MARTINSVILLE, N.J., Dec. 16, 2013 /PRNewswire/ — A continued economic recovery in the U.S. and Europe, combined with strong equity markets and enthusiasm related to the Olympics, should lift skier visits by mid-to-high single digits. Although it will be highly weather dependent, as always, this season may not reach the 2010/11 peak of 60.5 million visits due to a drag from a late start to the winter in the Northeast and a later-than-normal Easter.
The economy in the U.S., while frustratingly sluggish, has continued to grow this year. Over the last twelve months, the unemployment rate has fallen from 7.8% to 7.0% and third quarter GDP recently posted a 3.6% annualized gain, the strongest since the first quarter of 2012. In addition to this, the S&P 500 Index has rallied over 27% year-to-date and home prices, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, gained 13.3% over last year in September, the largest gain since February 2006. Collectively, this bodes well for consumer spending for the upcoming ski season. According to Kiplinger’s, a respected business forecasting company, for every $1,000 that home equity rises, consumer spending increases by $30, and for every $1,000 gain in investment performance, an additional $15 in consumption is seen. Abroad, Europe has begun to recover from the sovereign debt worries that had plagued the region in prior years. This could particularly bolster the prospects for resorts that are more-reliant on destination visits to drive growth.
Although the economic fundamentals appear to support a solid year, weather and snowfall will remain the largest determinant of this season’s success. While highly difficult to predict, we look to AccuWeather.com’s 2013/14 winter forecast to help gauge what this season may bring. According to its meteorologists, the Northeast is likely to see an average year from a snowfall perspective, but the region may see a slow start and above average temperatures early, with heavier snow later in the season. The northern plains and upper Midwest may see above average snowfall with colder temperatures and bouts of extreme cold. As for the popular Rockies and Northwest regions, warmer ocean temperatures in the northeast Pacific “allows for an active jet stream farther south that will bring moisture in multiple-week periods throughout the winter season,” according to AccuWeather’s long range forecaster Paul Pastelok. Western ski resorts received a well-timed boost last week after winter storm Cleon dumped as much as three feet of snow at resorts in California, Utah, and Colorado. The new snow has allowed many resorts to open additional terrain, which could help lift visit totals with the holiday season just a few weeks away. Vail Resorts noted that the storm could enable it to open up to 1,500 additional acres of terrain.
Early indicators for the season have been positive from a lodging, mountain, and retail perspective. According to DestiMetrics, bookings at western resorts for the November to April period are up 8.7% year-over-year, with revenues up an even stronger 14%. DestiMetrics’ director Ralf Garrison notes that “this is the most positive monthly analysis we have assembled since the collapse of Lehman Brothers.” He cautioned, however, that poor weather or political squabbling could put a damper on this and spark cancelations. From a retail perspective, the SnowSports Industries America (SIA) and the Leisure Trends Group’s RetailTRAK shows that sales at snow sports retailers increased 3% year-over-year for the August-October period. Breaking the numbers down further, equipment sales rose 1%, apparel sales rose 2% (-5% in units sold), and accessories sales increased by 6% (-1% in units sold). The report notes that snowstorms in November and December should have a positive impact on sales between Black Friday and year-end, a period which typically accounts for 35% of total season sales. Further, research indicates that 75% of year-to-year variance in snow sports sales can be attributed to weather. Looking towards ticket sales, Vail Resorts, which boasts a portfolio of 10 resorts across the U.S., reported that its season pass sales were up 16% through December 7 th. In a sign of confidence in the industry’s fundamental health, Intrawest Holdings, which owns ski resorts across North America and is one of the world’s largest heli-skiing operators, recently unveiled its plans for an initial public offering. The company, owned since 2006 by private equity firm Fortress Investment Group, looks to raise up to $100 million through the offering.
Aside from the economy and weather, there are certain other factors that could influence the success of this year’s ski season. Looking to the calendar, Easter is very late this year, April 20 th, versus March 31 st last year. This could pressure late-season skier visits, particularly if snowfall totals do not allow for resorts to stay open until the holiday. On the other hand, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, could boost interest in winter sports overall, which should help to buoy both skier days and sales of apparel/equipment. Looking towards the long-term, resorts and equipment makers have begun to focus on connecting to the next generation of skiers/riders as the baby boomers begin to age. Illustrating the aging demographics in this industry, the percentage of skiers in the 45-54 age range has risen from 14% to 20% since the 1997/98 season, and the share of 55-64 year olds has risen from 5% to 14% over that same period. In an effort to combat this shift, resorts have sought to expand beginner terrains, develop family friendly atmospheres, and offer free lift tickets for those under a certain age to help introduce younger people to the sport.
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