Originally posted on June 2, 2020. Edited on November 2, 2023.
When I initially published this blog, I delved into Donny O’Neill's article in POWDER Magazine on “How COVID-19 Would Change the Future of Backcountry Skiing.” It piqued my interest then due to its resonance with my brand strategy efforts while launching and managing the Majesty Skis brand in North America over the past few years. Since that time, significant developments have unfolded. Notably in the context of this blog post, Powder Magazine faced financial challenges, leading to its temporary disappearance, only to be recently revitalized to the delight of its audience. Additionally, the landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic has evolved, and the world has gradually reopened for business. In light of these shifts, it's time to revisit the insights shared in this blog.
Climate change... Is the ski business declining?
As a lead-in to my June 2020 blog post below, I should mention that in recent years, I've heard numerous speculations about whether skiing is a declining sport or if ski manufacturing might be doomed due to external factors such as climate change, changing demographics, new consumer buying behavior, or new leisure habits. According to the Snow Industries America association (SIA) in 2010/11, there were 12.8M skiers and 8.2M snowboarders in the U.S. In pre-covid 2018/19 season, there were 14.9M skiers and 7.8M snowboarders in the U.S. This data shows that skiing grew by 2.1M active participants, while snowboarding declined slightly by 400K participants in the last decade, in the U.S. alone. Skiing is still clearly a growing sport and business.
Below I have outlined a few of my own observations and additional context analysis for why I agreed with Donny O’Neill’s reporting that backcountry skiing was getting more visibly popular due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, from my own experience in the ski business at the micro and macro levels, the pandemic has not been the main and only cause of the growing popularity of backcountry skiing. It is just one of several factors that I have outlined below.
The COVID-19 Effect on the Ski Business
Unquestionably, the COVID-19 pandemic took everyone in the ski business for a spin. With ski resort closures and the entire 2020 spring ski season in North America wiped out, it was a rough ride for anyone making a living in this industry. While a handful of ski resorts might have reopened for limited, late spring skiing, most remained closed, while a few might have opened for summer activities like mountain biking, but also at limited capacity. Overall, it was hard to predict anything constructive about the following ski seasons and how the COVID pandemic would further affect businesses and consumers alike. What we knew then for sure was that many COVID-related restrictions, social distancing guidelines, as well as new social and travel habits would remain in place for the foreseeable future, severely affecting businesses that were dependent on a steady flow of paying visitors. Because skiing is predominantly a "social" sport, the pandemic affected how people gathered at ski resorts, rode up lifts together, or how many skiers were allowed in a gondola. Not to mention the restrictions of pre-booking your day passes or prioritizing season pass holders.
By March 2020 there were rumblings in the ski community about the many new unknowns, suggesting that some skiers might hold off on their planned 2021 season lift ticket purchases, while others might even abandon resort skiing altogether in favor of backcountry skiing. At the time of my original post, I wrote that: "It will be interesting to see how this situation develops, but overall, I agree that COVID-19 might already be triggering an explosion in backcountry skiing as a new activity for many skiers. This could be one way for skiers to hedge against the risk of pre-paying for season passes and not knowing how resorts might adapt to the new normal."
This also meant that the business of backcountry skiing was expanding faster then before. Brands that should be experiencing growth were already specialized in backcountry gear design and manufacturing. It was safe to assume that this specific vertical of the ski industry would most likely continue to accelerate in the coming season and beyond.
The Hindsight is Always 2020 - no pun intended...
This speculation held significance as, in the dynamic landscape of a rapidly evolving and expanding business vertical, but there was also an anticipated ripple effect - what O’Neill elaborated on in the POWDER article. These concerns extended beyond the theoretical, delving into critical issues like mountain safety, avalanche and rescue training, trailhead crowding, and environmental considerations. In the specific realm of ski gear design and manufacturing, backcountry focused brands such as Majesty and others that were firmly established in this vertical, had already curated comprehensive product lines devoted to backcountry ski technology. Positioned strategically, these brands seemed poised for growth with a more foreseeable trajectory and reduced risk compared to larger ski equipment manufacturers historically centered on servicing ski resorts, managing mass-manufactured rental fleets, or predominantly designing and producing resort skis for consumers bound to traditional ski lifts.
