Older skiers causing demographic snowball for ski resorts

David
David Sali
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On a picture-perfect day during March Break, Jean-Sébastien Saia is feeling snowed under – in a good way.

Jean-Sebastien Saia is the general manager of Edelweiss.

The general manager of Edelweiss in Wakefield barely has time to speak to a reporter; such is the pace of business at the resort during one of the busiest skiing weeks of the season.

“It’s a winter sports mecca here,” he says, referring to eastern Ontario and western Quebec, though he could be talking about many places in Canada. “People like to get out and play in the snow.”

With school out for the week, many of those on the slopes are youngsters, an important target market for ski areas.

People who learn to ski and snowboard when they are kids are more likely to become customers for life, and consequently spend significantly more on equipment rentals, lift tickets and the like, U.S. research shows. But south of the border, at least, ski resort patrons are getting older, with the average age of a customer at U.S. resorts rising from 33 in 1997-98 to 39 last season, according to the National Ski Areas Association.

The share of those heading for the hills who are over the age of 55 has jumped to 17 per cent from seven per cent over that span, the group’s data shows, prompting the industry to search for ways to lure younger folks to the slopes.

“It’s a big challenge for all ski areas in North America, with the diversification of activities out there,” concedes Mr. Saia. “Thirty years ago, if you wanted to do something in the winter, you were skiing or skating. Now there’s indoor water parks, indoor soccer fields. There’s a lot on offer out there.”

‘Greys on trays’

In the Great White North, the numbers tell a similar story. The Canadian Ski Council, which represents about 280 resorts nationwide, says its research shows 307,000 of the country’s estimated 2.2 million active skiers and snowboarders are aged 58 and over – about 14 per cent.

That figure has held steady for the past decade, says the association’s president, Patrick Arkeveld. He says older skiers – “greys on trays,” as The Economist recently referred to them – generally have more leisure time and disposable income than younger Canadians, so it’s not surprising they also hit the slopes more often than any other demographic. Skiers in the 68-plus category head to resorts an average of 18 days a year, while those in the 13-31 age bracket averaged about eight days on the hills in 2013.

“We as an industry are trying to look at ways to encourage that younger demographic to get engaged in the sport,” Mr. Arkeveld says. “I would say it’s a comparable situation, but not as extreme of a situation as the U.S.”

Diversification

Local resort operators say they aren’t worried about a future of empty chairlifts and abandoned ski lodges. On the whole, their business has never been healthier, they argue, thanks to the addition of new attractions such as snow tubing that have broadened their customer base beyond traditional skiers and snowboarders.

“It’s a family outing which is more accessible to anyone,” Mr. Saia says of tubing. “Once they’re here, we try to get them on skis.”

“It’s become increasingly popular,” agrees Liz Murphy, marketing manager and co-owner of Calabogie Peaks Resort, 45 minutes west of Ottawa. “As a parent, you want to go where your kids are going to have fun.”

Calabogie Peaks, like many resorts in the region, also features a beginner bowl with “bumps and jumps” where youngsters can learn freestyle skiing and a terrain park that hosts slopestyle competitions.

The growing popularity of terrain parks with accessories such as rails and boxes, as well as the development of skis with tips on the front and back that allow users to take jumps going forward or backward, has made skiing “cool again” to the younger crowd, says Bob Sudermann, owner of Mont Ste-Marie, a resort about an hour north of Ottawa.

Mr. Sudermann, who also owns Camp Fortune near Chelsea, Que. with his brother Peter, says visits to his resorts during the recent Quebec school break were up 28 per cent from 2013, which itself was a record year.

“Every ski resort has a terrain park now,” he says. “It’s user-friendly; it’s easy to do.”

Mr. Saia agrees the parks have all added a slightly more exotic ingredient to entice newcomers.

“The younger demographic likes the challenge,” he says. “Today, regular groomed trails are not enough.”

Most local resorts also offer special rates for kids and beginners through their own promotions and initiatives such as the Canadian Ski Council’s Grade 4 and 5 SnowPass program, which gives nine- and 10-year-olds discounts at hills across the country, and the group’s Discover Skiing and Snowboarding packages.

“It is not just gearing towards kids to (increase) the market, it’s all the new people that want to come to experience what great winter sport is, whether it’s skiing or boarding,” says Ms. Murphy. “It’s a multi-generational sport. There aren’t many sports where a five-year-old can ski with a grandparent.”

Joanne Clifford, president of Mount Pakenham about 25 minutes west of Kanata, says efforts to get kids and their parents out to the slopes together – including free skiing for children under six on weekends and two-for-one lift tickets and equipment rentals on Saturday nights – have proven to be hugely popular. They have paid off for the resort, which spent $400,000 to expand its lodge last summer.

“We’re finding that’s the way to get people coming back – make it a family thing,” she says. “Families with young kids, they want to do something local, and if they live close to Mount Pakenham, they’re coming out.”

Even the sluggish economy might actually be helping business, resort owners say, because would-be travellers are now having second thoughts about shelling out big bucks for ski vacations outside the region.

“Fewer people are taking the big destination trips, say, to places like (Mont) Tremblant or out west,” says Mr. Sudermann. “They’re skiing local. People are looking at, hey, where can we go within a short drive that’s affordable?”

Sidebar: Heading for the hills

Number of active skiers and snowboarders by age group:

13-31: 806,000

32-47: 750,000

48-57: 389,000

58-67: 270,000

68+: 37,000

Source: Canadian Ski Council

Organizations: Edelweiss, Canadian Ski Council, National Ski Areas Association Calabogie Peaks Resort Quebec school

Geographic location: U.S., Eastern Ontario, Quebec Canada North America Ottawa Mont Ste-Marie Chelsea Kanata

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