I’ve recently come across this article by Donny O’Neill at POWDER Magazine discussing “How COVID-19 Will Change the Future of Backcountry Skiing”. The reason it particularly caught my attention was because it is in line with my own brand strategy work when launching and running the Majesty Skis brand in North America during the past few years.
Climate change... Is ski business a declining business?
As a lead-in to my case study article below, I should mention that in recent years I've heard numerous speculations floating around on whether skiing is a declining sport or whether ski manufacturing might be doomed as a business 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 2018/19 there were 14.9M skiers and 7.8M snowboarders in the U.S. This shows that skiing has grown by 2.1M active participants while snowboarding declined slightly by 400K participants in the last eight years, in the U.S. Skiing is clearly a growing sport and business.
Below I have outlined a few of my own observations and additional context analysis for why I agree with Donny O’Neill’s reporting that backcountry skiing i.e. in general terms - skiing outside the boundaries of ski-resorts, is 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 is not the main cause for 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 has taken everyone in the ski business out for a head spin. With the ski resort closures and the entire spring ski season in North America wiped out, it’s been a rough ride for anyone who’s been making a living in this industry. While a handful of ski resorts might be reopening for whatever is left of the late spring skiing, most will remain closed for the season and a few others might open for summer activities such as mountain biking, but at limited capacity. Overall, it’s really hard to predict anything constructive about the next ski season and how the COVID pandemic will further affect businesses and consumers alike. What we do know for sure is that many of the local, state and federal COVID related restrictions, social distancing guidelines as well as the new social and travel habits will remain in place for the foreseeable future, and will affect businesses who depend on large numbers of visitors. Because skiing is predominantly a "social" sport, the pandemic will certainly affect how people gather at ski resorts, how they ride up the lifts together or how many skiers can safely ride up in a gondola.
Recently there have been rumblings in the ski community about the many unknowns, suggesting that some skiers might hold off with their planned 2020-21 season lift ticket purchases while others might even abandon resort skiing altogether, in favor of backcountry skiing. It will be interesting to follow how this situation develops but overall I do agree that COVID-19 might be already triggering an explosion in backcountry skiing as a new activity for many skiers. This might 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 means that the business of backcountry skiing will expand. Brands specialized in backcountry gear manufacturing, gear design, technology innovation all the way to guiding services and related accessory sectors should all experience revenue growth. With this I am simply betting that with the currently ongoing uncertainly about what the next ski season has to offer due to the typical unknowns e.g. snow fall, weather etc., plus now with the raging pandemic, we should see real growth in backcountry ski equipment sales and related services. I believe that this specific vertical of the ski industry will most likely continue to accelerate in the coming season and beyond.
This is significant because as with any rapidly changing or expanding business vertical there can be collateral related to the growing pains as explained by O’Neill in the POWDER article. This includes serious concerns such as mountain safety, avalanche safety and rescue training, trail head crowding or potential related environmental concerns. In the strict context of ski gear design and manufacturing, backcountry focused brands such as Majesty Skis and others that work in this vertical, already offer complete and compelling product lines that are focused specifically on the backcountry ski technology. These brands should be very well positioned for growth in the immediate future and beyond, and should also be experiencing a more predictable trajectory and less risk than ski equipment makers who have been historically focused on servicing large ski resorts, huge rental fleets, or have been primarily designing and manufacturing performance and resort skis designed for resort-bound consumers.
Can the new trend be really due to the COVID-19?
Let’s take the pandemic reality out of the equation for a moment. From my experience even before the pandemic has changed the landscape of the industry, backcountry skiing had already started to become a more rapidly expanding vertical within the ski business. Even before social distancing became the norm a growing number of skiers started to explore ski-touring in the backcountry in spite of risk factors such as avalanche danger, the need to invest more money in specialized equipment, mastering new skills including mountain safety, terrain knowledge and fitness training needed to enjoy the mountain wilderness.
I see the following contributing factors that may be driving skiers away from the traditional resort skiing:
- The latest generation of adventure skiers who are passionate about enjoying the mountains and fresh untouched snow, away from the resort crowds.
- A growing community of uphill endurance and fitness skiing enthusiasts
- Lack of traditional ski lift infrastructure in many wilderness areas that are perfectly suited for skiing.
- Ski-resort overcrowding.
- High cost of day lift tickets.
I already highlighted the impact of resort overcrowding and rising cost when I first read and commented on this article by Jake Stern, also in POWDER Magazine earlier this year.
Skiing can mean a love-hate relationship with ski-resorts.
Looking at the above list from my own 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 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 ski Baker. 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 mountain trails and stunning skiable terrain around the Cascade Mountains or the Olympic Range are readily available.
When I lived in Colorado before 2006, I got to a point where I simply stopped skiing for a couple of seasons as I became worn out by getting up at 5 a.m. on weekends so I could start driving west on I-70 in bumper to bumper traffic only to do it again on the way home from Breck or Copper. The I-70 ski traffic from Denver has gotten worse since then and a few of my close Colorado friends who are avid skiers, decided to either not ski as often as they used to or simply stopped going up altogether this past season. Here too, Colorado’s vast backcountry terrain is accessible and available as an alternative to the tedious commute and long lift lines, although from what we’ve read in POWDER Magazine, some backcountry access may be already getting tight in the front range.
