Ski areas in Rockies see 7.2 percent drop in visits; U.S. data worse

SAN ANTONIO — In the worst ski season in 20 years, the winners stayed flat and the losers lost big.

“I think we dodged a bullet,” said Dave Riley , chief of Telluride ski area, where visitation remained steady through the 2011-12 season while nationally visits fell 16 percent to 51 million, a 20-year low.

Telluride joins a handful of Colorado ski areas – like Eldora, Wolf Creek, Echo Mountain, Durango Mountain Resort and Aspen Skiing Co.’s quiver of four hills – that saw visitation remain similar to the record season of 2010-11. Wyoming and New Mexico — home to the thriving Taos Ski Valley — were the only states to show annual increases in visitation. Overall, the Rocky Mountain region, which includes Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, bested the national 16-percent decline with a mere 7.2 percent drop to 19.4 million visits. Resorts in California were on the other end, with visits plummeting more than 20 percent in a season that saw a first-ever snowless December.

The mood at the annual National Ski Areas Association convention — a typically celebratory confab of several hundred resort operators from all snowy corners — was not the same as recent gatherings, where resorts reveled in record showings despite economic turmoil.

Recovery and resiliency reigned at this year’s rally of goggle-tanned optimists.

“We are eternally optimistic. We see an anomaly winter and we know it’s going to get better next year,” said Steve Rice , the managing director of Florida’s CNL Lifestyle Co., a real estate investment trust with 16 ski resorts and seven ski-area villages. “Still, I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that this year’s silver lining is that it demonstrates a worst-case scenario. We know what the bottom looks like.”

Indeed, it would be hard to get any worse.

The 20-year low in visitation stalls a record streak that saw U.S. resorts posting three record showings in the last five seasons. The statistical litany of last year’s declines revealed what every U.S. resort operator suspected: the 2011-12 ski season will forever rank as one of the ugliest ever, with record levels of decay from coast to coast.

Across the country, average snowfall at ski areas was down 41 percent , marking yet another record low in the last 20 years. Half of the country’s resorts opened late with man-made snow and closed early in a sweltering March that saw ski-area temperatures reaching the 80s.

“It takes a season like this to remind us how much snow does inspire visitation,” said Dave Belin , an analyst with Boulder’s RRC Associates, during a groan-heavy presentation of the season’s statistics at the convention of the 321-resort NSAA. “We’ve survived some of the economic trouble with no problem but snowfall really goes hand in glove for visits.”

Still, the silver linings are evident. Lessons increased, as did overnight and international visitation. While season pass use declined, lift ticket yield increased.

And best of all, season pass sales for 2012-13 — sold in the spring and a financial bridge for resorts that typically slumber in summer — appear to be stronger than last year’s average of 9,500 pass sales per U.S. ski area.

“That really surprised us and we are encouraged,” said Scott Myers , a Wells Fargo lending executive who helps direct $500 million in loans to more than 20 ski areas.

After this season, all but one of those ski areas are in compliance with the lending terms, although all are still making their payments on time. Myers said his team is hoping to increase its lending to ski areas by another $500 million.

“We definitely see opportunity in the ski industry,” Myers said. “The ski industry has shown it is insulated through economic cycles and we expect the occasional rough season. We remain committed and we want to grow.”

Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374 or

By the numbers


41 percent

Drop in U.S. snowfall from 2010-11, the biggest in 20 years

7.5 percent

Drop in the average number of days resorts were open

29 percent

Decline in visits heading into January

7.2 percent

Decline in visits to Rocky Mountain resorts, to 19.4 million, lowest since 2003-04


48.5 percent

Visits nationwide that were overnight visits, up from 46 percent; they also were up in the Rocky Mountain region

8.2 percent

Lessons given in all visits, up from 7.7 percent in 2010-11

8.8 percent

Increase in lift-ticket yield, partly because of a 10 percent decline in the use of season passes

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