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Why summer is the new boom season for ski towns

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No snow necessary

A zip line at Vail Mountain in Colorado.
Courtesy of the Vail Local Marketing District

Ask any long-time local in a ski town how they ended up in Aspen, Vail, or Whistler, and they’ll tell you: “I came for the winters, and stayed for the summers.”

That might seem odd to the millions of Americans who only ski a few times each year, if at all. Whether in Colorado, Vermont, or Utah, ski towns are known primarily as winter destinations, when snow blankets the high country and lodging is at its most expensive. This makes sense because, well, the foundation of any good ski town will always be its skiing.

Except it might not be. The ski industry has seen a decline in participants over the past decade, and rising fears about the potential effects of climate change have some questioning whether resorts will have as much snow to ski on in 50 years.

Ski towns looking to diversify have worked to transform themselves into four-season destinations. Leading the way is Vail Resorts, North America’s biggest ski company. Vail Resorts owns and operates 13 ski areas around the world, including Whistler Blackcomb in Canada and its flagship resort, Vail, in Colorado.

Working with town councils and local business people, ski companies are betting big on spring, summer, and even fall. They’ve invested tens of millions of dollars to help non-skiers realize what locals have known for years: Ski towns are worth visiting even when there’s no snow.

The town of Vail on the Fourth of July.
Courtesy of the Vail Local Marketing District

Summer on the rise

On the Fourth of July in Vail, Colorado, crowds line the streets of the faux-Bavarian village, waving American flags and cheering a parade as it passes. The peaks of the ski area—set in the White River National Forest—tower above. At 8,150 feet above sea level, the sun feels stronger here. Since its opening in 1962, Vail has been a popular ski destination, and at one time it was the largest ski area in North America.

But even winter events can’t compete with the July Fourth crowds. According to Kelli McDonald, the economic development manager for the town, this is the ski town’s single biggest day of the year: 40,000 people pack the streets to see the parade and watch the annual fireworks show. Vail’s biggest winter event—the Burton U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships—attracts just 25,000 people.

Other summer festivals prove that the town’s 76-degree average highs and scenery can pack in the people. The city’s most-attended event each year is a series of farmers markets that bring 83,000 people over 16 days to the Vail Village. The GoPro Mountain Games—a showcase of 25 different sports held in early June—attracts nearly 70,000 people over a single weekend.

Tourists watch a rock climbing event at the GoPro Mountain Games.
Photo by Jack Affleck, courtesy of the Vail Local Marketing District

But whether a family comes to watch professionals navigate whitewater in a kayak down Gore Creek or to shop the town’s high-priced stores, Vail’s summer numbers are on the rise. McDonald says that on average nearly 1.2 million people visit Vail each summer, compared to about 1.7 million visitors in the winter. In the summer of 2005, the average occupancy rate of the town’s hotels was 39 percent. In the summer of 2016, that number had grown to almost 50 percent.

Elsewhere in ski country tells a similar story. In southwest Colorado, Telluride hosts upwards of 48,000 people each summer over a four-day period for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. DestiMetrics, a company that surveys 19 mountain destinations in six western states, reports that summer lodging business in ski towns has grown 70 percent since 2007. In town after town, non-winter occupancy rates and sales tax collections are soaring.

In Vail, the increase is in large part thanks to a 1.4 percent lodging tax passed by voters in 1999 that provides money to market the town in the non-snow months, May through October. McDonald reports that the fund originally had about a $350,000 budget to work with; it now has a budget of $3.75 million.

From a marketing standpoint, Vail and towns like it have had to convince people that ski towns are about more than snow. In 2015, the Vail Farmers Market started a Farm to Table Dinner Series that serves 100 people a four-course meal made with items sourced from the Vail Valley. And while bikers and hikers flock to Vail thanks to its high-alpine terrain, the city also maintains nine playgrounds, the world’s highest botanic garden, and a thriving performing arts scene.

Place settings at the Farm to Table Dinner Series hosted by the Vail Farmers Market.
Courtesy of the Vail Farmers Market

Matt Morgan, a 30-year Vail resident and co-owner of two of Vail’s most popular restaurants, Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard, says that in the past, summer in Vail “was the best-kept secret.”

He goes on, “We’re a ski town. Winter will always be the goose that lays the golden egg.” But summer business at his restaurants can now rival the winter. July 2016, for example, was the biggest month Mountain Standard had ever had. That’s in part thanks to increased patio seating, but summer events and the Fourth of July holiday also played a part.

While other ski town restaurant owners sometimes close their restaurants in the off season due to declining customers, Morgan keeps his open. “It’s hard to do business only six months of the year,” he explains. That’s why, “From a sheer business and survival stand point, it makes sense to find ways to keep your people employed and to do business all year long.”

Kelli McDonald echoes the sentiment. In ski towns where tourism has brought real estate prices to shocking highs but a large workforce is needed, full-time employment can make or break a community. McDonald says that summer tourism keeps Vail “vibrant 12 months a year. It provides more jobs, and more people are able to live in town year round.”

All of this growth can come at a cost. A Denver Post article from 2016 asked, “Are Colorado’s mountain towns too busy?” citing concerns that the increased number of people in ski towns might mar the natural experience they’re selling. In Aspen, summer traffic has prompted a debate about overcrowding and development, while in Telluride, locals worry about employee parking and housing.