However, what should have also been foresighted—and now, with hindsight, is apparent - is the surge of those traditionally non-backcountry brands entering the backcountry domain. Anticipating this influx, especially in the touring gear segment, could have considered the saturation of the market with an overwhelming volume of gear. This saturation led to rampant price reductions, particularly by major retail outlets during peak seasons, while smaller shops grappled with inventory sell-through and resultant overstock. In hindsight, an unforeseen element emerges: the confluence of disruptions induced by the Covid-19 pandemic, the rise of the work-from-home culture, and notably, the serious civil unrest during the pandemic in some of the largest U.S. cities. These factors contributed to the decline - and in some cases, the demise - of popular retail districts in urban centers and neighboring towns. My personal connections to the closure of iconic retailers like US Outdoors in Portland or Wilderness Sports in Dillon CO, underscore the unforeseen challenges faced by businesses during this period.
Is the Emerging Trend Truly Attributable to the COVID-19 Pandemic?
Let's momentarily set aside the repercussions of the pandemic. Even before the industry underwent a transformation due to COVID-19, backcountry skiing had been on a trajectory of rapid expansion. Given Majesty's roots in backcountry touring and freeride pursuits, our brand was established in the Tatras, where protected national parks dominate the terrain, and modern ski lift infrastructure is limited. We, along with many other brands in this specific vertical, were well acquainted with the backcountry gear landscape. Long before social distancing became the norm, we recognized a growing number of skiers delving into ski touring in the backcountry, notwithstanding risk factors like avalanche danger. Despite the need for substantial investments in specialized equipment and the acquisition of new skills such as mountain safety, terrain knowledge, and fitness training required to navigate the mountain wilderness, we identified this as a burgeoning and niche category.
Even prior to the onset of COVID, I identified the following contributing factors that were steering many skiers away from traditional resort skiing:
- A burgeoning generation of adventure skiers with a passion for experiencing the mountains and untouched snow, away from the bustle of resort crowds.
- An expanding community of enthusiasts inclined towards uphill endurance and fitness skiing.
- Absence of traditional ski lift infrastructure in numerous wilderness areas that are ideal for skiing (such as the Tatras, where Majesty originated).
- Escalating ski resort overcrowding.
- The increasing high cost of day lift tickets..
The impact of resort overcrowding and escalating costs had been underscored in my earlier commentary on an article by Jake Stern, also in POWDER Magazine.
Regrettably, the earlier forecasts regarding mountain safety concerns did materialize with tragic consequences. As stated, "Backcountry skiers encountered the most demanding season in recent memory, marked by a record-tying number of fatalities in avalanches." Access the complete article HERE.
Skiing: A Love-Hate Relationship with Ski Resorts
Looking at the above list from my perspective here in the Seattle area, there are only a few options for ski day trips to ski resorts: Stevens Pass, Crystal Mountain, and the Summit at Snoqualmie. When planning a day trip to Steven’s Pass (now part of Vail Resorts, EPIC pass) on a weekend, you should be ready to leave from Seattle by 6 a.m. to beat the crowds and find parking before the lifts open. A ski bus service or a shuttle service from the neighboring town is simply terrible. In the 2019-20 pre-COVID ski season, Crystal Mountain resort (now part of the Alterra Mountain Company - IKON pass) started to limit the number of day passes sold, simply to avoid overcrowding and long lift lines. The Mt Baker ski area is more remote for us city dwellers, so we would typically need to make an overnight trip to Baker, with no good options for overnight or weekend logging at the base. Then there’s Whistler BC (EPIC Pass) 4-5 hours away with a border crossing to Canada or Mt Bachelor and Mt Hood in Oregon, or Mission Ridge in eastern Washington. None of these are day trip options for most Seattleites. On the other hand, backcountry access to many top-notch wilderness and stunning skiable terrain around the Cascade Mountains or the Olympic Range are readily available.
