Written by Roger Lohr of www.XCSkiResorts.com
In mid November, the Cross Country Ski Areas Association (CCSAA) 2019 Eastern Meeting was held at Woodstock Nordic Center in Vermont. There were 61 attendees with about half from ski areas and half vendors. Icy road conditions caused more than a handful of attendee no shows. Center director Nick Mahood welcomed the attendees to the Woodstock facility that has trails on the Woodstock Inn Resort’s golf course, Mt. Peg, and across town at Mt. Tom in the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller Historical National Park.
CCSAA Executive Director Reese Brown was the master of ceremonies introducing panel discussions, reviewing CCSAA initiatives, and presenting industry statistics. A panel of ski area operators discussed engaging customers to encourage skier visits of longer duration. Destinations along the trails are popular (easy to-get-to cabin, scenic location for photos, picnic table spot, etc.). It was suggested that the destination be located on the trail map, on photos in the lodge, mentioned by staff, posted on social media and so on. Firepits and pots were suggested as a place where skiers can hang out. Guided outings, nature walks, interpretive tours, and kids’ trails with animated signage or book pages, are all successful to keep skiers and snowshoers engaged.
Some ski areas are working collaboratively with other organizations or retail businesses that can provide staffing for events or programs. Ski shops, restaurants, and hotels are examples of program partners. Environmental education is a way to work with schools and don’t forget to provide coupons to invite parents to return to the area with their kids. Scavenger hunts have always worked – one area did a hunt for couples on Valentine’s Day.
Gift certificates can help to attract new skiers or snowshoers. Some areas encourage clientele to switch rental equipment to use XC skis, snowshoes, and fat bikes. Offering free or discounted skiing to kids could encourage parents to join in future outings. Another idea is to reach out to participants from programs in other seasons such as mountain bikers.
The topic of food and beverage at XC ski areas was discussed among the meeting attendees. One resort stated that he raised 10-13% of his area’s revenue from F & B. Options at XC ski areas include: offering no F & B; coffee/hot coco and cookies; grab & go pre-made sandwiches; picnic lunch with backpack; cafeteria; full sit down. Many XC ski resorts have a cooler or a kiosk with drinks while almost all have snacks, drinks, and candy. Some areas partner with restaurants or find local purveyors for food or a concession. It was emphasized that merchandising of food and drinks is very important, freshness is key, and at one area a punch card for kids called “yummy money” has proven to be a winner for kids’ weekly after-school programs. There is also a “healthy” theme for F & B that is predominant at many XC ski areas.
One enlightening session was about snowmaking with a representative from HKD. It was announced that XC ski area operators could cover a field area (every year) for less than a $60,000 investment. Of course, that investment does not include labor and energy on an annual basis. The one-time investment for covering a one kilometer trail is in the neighborhood of $150,000, and it may be five times that amount to cover a 2.5 kilometer trail (because of the cost of pipes). There are ways to save money on snowmaking with portable applications and plastic piping but it is recommended to consult with a snowmaking company for details.
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Brown covered data for 2018-19 including the SIA 2018-19 Participation Study, NPD Retail Sales, and CCSAA Survey statistics.
A summary of the SIA participation research can be found at Cross Country Skiing Trends for 2018-19. The attendees discussed the reported 4.4% decline of the XC skiing population to 4.9 million people who XC skied in the 2018-19 season. Some of the more southerly XC ski areas reported a challenging year while most areas across North America cited record participation.
The Retail sales in Aug 2018-Mar 2019 showed a 1% increase in dollars and 5% decline in units sold associated with XC ski equipment compared to the previous year. Binding sales were off 11% and XC ski boots declined by 10%. Skis sales decreased by 6% but ski poles increased by 7%. The XC ski market segment sales were $320 million according to the report. I’ve always felt that it would be preferable to compare annual sales to an average of 5 and 10 years rather than to the previous year.
Most of the attendees reported that pre-season product sales have been going well and Brown cited that many across the nation were upbeat. The reconstituted CCSAA Survey has been conducted for four years running and there were 57 participating ski areas in the study this year (there are probably about 300 viable XC ski areas in North America, but of course there needs to be a clear definition about viability). The 2018-19 skier days in the study were estimated at 6.2 million, which was up 8% from the previous year and there was an average of 108 days of skiing at the resorts, which was 30 more days than the 2016-17.
It would be great to track the number of XC ski outings that include on-and-beyond groomed trails. This number might be realized by multiplying skiers by their frequency (for example, one time, occasional, and most frequent). Thus, if there were 100 XC skiers that were segmented into groups of 50% who skied “one time,” 40% occasional (skied 3 times), and 10% frequent (10 times) the total number of outings would be 270 for those skiers or an average of 2.7 times per year per skier. We could then compare the paid visits at groomed XC ski areas to the total number of outings. I believe that XC ski areas could substantially increase skier visits by encouraging more existing XC skiers, who ski on golf courses, local parks and trails, and in backyards to discover the advantages of groomed trails at a XC ski area. This would require more marketing to inform people about the advantages of XC skiing at a XC ski area.
For XC ski area business operations, survey respondents revealed that 80% were planning to replace some or all of their equipment rentals within the next two years. This suggested that 20% of the ski areas are using old equipment for rentals (or it might mean that some of them recently acquired new equipment). Most XC ski areas are turning over 30-50% of their rental equipment annually. About a half of the respondents plan to make a grooming equipment purchase in the next two years and 21% are considering installing snowmaking operations. Currently it is believed that almost 40 XC ski areas have snowmaking. Fat biking is now welcome at nearly half of the XC ski areas.
XC ski area profit centers were also explored. Here is a breakdown from the CCSAA Study:
Trail passes = 30% of profit
Season pass sales = 22.6%
Rental operation = 15%
Food = 12.5%
Retail sales = 10%
Lessons = 5%
Bear/Wine liquor = 4.5%
The statistics are subject to the particular respondents that participated in the study, but the prominent issue is the low rate of revenue associated with ski lessons. In general, people who are more confident or more skilled have more fun and people who are frustrated with XC skiing are more likely to drop out. There are challenges to find ski instructors and many people just go out and try to learn the sport on their own or get tips from friends or relatives. Would sending instructors out on the trails to provide tips to XC skiers and invite them to take a lesson or clinic build revenue from ski lessons?
Other sessions included event grooming with Prinoth’s Dirk Van Wijk who has groomed trails in the Olympics, and building incremental sales.
Info provided by Roger Lohr of www.XCSkiResorts.com and @XCSkiTravel on Twitter, Facebook/XCSkiResorts and SnoCountry.com SnoNews Cross Country News & Information and SeniorsSkiing.com and Green Energy Times. I’m dedicated to getting more people to go XC skiing and snowshoeing more often, and I provide industry insiders with information on a regular basis.