The crowds of summer in Vail may be thick in July and August, but the streets thin out in the “shoulder season” months of May, September, and October. While Morgan recognizes that summer business has gotten better over the years at his restaurants, “still the peak is only maybe eight weeks,” he admits. Summer visitors also don’t pay as much as winter visitors. The daily hotel rate in winter in Vail averages $567; in summer it’s just $209. This means that while summer is growing at a higher rate than winter in terms of occupancy and visitation, McDonald acknowledges that on average, 70 percent of Vail’s revenue still comes in the winter.

A stagnant ski industry

From a business standpoint, ski towns need to attract visitors outside of the winter months because the number of people skiing has leveled off. Skier visits to U.S. resorts climbed to 54.7 million in the 2016-17 season, up 3.7 percent from the season before. But despite slight increases and decreases over the past few years, the number of skier visits is relatively flat. Even with abundant snowfall in many regions, this past winter lagged behind a 20-year average of 56.1 million skier visits.

Those 50-million odd skier visits also don’t mean that 50 million people are skiing each winter. Far from it. According to Ski Area Management Magazine, there are between 10 and 12 million active skiers and snowboarders nationwide, and 8 million of them ski fewer than nine days a season.

National Ski Areas Association

Even with various learn-to-ski programs, multi-resort season passes, and ever-growing terrain, the ski industry is having a hard time attracting new skiers and snowboarders. Some blame expensive lift tickets or the corporatization of the ski industry, but no one knows for sure why more people aren’t taking up snow sports. What companies like Vail Resorts or the newly formed Aspen-KSL partnership do agree on, however, is that the most lucrative opportunity to expand business—and ski-town vitality—is to push summer.

The new business of summer

In 2011, a landmark federal bill authorized year-round activities at ski areas on Forest System lands. This opened the floodgates for summer operations at the 121 ski areas that operate on public lands. Since then, the leading players in the ski industry have doubled down on summer investment.

For Vail Resorts, this resulted in the debut of Epic Discovery, a massive investment in summer amenities across many of its ski areas. The $25 million project brought zip-line tours, more hiking and biking trails, rope courses, new educational centers, and a raised alpine coaster to Vail Mountain.

The project has since been replicated in other Vail Resorts-owned properties in Breckenridge in Colorado and at Heavenly Mountain Resort in Lake Tahoe. Aspen Ski Co—one of Vail’s biggest competitors—has a similar plan in the works: A new summer adventure center at Snowmass will feature an alpine coaster, canopy tour, and climbing wall.

The ropes course at Vail Mountain’s Epic Discovery.
Courtesy of the Vail Local Marketing District

In a press release from 2016, Chris Jarnot, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Vail Mountain, said that the goal of Epic Discovery was to “provide an avenue for our summer guests to experience our alpine settings in a new, immersed way, similar to what our ski and snowboard guests experience in the winter.”

And it does. On a given day in July or August, the Epic Discovery centers at Vail or Breckenridge are busy. Harnessed kids as young as three carefully tackle hanging bridges and ropes and pan for gold, and adults and kids alike ride an alpine coaster that whips through trees down the mountain. People wait in line for hamburgers and the patios are full with families from all over the country. The base areas look similar to an average day in winter, albeit with a lot less snow.

A changing climate

An unlimited day pass to Epic Discovery at Vail Mountain costs $94 for adults and older kids, making it a lucrative addition to Vail Resorts’ offerings. But the turn toward summer goes well beyond the bottom line of a ski company’s annual revenues.

Everyone from long-time skiers to large companies are increasingly concerned about how climate change will affect the ski industry. Many studies have predicted that warmer temperatures and changes in precipitation will decrease the duration and extent of natural snow cover in North America, and a just-published study in Global Environmental Change outlines how that will impact recreation.

The authors conclude that virtually all ski towns will see a shorter winter recreation season, with resorts at lower elevations facing 50 percent fewer skiable weeks by 2050 and an 80 percent reduction in season length by 2090. Shorter seasons mean fewer skiers overall, and the annual monetized impact of climate change will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

In an effort to limit greenhouse gas emissions, ski companies like Aspen Ski Co. and organizations like Protect Our Winters have led the way in trying to make ski towns more sustainable. At its four ski areas in Pitkin County, Colorado, Aspen Ski Co. has reduced its carbon footprint by using solar and wind power, building LEED-certified structures on the mountain, and purchasing locally raised meat and produce.

Vail Resorts is also tackling climate change with a just-announced program that aims to eliminate emissions, deliver zero waste to landfills, and offset its impact to forests in the next 13 years. As part of its plan, Vail Resorts will also be the first tourism business to join RE100, a group of top companies such as Coca Cola, Apple, Google, and Nike, committed to using 100 percent renewable energy.

The importance of the ski industry’s biggest player committing to fighting climate change can’t be overstated: What Vail Resorts does, other companies will follow. And for Rob Katz, chief executive officer, “Committing to green energy is not only good for the environment, but [also] it’s good for business.” Katz goes on, “the environment is both our product and our passion.”

There’s no doubt that companies like Vail Resorts and Aspen Ski Co. see an investment in renewable energy as a way to protect future winters. But at the same time there’s a practical element to the focus on summer. If warming temperatures are going to reduce how many weeks you can ski each year, then ski areas will need to rely more on summer amenities to stay in business.

For anyone involved in the ski industry, summer offers something important: It’s a chance for locals to earn a living, an opportunity for ski companies to increase revenue, and an insurance policy when winters become shorter thanks to climate change.

It’s also an easier sell to millions of travelers who don’t necessarily want to tackle Colorado’s cold and snowy winters. As long-time Vail local Beth Slifer said in an interview, it can be hard getting tourists to come to a ski town for the first time. But “for people who don’t want to ski, summer is the best bet.” She goes on, “Try it, you’ll like it.” And that’s what everyone is betting on.