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Nadia Guerriero Beaver Creek with SAMs Olivia RowanSAM Magazine—Savannah, Ga., May 12, 2023—The 2023 National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) National Convention and Tradeshow drew more than 840 mountain resort professionals, suppliers, and speakers to Savannah, Ga., for three days of networking, learning, and celebrating what the numbers show was a successful 2022-23 winter season for U.S. ski areas, which saw a record 64.48 million skier visits, smashing last winter’s record of 60.7 million visits. 

The event’s program included a variety of educational sessions, a trade show, networking opportunities, and several awards recognizing resorts and individual members of the industry.

During her opening keynote, NSAA president and CEO Kelly Pawlak revealed the record visitation while also cautioning that rapid growth can strain company culture and that we’re in the midst of a complicated time in the industry’s history. Pawlak’s overall message was one of optimism, and she encouraged resorts to continue to collaborate and work even harder to lead the way in combating existential challenges such as climate change.

Pawlak was followed by Alterra Mountain Company CEO Jared Smith, who introduced NSAA Lifetime Achievement Award honoree Rusty Gregory. Smith began by asking the crowd how many people have had some sort of exposure to Gregory in their career, and nearly half the room raised their hand. 

Gregory’s acceptance speech covered a variety of topics. Like past Lifetime Achievement honorees, he thanked the people he’s worked with and focused on the importance of taking care of resort employees. “We need to pay them as much as we can, not as little as they’ll take,” he said. Gregory also complemented the professionalism of today’s industry members, quipped about the unpredictability of winter, and stressed the importance of running a profitable enterprise in order to reinvest in people and infrastructure. 

As always, educational sessions covered topics of interest, such as risk management, DEI, human resources, technology, lift safety, and more. 

Bringing Key Industry Players Together

The larger general sessions featured panels with representatives from the industry’s big players sitting side-by-side discussing topics such as technology and lift safety. 

For example, Tuesday’s “Leveraging Technology to Enhance the Modern Guest Experience” included Boyne Resorts president and CEO Stephen Kircher, Vail Resorts Western Region SVP and COO Doug Pierini, and Alterra Mountain Company CEO Jared Smith. The moderator was Aspenware CEO Rob Clark.

The panelists spoke to each of their respective company’s efforts, with Smith adding a unique perspective having only been in the ski industry for about two years compared to Kircher’s and Pierini’s decades of experience. Although, it’s clear that he understands the landscape and the pain points the industry faces. 

Echoing the opinion of an increasing number of industry leaders who see the number of active participants as a better indicator of growth than our standard benchmark of skier visits, when the conversation turned to pricing and growth, Smith said we need to grow the sport and not just get the same people to come more often. The rising price of day tickets may be part of the issue, he thought.

The differences between each company’s strategy were laid bare when season passes were discussed, with Kircher advising the audience to not oversell season passes because it limits how you can control capacity and the experience. Pierini, acknowledging the contentious topic, said Vail Resorts is not going to stop selling season passes because it’s part of the company’s strategy, but it does limit day ticket sales on certain days at certain properties to address the capacity and experience issues.  

Another example of putting major players on the same panel was Wednesday morning’s keynote session, “Everything Lifts.” It included Vail Resorts senior advisor Pat Campbell, Alterra director of mountain development Eric Mann, Boyne Resorts SVP of mountain operations Mike Unruh, Holiday Valley (N.Y.) general manager Dennis Eshbaugh, Leitner-Poma of America president Daren Cole, and Doppelmayr USA president Katharina Schmitz. SE Group president and CEO Ken Sharp was the moderator.

The powerhouse panel covered the gamut, from planning, design, and construction to lift safety, staffing, maintenance, and more. 

In a session with Dr. Homer Wilkes, USDA under secretary for natural resources and environment, took questions from the audience on how the U.S. Forest Service will invest record levels of federal funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act to meet the challenges of climate change, wildfire risk, etc. Many of the questions from the audience were about funding for employee housing, both the building of it and costs associated with planning for it. There was also talk about funding for wildfire mitigation and reforestation after fires.

The convention capped what was a successful season, business-wise, for the industry. The SAM team enjoyed seeing old friends and making new connections.