July 2022

Strength by Association

Regional and state ski area associations have evolved their roles amid changing times, finding new strengths.

Written by Bob Curley | 0 comment

Just as ski areas have weathered the Covid-19 storm over the past couple of years, regional and state associations representing the ski industry have had to adjust to meet the demands of such rapidly changing conditions. 

In-person meetings were shut down, in some cases costing associations an important revenue source. Advocacy missions shifted toward fundamental issues such as whether members could even open for business, and if so, under what kind of restrictions. Requests for support from association members boomed as ski areas grappled with issues like safety and staffing, exacerbated by Covid.

But there were positives, too. Association operations were streamlined. Communications and outreach efforts were adapted to the new virtual operating environment. And in many cases, collaboration efforts among associations and with government entities improved around the shared mission of keeping winter sports alive during the height of the pandemic, when people desperately needed a healthy way to get out of their homes and enjoy some exercise and stress relief.



“Covid has changed our business model,” said Ski Areas of New York (SANY) president Scott Brandi. 

Bottom line. After many years with strong financials, said Brandi, SANY struggled to stay in the black when Covid dramatically reduced the association’s free skiing program for kids and midweek lift ticket discounts. “A lot of things that created positive revenues for us have been scaled down or eliminated,” he said.

The organization will make up the shortfall from its strong fund balance—“we can withstand a rainy day,” said Brandi—but Covid has compelled SANY to take a hard look at these programs and their outsized impact on the bottom line. 

Ski Vermont faced a similar dilemma. “The association’s revenue stream was interrupted, so we had to address that without putting more pressure on our members, who also had their own revenue challenges,” said president Molly Mahar. “We did that by getting a Paycheck Protection Program loan and getting it forgiven, slashing expenses, and working with our members to add more restrictions to our revenue program products, which allowed us to sell them without impacting our members on weekends and peak days. We were able sell just enough to make the numbers work along with the expense reduction.”

Association membership levels, on the other hand, have generally remained stable. SANY represents 36 of the 50 ski areas in New York, for example, picking up five new members during the pandemic. And the association did manage to hold its annual conference in September 2021, drawing 330 attendees—albeit about 20 percent less than normal. “Hopefully, Covid will continue to ease up and attendance will come back to normal next year,” said Brandi.

Member engagement during the pandemic largely went virtual, although, as in New York, some associations began meeting in person again as of late summer 2021. “We just wrapped up our first in-person conference since 2019 with stronger than expected participation,” said Jason Paterson, the Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba chairman for Canada West Ski Areas Association (CWSAA). Ski California also reported near-normal attendance at its August 2021 Lift Maintenance and Operations Education Conference.

An expanded role. Leaders of the nine state and regional ski associations who spoke to SAM said that Covid-19 did not fundamentally alter their core mission or lead to any significant reductions in membership. For example, Paterson said CWSAA’s primary areas of focus—safety and risk management, sustainable market growth, people and talent development, and government advocacy—“remain our strategic objectives.”

“That said, the pandemic forced the association to become our industry’s vector of information on ever-changing mandates and regulations from provincial and federal governments,” said Paterson. “The association also took on a much larger advocacy role for our membership in ensuring that the ski industry was front-of-mind when policy was being made … We needed to change our focus to increase advocacy while temporarily putting other objectives on a slightly lower priority.”

Ski Vermont continued to focus on its core mission of governmental and regulatory affairs, marketing, and public relations/public affairs, said Mahar. However, the association has recently directed more attention and resources toward the issue of workforce development and housing, too.

Like its neighbors in Vermont, Ski New Hampshire ramped up advocacy efforts around workforce and housing during Covid. “We’ve really stepped up our involvement in exploring creative housing solutions and getting more involved in supporting housing legislation that will hopefully encourage more workforce housing development,” said Ski New Hampshire president Jessyca Keeler. “Advocating for legislation that addresses climate change and energy efficiency has taken on a more important role for us as well, including getting involved with New Hampshire’s electric vehicle infrastructure buildout.” 



“One of the biggest gifts Covid has provided our association has been the collaboration with all other ski associations across the country,” said Amy Reents, executive director and president of the Midwest Ski Areas Association.

Many associations have taken part in weekly calls with the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) about Covid and other concerns. “We are continuing regular calls to work together and with NSAA on national issues such as international workforce and climate change advocacy,” said Mahar.

Michael Reitzell, president of Ski California, said his association was also “positioned to handle important aspects of Covid through government relations and working with NSAA.

