The 2015 Outdoor Recreation Participation Topline Report from the Outdoor Foundation includes a breakdown of outdoor participation by activity for everything from Adventure Racing to Wildlife Viewing. In summary, it reports that 48.4% of Americans participated in at least one outdoor activity in 2014, translating into 141.4 million participants engaging in a total of 11.8 billion outdoor events. These are impressive numbers, many of which are skewed – either positively or negatively – by weather patterns; however, it is important to examine individual industries in order to get a better grasp regarding trends.
With the gathering of statistics going back to 2006, the report includes 3-year changes within individual activities that provide a quick snapshot of either increases or decreases in participation. There are similar trends exhibited between Alpine/Downhill Skiing and RV Camping. Putting aside the reported 3-year changes, I think that it is even more compelling to compare the 2014 participation numbers with the high water marks within the 9-year survey period. Measuring people ages 6 and up, skiing peaked in 2010, when there were 11,504,000 participants, decreasing 24.8% to 8,649,000 participants in 2014. Similarly, camping peaked in 2009, with 17,436,000 participants, decreasing 16.1% to 14,633,000 participants in 2014.
Beyond Blaming the Weather, What Is Happening?
I have been working with the family camping industry since 1982, although I started my business in the New England ski industry back in 1980. With an intimate understanding of both industries, one of my most fascinating recent reads was Hal Clifford’s “Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry Is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns, and the Environment”. In this compelling exposé, Clifford documents the evolution of skiing from its roots in Scandinavia, through a growth spurt following the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid (New York), through the development of Sun Valley (Idaho) as the first destination ski resort back in 1935-1938, through the return of World War II’s 10th Mountain Division veterans, through another growth spurt following the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley (California), through the “industrial tourism” that it became in the 1990s – when 3 major companies then controlled 24% of ticket sales from coast to coast. I believe that there are parallels between the downhill skiing and family camping industries.
The ski industry in the United States was essentially given birth in the first three decades of the twentieth century, including the development of Sun Valley as the first destination resort by railroad magnate W. Averill Harriman. By 1938, Harriman understood that there was far more income to be generated than what could be realized through lift ticket sales, adding tennis, golf, fishing, rodeo, hiking and swimming. The “golden age” of skiing took place in the 1950s. This was the period of time when 2,000 veterans from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division returned home from the Italian and Austrian Alps to kick-start the post-war ski industry, founding, managing, or running the ski schools at 62 American ski resorts. In New England alone, there are 605 former ski areas (most operating in the 1950s) that are documented by the New England Lost Ski Areas Project. Most of these were “mom and pop” operations run on snowy hills, with rudimentary rope tows run by the likes of tractors or old Packard automobile engines. In Massachusetts alone, my company has at least two campground clients with campsites that are partially located on the remnants of the slopes and trails of former ski areas.
In the 5 years following the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, skier days increased by 50%, with the greatest increase going to destination reports. The handwriting was on the wall for the mom and pop areas attempting to compete. A decade later, in 1975, there were 745 ski areas in the United States, a number that would drop to 509 by the year 2000. Despite the advent of snowboarding, total visits to ski areas stagnated in the 1980s and 1990s, numbers which would have witnessed double-digit declines if not for snowboarding. According to Clifford, only 15% of beginners go on to become serious skiers. Although 33 million Americans considered themselves skiers or snowboarders (at the time when the book was written, in 2003), only a third of them actually go out even once in any given year.
Part of the problem with the ski industry is the aging of the post-war baby boomers. Statistics have shown that, once they hit the age of 44, the average skiers hang up their skis for the last time. The changing population does not bode well for the ski industry. People today have less leisure time, less disposable income, and new interests – such as fitness clubs and the Internet. Another strike against skiing is that it requires a learning curve, and most people today want instant gratification.
Lift Tickets Equate to Campsites
It is a well-documented fact that most of the ski industry is no longer in the business of selling lift tickets. Even with single-day lift ticket prices topping $100.00 at many ski resorts this past season, those ticket sales cannot begin to cover expenses. In the year 2000, a Poma detachable quad chairlift would cost just under $3 million to install, plus another 15% for site preparation. Then it would cost about $14,000 per month for the electricity to turn the lift. At the same time, an 8-place gondola carrying passengers only 2,200 ft. would run about $6 million, with a monthly electric bill of about $20,000. Not pocket change, even some of the biggest corporate players have faced economic challenges.
Then there are snowmaking costs. Again in the year 2000, the air compressors to run a bank of snow guns cost about $250,000 each, basic snow guns cost about $1,000 each, fan-driven snow machines cost about $10,000 each, and the electricity to make the snow might cost a large resort $1,000,000 per season. Clifford cites an interview with the general manager of Sugarbush Resort (Vermont), who said at the time that his snowmaking costs were $1,000 per acre per inch, with a monthly electric bill of $300,000 to $400,000. For all of this money, skiers and snowboarders get snow conditions that are as predictable as a MacDonald’s hamburger … something that not every skier actually wants. Whether or not skiers demanded the industry improvements, or whether they got caught up in the competitive one-upmanship of corporate skiing, the industry has changed. Just like the cruise industry, the theme park industry, and perhaps what is beginning to happen with camping.
In the ski industry, the profit center is now real estate development, with million dollar building lots for second homes, condominiums for every middle-to-upper income level, fractional ownership, absentee homeowners, and artificial “ski villages” that are designed to keep all of the dollars spent in the resort’s pockets. People who were once attracted to authentic ski towns and their ambiance have found those towns displaced by the new manufactured village concept, with bars, restaurants, shops and hotels all designed to capitalize upon that now lost romantic notion of the ski towns of yesteryear.
At one extreme is the relatively new concept of the private membership ski resort. The Yellowstone Club, in Montana, is only open to members who can demonstrate a net worth in excess of $3 million, paying an initiation fee of $250,000 and an annual $16,000 membership fee – along with the mandatory purchase of property at the resort. Then there is The Hermitage Club, in Vermont, (located at the former Haystack Mountain, one of my favorites back in the day), with an initiation fee of only $75,000 and billboards along Interstate 91 in Connecticut and Massachusetts touting “your own private ski resort”.
The good news is that there is a backlash in the ski industry, with a growing popularity of back-to-basics skiing, often cooperatively owned, at ski areas like Vermont’s Mad River Glen, California’s Bear Valley, and British Columbia’s Shames Mountain. There are also many of the healthier “mom and pop” areas that are still maintaining their niches in their markets.
Yes, there are many parallels between what is happening in the ski industry and the family camping industry in North America. I will leave it to my readers to connect the dots. The bottom line is that there are forces that are driving up the price of camping, that profits cannot be based solely upon campsite fees, and that there is plenty of room for diversity. There are many definitions for the “perfect camping experience”, and it will continue to be the goal of every campground to effectively market itself within its niche target market. Define your park’s experience, and then do everything you can to get the word out, helping the people who want precisely what you are offering to find you.
Change might be inevitable, but the survival – and continuing success – of your business is held within your own hands.
This post was written by Peter Pelland