. Now, priced at $40, the program typically draws 1,200 to 1,500 a night.
There may be no better example of the impact of price on visitation than that. Given the increasing financial pressure on the 90 percent of the population whose incomes have been stagnant for the past 12 years, pricing will be an increasingly important consideration for many guests—white and non-white alike.
Many of marketing programs are aimed at core customers (season’s passes) and beginners (inexpensive learning programs). But guests who visit from one to nine days comprise the vast majority—about 8 million of the 10 million total participants—and rack up more visits— about 24 million total—than the core (Graph 6), and are largely ignored from a marketing standpoint. Why not seek greater commitment from across the participation scale, not just from beginners and core participants?
Do we know if these infrequent visitors are limited by income? Are time constraints weighing on them? Or are they simply less committed than core customers? It’s important to find out, because they collectively account for a large chunk of business.
The point to all this is to show that there are several avenues available to the industry to broaden the base of participants. But doing so will mean talking to groups and individuals that we have not addressed in decades, if ever. It’s no longer enough to draw on the dwindling audience of middle- and upper-class whites that have sustained the industry in the past. It’s time to reach out.
To dig even deeper, the 2012 NSAA Demographic study is available to NSAA members for $75. Check out www.nsaa.org. for more information.
SAMMY GUEST EDITOR SAYS...
It is my experience that price is a concern for newcomers, and resorts do not often look at the costs involved for a nonskier. I am not speaking about the cost of tickets, lodging, or rentals, but about the other gear they need. At Ski Apache, we teach most of Texas and Mexico how to ski, and most of these people do not own ski/snowboard apparel. We often are asked if we rent snow pants and jackets so they can “try skiing/snowboarding.” We don’t, but rental shops in town do, and seem to be rather prosperous as a result. What would it cost to outfit a family? What if they don’t like skiing or riding after they try it? This could be a large deterrent to people from nonsnow locations.
Another missing link is a lack of cooperation between larger and smaller resorts. Since we teach a large number of beginners, we could partner with a bigger resort and promote it as the place to go for a second, third or fourth ski trip. These beginners won’t spend the dollars to travel to a big destination until they are hooked on the sport. A well promoted joint program could increase both our visit totals.
Working at the southernmost continually operated resort in North America, I know a bit about the Hispanic market. At Ski Apache, there is a time in February—Mexico’s Constitution Day—when you are in the minority if you speak English. These guests love the snow, which is a novelty to many, and they are willing to rent and put on skis/snowboards at 3:00 p.m. just for a chance to experience it. We spend a large portion of our marketing resources on our friends to the south, and it has paid off for us.