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Are We on the Verge of a Small Ski Area Renaissance in Our Industry?

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Americans struggle mightily with this little thing called moderation. Here’s a simple example.

In 1950, the average new single-family home was 983 square feet. By 1970, that number rose to about 1,500 sq. ft. In 1990, 2,080. And then ten years ago, in 2004, the figure was around 2,349 and only increased since then. In two generations, home sizes have nearly tripled.

Finally snapping out of our square footage trance, Americans have started to realize they don’t need 6 bedrooms for 2 kids. But what happens? The Tiny House movement.

Instead of going from 2,600 square feet to 2,000 or 1,500, we go from 2,600 square feet…to 260. Or less.

The Shift
Once you notice this pattern, you start to see it show up in a lot of areas.

We’re a culture of extremes.

And, yes, I think we may be starting to see this same pattern show up right here in the ski industry.

Over the last few years, some really interesting things have happened.

Mountain Rider’s Alliance was started and saw a huge wave of interest as the message of “ski smaller” resonated with something tucked secretly away in the deep corners of skier desire.

The Story of Small Ski Areas doubled their funding goal, uncovering a broad swell of interest in the nostalgia and simplicity that comes along with skiing at a hill with little vert and lots of soul.

Powder Magazine ran a cover story naming not Vail, not Whistler, not Jackson, but Abenaki, a tiny ski hill near the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee, as “the most important ski area in America.”

Pros started gushing about how much they loved places like Hyland and Trollhaugen in videos that became Vimeo Staff Picks.

Bomb Snow’s “In Search of Skiing” series started, where else, but at Mont Ripley, Michigan’s 440′ of vertical drop.

See where I’m going with this?

One More Thing
Something that usually sparks people to action is the chance of losing something.

Interestingly enough, industry lifer, legend, and fount of snowsport wisdom, Bill Jensen, recently shared his prediction (with plenty of reasoning and figures behind it) that 150 ski areas in the United States would close in the near future.

As the pendulum swings toward bigger and better and bigger and better, as skiers show more than a little interest in the nostalgia and simplicity of small ski areas, as this idea starts to hit mainstream ski media, and as the chance of losing that piece of our industry kicks us into “Save Our _____” mode…

…I again ask the same question I started with, “are we on the verge of a small ski area renaissance?”

I, for one, wouldn’t be surprised, or sad, if we were.

  • AK

    Possible, but it will take more than surges of Facebook compassion, kickstarters and decent CTR driven by nostalgia. We privileged sure have gotten good at acting like we care about certain things and then going about our typical day.

    Perhaps more likely on an isolated regional level where the populace already embraces sustainable ethos and there are not amazing pass deals offering the finest skiing for the least dollars with pristine amenities.

    • If there’s one big thing that prevents it, that’ll be it. Losing a single ski area a year for the next 20 that would likely have the same effect because it wouldn’t be big enough to make us collectively take notice.

      But if something – a couple bad snow years, etc. – is the last straw on the backs of 5-10 ski areas and they all permanently close in succession in a single season – it seems the rest is in place to give at least a short-lived resurgence a good chance of happening.

      • AK

        Good point. Mass casualty. Tough thing to root for.

  • Ben

    We here at Dartmouth Skiway are trying to help make this easier by collaborating with 5 other small New England Areas so you can ski all 6, we are calling it the Freedom Pass. I hope more areas like us can band together to help get the word out for all us little guys to keep feeding the Big Boys

    • Small world, Ben! I quite literally was just emaling Josh at Bolton about the Freedom Pass as I saw your comment. I love that concept ( and can’t wait to see what the partner areas do with it after the lessons and results of 2014/15.

  • Francois Lefebvre

    Interesting article Gregg, particularly when read from here (France), where the almost-only way ski areas try to differentiate each others is by the number of lifts and slopes kilometers offered… The bigger, the better!
    I notice one positive point for smaller ski areas: the “freeride-touring” fashion, that dates back to only 3 or 4 years here, made it more fashionable to go to small areas, that generally offer less pistes and consequently wider off-piste terrain.

