Will it be a happy and prosperous New Year for those who bring skiing and riding to so many people? OnTheSnow.com, asked a wide-ranging group of industry leaders in North and South America, Europe, and Down Under to take their best shot at predicting what lies ahead in 2009. All of their responses appeared in the Dec. 29, 2008 issue of the newsletter.
European leaders worry that the global economic downturn, combined with school holidays clustered closer together than usual, could combine into a visitor decline. "The domestic market will still be holding up, and the decrease from neighbouring markets Germany and France will be moderate," Urs Eberhard, vice president for Switzerland Tourism, said. "But, we expect less visitors from Britain due to the 25 percent gain from the Euro against the pound in the past 18 months."
Bernard Prud'homme, director of Chamonix Tourist Office in France, was more concerned about what lies ahead. "Winter 2009 should be a reasonably correct season, even though certain weeks may be more difficult to sell. However, Chamonix is aware that the economic climate will have more serious consequences on the summer 2009 season and the following winter season of 2010."
North American industry leaders generally concur that "good weather" (read: snow) will be the determining factor for the rest of this season and the start of next. "Our view going forward is that, with good weather, most of the industry will be fine," said Tim Boyd, president, of Peak Resorts, owners of small and midsized ski areas in the Midwest, Northeast, and Mid-Atlantic. "Good weather usually trumps everything else."
The drop in gas prices couldn't have come at a better time for "drive to" ski resorts, particularly in California and New England.
"Eighty-five percent of our market arrives by automobile. There has been a palpable sense of relief as gasoline looks to be snuggling in at under $2 a gallon for the 2009 winter," said Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Areas Association. "That said, the depth of our economic woes has us in unchartered waters."
Economic factors and the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics helps the glass stay half full, particularly at Intrawest Resorts, where Whistler-Blackcomb will play dominant venue roles. Intrawest owns resorts in Canada, Colo., N.J., W. Va., and Vt.
"The rapid strengthening of the U.S. dollar will encourage increased U.S. travel to Canada, while economically and currency challenged international guest visits will cause the industry to reminisce about international visitation peaks in 2006 and 2007," said Bill Jensen, Intrawest Chief Executive Officer. "The 2010 Winter Olympics returning to North America (Vancouver/Whistler) will generate global aspirations for U.S./Canada winter vacations in future years."
Bill Marolt, president of the U.S. Skiing and Snowboarding Association, completely agrees. "Media coverage and public awareness of skiing and snowboarding will be increasing over the next year with the excitement of a North American Winter Olympics in Vancouver. This event, coupled with the success of the sport's superstars including Lindsey Vonn, Ted Ligety, Bode Miller, Hannah Teter, Seth Westcott, and Shaun White, among others, will heighten enthusiasm."
The impact of the downturn has some worried that destination resort business will be hurt. Two Colorado leaders acknowledged that, but remained optimistic.
"There is no doubt that the travel and leisure sector is being, and will continue to be, negatively impacted in the short term; and while we have many attributes that differentiate us from other options guests may have, we are not immune to these negative trends," says Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz.
Melanie Mills, president of Colorado Ski Country USA, a resort trade association, says she thinks Colorado will see "a strong year in 2009 with our local and regional markets with some softness in destination and international markets."
Some resort owners need to keep watch on their properties from one end of the country to the other. That's certainly the case with the industry's newest power player - CNL Lifetime Company (a Florida-based R.E.I.T.) that owns 13 ski resorts and 8 mountain resort villages in the U.S. and Canada, all leased back to successful operators. CNL acquired Crested Butte, Colo.; Okemo, Vt.; and Sunapee, N.H., late in 2008.
CNL Vice President Steve Rice, while carefully watching other factors, hit on what many others believe to be overriding: "Sliding on snow is a fundamental human thrill popular since pre-historic times, in addition to being a healthful outdoor pursuit and means for family and friends to connect-the sport is not going away, provided we continue to find effective ways to attract and retain new entrants."
The other side of the industry - those companies who manufacture and sell gear and clothing - have their eyes wide open. "This economic climate is a little bit different than we have experienced in the past as it is really a global issue," says David Ingemie, president of SnowSports Industries America, a trade association of manufacturers. "So we are keeping a close look at the situation and the data as it develops. My guess is that we will do okay if we have a normal snow year around the country."
The ski season is still six months out in the Southern Hemisphere, but leaders in that region have chimed in. "Thankfully, historical trends highlighted through SARS, the Iraq war, 9/11, and others, suggest our customers are somewhat more resilient and less risk averse than the average traveler. Not to mention addicted to snow in many cases," said David Ovendale, general manager of New Zealand's NZSki, trade group.
Miguel Purcell, gerente general at Ski Portillo, Chile, is taking a long-range view and is most concerned about the global warming issue. "We consider this to be one of the greatest challenges that we will face in the next 20 years. We are monitoring the situation closely and are doing everything that we can to help reduce the pollution that is producing global warming."
Jack Turner, the inimitable creator of Snow Monsters, whose characters and efforts dominate children's programming at many U.S. resorts, summed it up like this: "There will be major stress and uncertainty in 2009. We sell a product that is expensive, dangerous, inconvenient, and COLD. Those are the good points."