Head Of Ski Resort Trade Group Talks About Successes, Challenges For Industry

Nov 24, 2019

The winter of 2018-19 was the fourth best season in skier-visits ever recorded by the National Ski Areas Association.

The head of the NSAA was in Park City recently.    In her interview with KPCW,  she talked about the opportunities for the industry, the challenges from their customer demographics, and a future shaped by climate. 

Kelly Pawlak was the featured guest speaker recently at the Park City Chamber/Bureau’s fall tourism event.

She has been the President and CEO of NSAA for two years—the first woman to head up the organization.

Her background includes 30 years working at Mt. Snow in Vermont.      

“Most of my ski-industry career was at Mount Snow.   I was promoted to General Manager at the age of 40.   And I was one of the first women, other than all of those women who were out there who owned ski areas with their families.  But I was one of the first women promoted to that position by a company.   We were owned by Peak Resorts.    Actually at the time we were owned by American Skiing Company.”

American Skiing was the former parent company of the Canyons Resort.

NSAA has been keeping records since 1978.   The group recorded 59.3 million skier-visits in the country last season.   

Pawlak said there were a number of reasons for that—certainly, including the fact that all over the country they saw a lot of snow.       

“And it doesn’t hurt that we had all of these multi-resort season passes out there.   More consumers, because the passes are more affordable and they offer you the ability to ski around, are buying seasons passes.  So a lot of those things came into play.  One thing that I’m most encouraged by is our participant number.  We hit over 10 million participants this past year, the best number on record.  And what this tells us is that not only the same people were out there skiing more days, but some people who had been sidelined, that had lapsed for one reason or another came back out and went on snow.”

Sustainability and climate change is a major concern for ski

resorts.   Pawlak said it’s gratifying that people now want to talk about it, even in Washington D.C.

But she said it’s not necessarily the cause for several ski resorts closing in recent decades.   

“A lot of the ski areas closed back in the mid-80’s to 90’s.   That’s when we saw a big fall-off.   And there were a lot of  ski areas back in the 50’s, 60’s—we just built a lot of ski areas in the country, a lot of rope tows.  And we went from 700 down to about 450.  And a lot of those went out of business.  It could be anything from a family member who didn’t pass it on to the next generation.   It could be a capital thing.  They couldn’t get their snow-making in place, all types of things like that.  But in the last decade, even looking at the Rocky Mountain region, there has been very little change.  We’re stable right now.”

The stats show that only three percent of the U.S. population is skiing—a figure that’s held steady for many years.

Pawlak said there are several factors.    Many are just built in to what a ski resort is.         

“Ski areas are in remote locations, so there’s distance.   There’s cost.  There’s perception.  Some people are worried that they could get hurt.   And they have responsibilities from family and children to work  responsibilities.   So it’s not as simple as going for a hike in the woods.”

They have also seen a drop with young skiiers 13 to 17 years old.    When asked why, Pawlak recalled what she heard from a seminar speaker a couple of years ago.      

“He said, “Teens today are over-scheduled, over-screened and over-protected.”   And I really think he is onto something.  When I talk to families and I ask them why they don’t ski their teens, and they have teens in their household, they talk about all of the things that their kids are involved in.  They’re really busy.  We know that kids nowadays are spending less time outside than their parents did.  So that’s that screen social media aspect to that previous generation we really didn’t deal with.   And then the over-protected.   We’re just much more aware as parents.”

The industry has come up with initiatives to attract skiiers or get them back.    They have designated January as Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month.

Finally, they’re  also pouring money into capital improvements.    Pawlak said last year,  U.S. resorts spent  $443 million on improvements.    About half of that, $242 million, was in the Rockies.    That includes 64 new lifts, with 22 of those in the Rockies.