During my time in Colorado before 2006, I reached a point where I took a hiatus from skiing for a couple of seasons. The reason? The weariness of rising at 4:30 a.m. on weekends to embark on a westward journey on I-70, navigating bumper-to-bumper traffic. This exhausting routine repeated itself on the return journey from Breck or Copper. Since then, the I-70 ski traffic from Denver has worsened considerably. A few of my close friends in Colorado, passionate skiers themselves, opted to either reduce their skiing frequency or entirely forgo heading up the mountains this past season.
In Colorado, the vast backcountry terrain presents itself as an appealing alternative to the monotonous commute and the long lift lines. However, both experience and insights gleaned from other skiers suggest that even backcountry access in the front range may be facing challenges, reflecting the growing popularity and potential saturation of these areas.
"I'll Drive up to the Resort, but Can I Afford a Lift Ticket?"
Resort crowding and the associated logistical challenges are significant considerations, compounded by the escalating costs of skiing at most mountain resorts today. Over the past 10-15 years, the substantial consolidation and high-profile acquisitions of independent ski areas have led to a notable deterrent for many casual skiers – the soaring prices of single-day lift tickets. Reflecting on the late 1990s, when a day pass to Vail, Colorado, was considered relatively expensive at around $50, the stark contrast today is a regular weekend day pass costing a staggering $245.
The trend continues with the large resort conglomerates and season pass collectives, driving consumers to buy season tickets instead, offering access to multiple ski resorts through their multi-resort season passes. These passes, available for pre-season purchase, for the 2024 season now range from $949 for EPIC to $1259 for IKON, for a single adult season pass. This pricing strategy compels consumers to commit early to a season pass without guarantees about the upcoming season's quality, subject to uncertainties like snow conditions and, more recently, social distancing measures during the COVID years... Alternatively, skiers face the prospect of paying exorbitant prices for single-day in-season lift tickets or multi-day passes with blackout dates.
Inflation or Greed?
In simple terms, ski pass prices have escalated to levels making skiing increasingly unaffordable for many enthusiasts, especially young adults and youth who may find skiing financially out of reach. The question arises: why have certain ski area day pass prices tripled or quadrupled over the last two decades? It's important to note that running a ski resort, with its extensive infrastructure and amenities demands a substantial workforce and incurs significant capital costs – a topic deserving separate consideration. However, it also raises the question of why skiing in North America is considerably more expensive than skiing in The Alps or e.g. in Japan?
Acknowledging that resort consolidations and multi-resort season passes provide unparalleled accessibility to multiple destinations for those willing to travel extensively for skiing, the reality is different for local skiers. Those with weekday jobs typically seek the convenience of driving to their local home mountain or a couple of nearby resorts on weekends throughout the entire season. Despite the advantages of multi-resort passes, the accessibility and affordability concerns for local, weekend skiers persist.
Vacationers from non-ski states in the Midwest or South, who embark on a ski vacation to destinations like Colorado or Utah, often opt for multi-day passes, rent equipment from resorts or local ski shops, and secure lodging at resorts. Calculating the cumulative expenses paints a clear picture of the actual cost of skiing. This prompts speculation about whether lower to middle-income families and young adults would even reconsider pursuing skiing as a sport due to its ongoing expenses. Examining SIA statistics, which indicate that over 50% of all U.S. skiers fall into the highest income bracket, offers insights into the demographic challenges.
From a somewhat traditional perspective, I personally believe that a ski vacation and skiing, in general, should not be placed in the same price category as, for example, a family trip to Disneyland. Skiing is an activity, an outdoor winter pursuit, and a sport traditionally cherished by millions. For many skiers, it transcends being merely a hobby; it becomes a lifestyle. Consequently, it should remain not only enjoyable but also accessible and affordable for all those eager to partake in the experience.
