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How to Save the Future of Skiing: Let Kids Ski For Free

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Each winter, there are doom and gloom reports in the media about the death of skiing, snowboarding, and the "end of times" for people who love snow. And while overall the ski industry is fairly profitable, there are some concerns. Day lift ticket prices are up, there are fewer ski resorts in operation, and global warming may pose a serious threat to the future of our mountains. But perhaps the biggest problem is that the people who love to ski are getting older. As Mark Fisher from Unofficial Alpine writes, "the Boomer generation is getting out of the sport much more quickly than Generation X and Y are entering the sport." And while we can talk all day about why this is happening (and Fisher has started a great conversation on the issue), Curbed Ski has the solution for what could save the ski industry: let kids ski for free.

According to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), the skier and snowboarder population, as a whole, is aging. And while national skier visits are holding relatively steady (the 2013-2014 season saw 56.5 million visits), there are some worries that not enough youths are being introduced each season to "refill the pipeline" as older participants age out of snowsports. NSAA's annual demographic study for 2013/2014 notes that the ski industry's aging visitor base may be slowing slightly, but there are still fewer kids under 18 years old skiing or snowboarding then there were 10 years ago.

This trend is especially troubling because for the past ten years, ski area visitation has remained relatively stable. NSAA's Kottke National End of Season report shows that except for the Pacific Southwest, there aren't any downward trends in visitation since the winter of 2004/2005. Sure, some regions have had seasons with fewer skiers, but weather is usually the most important factor in determining a ski area's numbers. When there is snow, people ski.

So why aren't more kids heading to the hills? Some people blame the gentrification of the ski world, the loss of local ski hills, and the increasing costs associated with lift tickets, gear rentals, and lodging. Looking at the data of who skied in 2013/2014, 56% of visitors earned over $100,000, and only 19% earned less than $50,000. And perhaps even more worrisome is the continued lack of diversity in snowsports, with minorities encompassing only 13.1% of skiers or snowboarders in 2013/2014, despite making up an estimated 37% of the US population. What does this all mean? For the ski industry to thrive in the future, we need more skiers and snowboarders from all tax brackets and neighborhoods to fall in love with the mountains.

We propose that the larger ski resorts offer free skiing to kids under 12. Young skiers and snowboarders become lifelong skiers and snowboarders. It's easier to learn when you're young, it hurts less, you make friends faster, and it's just a lot more fun. A "kids ski free" policy also infuses the industry with a whole new generation of gear buyers, gear renters, and healthy outdoor enthusiasts.

Some programs today foster youth skiing. In the snow-loving states of Colorado, Utah, and the Northeast (although California is noticeably lacking) there are programs for 5th and 6th graders to ski free or on reduced ski passes. At most big resorts, kids can ski for free if their families have also paid for lodging. But this isn't enough. If Vail Resorts, Powdr Corp, and Boyne Resorts want to ensure their future, they should let kids ski free regardless of whether a family can pay $400 per night for resort-owned lodging.

At the smaller, local ski hills, the ski-free concept isn't as necessary; lift tickets are cheaper and there are many community programs in place that get kids on the mountain. Letting kids ski free might also cut into a local hill's razor-thin profit margins, and the last thing we need is more ski hills shutting down.

The larger ski companies, the Vail Resorts of the world, could likely implement an "all-kids-ski-free" program without crippling their profitability. The program would bring a different kind of skier to the mountains, families who save for their 3-day ski vacation, stay in VRBO lodging, and borrow their friend's gear. It's true that this might be a tough sell for companies ruled by the bottom line. But what better way to invest in the future?

Poll results

· NSAA [Official Site]
· What It Means To Ski in a Vail-Dominated World [Curbed Ski]
· Why the Death of the Ski Bum Will Ruin Ski Towns Everywhere [Curbed Ski]
· The Snow Lover's Bucket List: 33 Things to Do Before You Die [Curbed Ski]