“The former was key to allowing our resorts to remain open. We came down to the wire and worked together with our member resorts to convince the government to allow us to operate,” said Reitzell. “On the latter, we immediately started working with NSAA and fellow state associations, so our resorts were ready to adopt ‘Ski Well, Be Well.’”

Communication channels. “Our association took the lead on drafting Covid operating guidance and negotiations with the state to get those approved so our members could reopen and operate for summer 2020 and winter 2020-21,” said Mahar. “We sent numerous updates on aid, operating guidance, and more as the situation was constantly changing. We hosted weekly Covid ops calls to allow our members to discuss issues and ask questions to make sure that members were informed, supported, and aligned as much as possible.”

“The communication piece was key,” agreed Keeler. “Prior to the pandemic, we would have around five board meetings a year, plus our annual meeting and conference, and we’d send out occasional newsletters to share important or useful information with members. Shortly after ski areas shut down in mid-March of 2020, I started hosting weekly Zoom meetings with any of our general managers that wanted to join.

“These meetings were initially done so that I could share developments related to the pandemic, but they became useful working groups as we worked to develop reopening guidance,” continued Keeler. The meetings also became a platform for resort GMs to share ideas and collaborate, she said. This valuable resource has continued on a bi-weekly basis “to keep the members informed about any number of things and to give them a chance to bounce things off of their peers.”

In West Virginia, the need for collaboration around Covid helped strengthen ties between the ski industry and the state, said Joe Stevens, executive director of the West Virginia Ski Areas Association. 

“The association was the direct link between the state’s ski industry and the governor’s office in putting a plan together to get through the first Covid season,” said Stevens. “Since then, the relationship with the state’s Secretary of Tourism has gotten stronger.” 



Another unexpected positive arising from the pandemic was the increase in demand, as snowsports were perceived as one of a handful of safe and healthy outdoor activities that people could enjoy in winter. Demand continues to be high, and, like ski areas, associations both welcome the interest and are faced with the need to solve the resulting capacity issues.

Looking ahead, said Reitzell, “The biggest challenges are climate, staffing, and housing. Our resorts are probably unanimous on those challenges.” The same sentiment was shared by associations across North America.

“I am concerned due to staff shortages that we may not be able to offer the best experience possible,” said Reents. “We have worked hard to grow this sport for years, and it seems to only move upward slowly. Right now, we are on an uptick that we need to take advantage of to the best of our ability.”

Workforce issues became so acute at ski areas during Covid-19 that the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association (PNSAA) decided to rebrand its annual conference and launch a podcast around workforce development. 

Mountain Works. PNSAA president Jordan Elliott led the charge to expand the general session at the association’s annual conference into a full-day event called the Mountain Works Assembly. High in production value, the Assembly brought a fun but intense focus on housing and wages, among other top issues facing association members.

For example, one of the many speakers was an Oregon state economist that the association has worked with before, Damon Runberg, who “took us on a deep dive into changes in the labor pool, including industries where water is a foundational layer of the job (commercial fishing, guiding, etc.),” said Elliott. 

Runberg encouraged ski areas to develop relationships with these “other season” employers by hosting reverse job fairs in an effort to off-board winter seasonal staff to them, said Elliott, “and to also reciprocate in finding ways to take on their staff when the temps start to dip and people start migrating back upstream.”

PNSAA also launched an initiative to attract veterans to the winter sports workforce. “We know that much of our industry was founded by veterans as they left the service in the middle of the last century,” said Elliott. “We are looking for ways to reinvigorate and continue that heritage. While we are focusing on building our technical workforce, like lift technicians, there is a home for our veterans in the mountains. We need to find the best way to build that path for them.”

Elliott also hosts PNSAA’s new Mountain Works podcast. “Prior to the launch of that, the only workforce education opportunities were at the three-day conference, once a year,” he said. “The podcast is a workforce education and Pacific Northwest cultural resource available on demand. Most staff have a half hour or more commute to their area. The hope is that the pod is an easy and entertaining way for staff to feed their brain on their way to and from work.”

Optimistic outlook. Despite the myriad challenges presented to the industry in the last few years, and continued concerns about issues like staffing and climate change, association leaders are overwhelmingly optimistic about the future. 

“The interest for skiing and snowboarding is higher than ever,” said Yves Juneau, president of the Quebec Ski Areas Association. “A lot of people came back to the sport. With 75 ski areas spread across the province, we are in a good position to perform well and [promote] skiing as the best winter sport for families.”