Back in 2015 I wrote about the corporatization that had taken place within the U.S. ski industry, with a not so subtle warning that the same thing could occur within the family campground industry. My article was inspired by my reading of “Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry Is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns, and the Environment”, a highly compelling 2003 exposé written by Hal Clifford, a former editor of Ski Magazine. In the book, 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. According to the latest (December 2021) report from the National Ski Areas Association, there are today 10 owners of the bulk of the ski resorts in the United States. The largest of those, Vail Resorts, Inc. is traded on the New York Stock Exchange and operates 37 ski resorts in 14 states plus Canada and Australia.
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, I believe that there are parallels between the downhill skiing and family camping industries and the corporatization that is taking place within both.
The “golden age” of skiing took place in the 1950s. In New England alone, there are 605 defunct 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 some instances, former ski areas went on to be reinvented as family campgrounds. Over the next two decades, destination resorts made it more and more difficult for mom and pop ski areas to remain competitive. By 1975, there were only 745 ski areas operating in the entire United States, a number that would drop to 509 by the year 2000 and leveling off to 470 by the year 2020.
Lift Tickets Equate to Campsites
It is hard to believe, but it is a well-documented fact that most of the ski industry is no longer in the business of selling lift tickets. Currently, the price of a single peak-day lift ticket purchased at the ticket window at Steamboat (Colorado), one of 14 resorts owned and operated by Alterra Mountain Company, is now $279.00. That ticket’s counterpart at Big Sky (Montana), one of 10 resorts owned by Boyne USA, Inc., is $225.00 plus another $45.00 if you want to ride the aerial tram. Even at these prices that only the super-rich can afford to pay, those tickets do not begin to cover the expenses of the improvements that customers have grown to expect.
The costs of operations and improvements in the ski industry are simply astounding. Back 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 cost about $6 million, with a monthly electric bill of approximately $20,000. The newest state-of-the-art chairlift is the 8-person Kancamagus 8 chairlift that just opened at Loon Mountain (New Hampshire). Although its cost has not been disclosed, it is certain to have far surpassed the $8,000,000 cost of the 6-person Bluebird Express when it was installed at Mount Snow (Vermont) a decade ago.
Then there are snowmaking costs. The air compressors to run a bank of snow guns cost at least $250,000 each, and basic snow guns cost about $5,000 each. Newer fan-driven snow machines cost about $35,000 each and have built-in air compressors. Either way, the electricity to make the snow might cost a large resort $1,000,000 per season. It is no wonder that many ski resorts have been investing in the installation of mountain-top wind turbines to offset their energy consumption. In Downhill Slide, 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, whether skiers and snowboarders actually demanded the industry improvements, or whether they simply got caught up in the competitive one-upmanship of corporate skiing, the industry has changed.
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.
Yes, there are many parallels between what is happening in the ski industry and the family camping industry in North America, both based upon classic outdoor experiences. Any campground owner is intimately familiar with the costs of improvements, repairs and maintenance, utilities, mortgage interest, insurance, advertising, wages, licensing and entertainment. When your campers are expecting something new and exciting, a new spray park might cost $1,000,000, and a full-sized waterpark might cost $10,000,000 or more. It takes a lot of camper nights and other sources of revenue to recoup those costs even when amortized over the expected lifespan of the improvements. The bottom line is that there are forces that are driving up the price of camping and that profits cannot be based solely upon campsite fees. There is a strong demand for campgrounds as investment properties these days, with parks being bought and sold at a lightning pace, and most of those sales going from mom and pop operations to corporate ownership groups. One such group identifies itself as an investment firm that generates “long term wealth and cash flow while protecting investor capital”, a bit of a departure from friendly camping with mom and pop. Based upon what has taken place in the ski industry, the overall experience for camping consumers might improve, at the expense of losing its personal appeal and affordability. Is it a good evolution for the industry? I doubt it, but time will tell.
This post was written by Peter Pelland