I'll drive up to the resort but can I afford a lift ticket?
Resort crowding and the logistics of getting there are major factors but then there is also the high cost of skiing at most mountain resorts today. With the massive consolidation and high-profile acquisitions of independent ski areas in the last 10-15 years, single day lift ticket prices have become a deterrent for many casual skiers. While back in the late 1990s a day pass to ski Vail Colorado was at the time one of the more expensive ones at around $50, today the same day pass costs $209 in regular season! With the consolidations and acquisitions, the large resort conglomerates and season pass collectives are offering access to several ski resorts via their multi-resort season passes that are offered for pre-season purchase anywhere between $700 to over $1100 for a single adult season pass. The point is that consumers are encouraged to make an early commitment to subscribe to a season pass with no guarantees whether the upcoming season will be great or it might suck depending on the snow conditions and now social distancing. The alternative is paying high prices for single day in-season lift tickets or a multi-day pass with blackout dates.
Simply put, ski pass prices have risen to levels where skiing is increasingly unaffordable for many skiers, not to mention young adults and youth who might not be able to afford to ski at all. One might wonder why certain ski area day pass prices have tripled or quadrupled during the last 20 years. Don’t get me wrong, I am well aware that running a ski resort with all its infrastructure and amenities requires many workers and is very cost intensive - this is an entirely separate topic. Overall, I also recognize that resort consolidations and multi-resort season passes offer incredible multi-destination accessibility for folks willing to travel around the country or around the world to ski at various resorts in a single season. However, I also know that most local skiers with jobs during the week, typically want to drive up to their local home mountain or maybe a couple locally accessible resorts on weekends, throughout the entire season.
Vacationers from non-ski states, say Illinois or Texas, who travel to e.g. Colorado or Utah on a ski vacation might buy a multi-day pass, rent their equipment from the resort or a local ski shop and book lodging at resorts. If you add it up you quickly get the picture what it actually costs to ski. We can then speculate whether lower to middle income families and young adults would even choose to pursue skiing as a sport because of the ongoing cost that is typically needed to ski. The answer might be as simple as looking at SIA statistics again that suggest that over 50% of all skiers in the U.S. are in the highest income bracket. In my perhaps somewhat traditional view, I personally feel that a ski vacation and skiing in general should not be in the same price category as a trip to e.g. Disneyland. Skiing is an activity, it is outdoor winter fun, it is a sport that has been traditionally enjoyed by millions of people. For many skiers it is a lifestyle and it should be enjoyable and affordable for all who want to experience it.
A visible shift to backcountry skiing.
The above factors are in my opinion the main reasons why more and more skiers start to recognize that skiing for free in the backcountry wilderness is the best way to ski. It is truly the best way to explore and enjoy the mountains. A growing number of skiers who traditionally ski at resorts have started to transition from the classic lift-based skiing to backcountry freeride and backcountry touring, already before the COVID pandemic. Exploring the beauty of the mountain wilderness, skiing untouched snow when you carefully plan and earn every line you ski is a true accomplishment. This accomplishment requires work and commitment but it's the journey that matters. "Skiing uphill" to ski downhill is just as enjoyable with the right group of friends. This type of skiing requires a one time investment in specialized backcountry gear to begin with. You will also need to develop new skiing skills, learn the nuances of the terrain and snow conditions, learn and observe mountain safety, learn about avalanche dangers and take rescue training classes with a professional or trusted experienced mentor. This type of adventure skiing is not for everyone but it is growing nevertheless. With the growing demand comes increased opportunity for the various equipment manufacturers and backcountry ski brands as well as guiding service providers and specialized ski shops who build and foster communities of skiers.
Business is business, so you gotta pay...
In conclusion, I think that we are going to see sharper growth in all areas of the backcountry skiing business, in the coming years, including more demand for specialized products made by independent brands including Majesty Skis. Although the demand for specialized backcountry gear has already been on the rise in recent seasons due to resort crowding, high costs and other related factors, the overall shift from resort to backcountry skiing might not have been very obvious till now. Today, due to the new COVID-19 unpredictability, all new social distancing habits and restricted travel, more and more people will want to experience skiing locally, for free, on their own time and away from the crowds. These folks will seek to purchase specialized ski equipment from brands with experience and reputation for constructing quality backcountry gear. There is a perfectly good reason for why we at Majesty Skis have recently discontinued several aging ski designs and launched our completely new family of light weight, carbon fiber backcountry freeride and touring skis this year. Our new 2020/21 season ski collection is now complemented by our own line of handmade telescopic touring ski poles that together with our ongoing private-label cooperation with ATK-Bindings and Contour skins all come together in a compelling specialty backcountry freeride and ski-touring solution offering. No matter what happens with COVID-19, winter will come and people will ski. In the world where backcountry skiing is now the fastest growing vertical, specialty ski-shops who offer high quality specialized backcountry equipment, create and foster a backcountry skiing community by offering mountain guide services and advice will be very successful. Specialty ski builders like Majesty Skis will resonate very well with both the existing loyal fans of the brand but also with new and potential customers who seek specialized equipment via wholesale/ski-shop channels and e-commerce.
Written by Andrzej Moseley
CEO Majesty Skis America, LLC.
June 2, 2020.
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:
If you'd like to learn more about how our skis are made and take a look at our 2021 product catalog, you can follow the link here.
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.