A Visible Shift to Backcountry Skiing
In my opinion, the factors mentioned above are the primary reasons why an increasing number of skiers are realizing that skiing in the backcountry wilderness, without the constraints of resorts, is the ultimate way to experience the sport. It truly offers the best means to explore and savor the mountains. Even before the onset of the COVID pandemic, a growing community of skiers, traditionally accustomed to resort skiing, had already begun transitioning to backcountry freeride and touring.
Discovering the beauty of mountain wilderness, skiing on untouched snow while meticulously planning and earning every line, represents a genuine accomplishment. This endeavor demands dedication and effort, emphasizing the significance of the journey. Skiing uphill to later ski downhill becomes a delightful experience, especially with the right group of friends. Engaging in this type of skiing requires an initial investment in specialized backcountry gear, along with the development of new skiing skills, an understanding of terrain nuances and snow conditions, adherence to mountain safety practices, and education on avalanche dangers. Rescue training classes with a professional or trusted experienced mentor further contribute to the skillset needed for this adventure skiing.
While this type of skiing may not be suitable for everyone, its popularity is undeniably growing. The increasing demand presents new opportunities for equipment manufacturers, backcountry ski brands, guiding service providers, and specialized ski shops. These entities play a crucial role in building and nurturing communities of avid backcountry skiers.
Business Is Business, So You Gotta Pay...
In conclusion, in early 2020 we anticipated a significant surge in all facets of the backcountry skiing business in the upcoming years, leading to increased demand for readily available, proven specialized products offered by backcountry focused brands like Majesty Skis and others. While the demand for specialized backcountry gear has been steadily rising due to factors such as resort crowding and high costs, the widespread shift from resort to backcountry skiing has become more evident, especially in the landscape shaped by COVID-19. As more individuals have been seeking to enjoy skiing locally, free from crowds and on their terms, the market has been experiencing heightened demand for top-notch ski equipment from brands known for their expertise and reputation in crafting quality backcountry gear, including Majesty.
As a brand, our commitment to innovation in the backcountry skiing space led to the creation of our Skiing Re//Defined collection, featuring lightweight, carbon fiber backcountry touring and free-touring gear, long before the onset of the COVID era. In 2020, I emphasized that, despite uncertainties related to COVID-19 and other variables mentioned above, winter would arrive, and skiing would persist. In a landscape where backcountry skiing has become the fastest-growing vertical, specialty ski shops that deliver high-quality, specialized backcountry equipment while fostering community development through mountain guide services and training clinics are poised for substantial success. Majesty and other quality brands in this space, are well-positioned to resonate with our loyal fan base and attract new customers seeking specialized equipment through wholesale/ski-shop channels and e-commerce.
However, what might not have been accurately predicted is the eventual boom leading to consumer fatigue and market oversaturation. The surge prompted numerous outdoor equipment makers to capitalize on the backcountry niche, resulting in production volume exceeding actual demand, followed by price cutting and excessive closeout inventories. While these practices may benefit consumers seeking deals, they are short-sighted and detrimental to the industry as a whole. Many shops and brands can only sustain driving margins down for a limited time before facing significant challenges. This unfortunate trend has already affected notable retailers such as US Outdoors and Wilderness Sports, among others.
The looming question remains: What happens next, particularly if the world undergoes an economic downturn? Only time will unveil the industry's response to these challenges, but I strongly recommend that we all brace ourselves and strategically hedge our bets.
Written by Andrzej Moseley
Principal Partner @ Majesty Skis America, LLC.
June 2, 2020. (Edited Nov. 2, 2023)
Get educated and informed about avalanche risks and mountain safety. The best place to start is to visit your local Avalanche Center and see what resources are available. Here's a list:
Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC)
Wallowa Avalanche Center (WAC)
Sierra Avalanche Center (SAC)
Utah Avalanche Center (UAC)
Know Before You Go (KBYG)
Additional Majesty Skis Links:
Further, I have created a summary why Majesty Skis should be at the top of the list for brands to watch and new gear brands to bring in to specialty ski shops in the U.S. and Canada this year.