    I would also be very interested in comparing the way small and medium ski resorts financially live (or, sometimes “survive” would probably be the right word) on the other side of the ocean with our situation here.
    In France small ski resorts very often rely on some massive subsidies from the State or the Public Authorities. The ownership structure being different (the lift company is usually completely independent from the hotels, the shops etc, that are privately owned) makes it very difficult to find a relevant comparison with precise data.
    In the US, is the State (or any kind of Public administration) involved in running ski resorts, or helping them by investing in them with public money?

    Not sure if my message is clear enough, I am still lacking a few technical words to hold a conversation!

    • Interesting that the off-piste movement played into the hands of the smaller areas. Not sure that would apply here as much, but very interesting to know. Thanks for perspective!

  • WisSkier

    The resorts here in NW Wisconsin and in the UP of Michigan used to have a deal they would work in concert. They would sell a card with a punch each good for a lift ticket at each of the resorts. This would include Blackjack, Indianhead, Powderhorn, Whitecap, and at one time the Porcupine Mountain was in on it. That program passed away a long time ago.

    I don’t know that it is necessarily a thing driven by a pendulum swinging to a taste for small ski areas, but that for most of us skiing is not the first criteria for choosing a location to live. The owner of Granite Peak noted one motivation for his expansion plan was to be able to compete with Colorado resorts. On the surface that seems absurd, but the notion of giving up skiing most of the winter for a week at a mountain resort out west is one I’ve considered.

    • Love that, and agree that in some areas where small is the only option there’s not much of a pendulum to swing except,as you said, with the skiers who live there but refuse to ski anywhere but out West. Midwest is one I wish I had more insight and experience with, so appreciate your thoughts.

      • WisSkier

        I know we have those folks. I know a few who ski the locals as well as the out West resorts. A guy I used to work with is from Co and lives in Madison, I frequently see him posting about skiing locally as well as hitting the big ones out West. I’ve heard a number of reports of people from the area who now live out West often will skip a day skiing at the resorts here when they are visiting.

        One of the guys I follow on Twitter from Chicago takes a big trip out West every winter, but this year he Ski Patrolled for some small ski hill around Chicago, I want to say Wilmot but can’t recall exactly.

        I’ve been out West once and it was to Monarch. No doubt about it, my view of things changed, but even if I could travel out West unless I have the means to do so on a weekend basis, I can’t see myself sitting on tail inside.

        More on your latest commentary on this topic.

  • Christa Whiteman

    Why would this be a bad thing if it did happen? If people want to come together and support their local bump, than why not? I, for one, am not a ‘bigger is better’ type. I prefer less commercialism, more soul at a ski resort. Even more than that, I prefer the sense of community that develops around a small local hill, and if people have to come together to support their hill and keep it open, how is that bad? My most memorable and favorite ski day this season was when I got to ski a tiny little private hill in the Daks. Two runs (three if you count the one through the trees) and one rope tow. If you had touring gear you could access another. Everyone there was a skier/rider (as opposed to a person who skis or rides. There is a difference.) Most had even made the choice to give up high-paying jobs or fancy digs to live closer to the mountains they love and be able to more readily indulge in a sport that feeds their soul. As a result, there was a very good vibe. No entitled citi-idiots on vacation expect their every wish and whim to be catered too. I’d prefer to take lots of laps on short runs with good people as opposed to big runs at a big resort with lots of jerks, any day of the week.

    • Totally agree, Christa, I don’t think anyone is agueing that it is a bad thing. On the contrary, most folks in the industry recognize that losing these small mountains could take a significant toll on the health of skiing as a whole.

      The big question is will it happen or can it happen with such loud marketing voices coming from the big guys? No easy answer, but the signs are there than something sort of a movement may just be getting started..

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