Stephen Hamway
The Bulletin

Repeated snowstorms in the Cascades have helped the region’s ski areas get off to a strong start this season.

As of Thursday, Mt. Bachelor had received 222 inches of snow since Nov. 21, more than it had all last season, according to its snow reports. Hoodoo Ski Area and Willamette Pass, both of which barely opened last season, reported about 128 and 115 inches, respectively, so far.

The latest demographic study by the National Ski Areas Association, an industry trade association for ski-area owners and operators, suggests the skiers and snowboarders riding the powder in Oregon and across the nation, as a group, have been changing.

They’re not aging as fast, on average; the percentage of them at high income levels is growing; those who prefer skis has increased, while those who ride snowboards has declined; and the number of women on the slopes has been rising, although men still make up a larger percentage.

The association, which has been producing similar studies for almost two decades, according to president Michael Berry, combined survey data from ski areas and resorts across the nation as part of its ongoing effort to monitor demographic trends.

The 35-question survey, featuring questions about topics ranging from lodging arrangements to ability level, was given to 136,673 respondents during the 2014-15 ski season. Mt. Bachelor and Mt. Hood Meadows participated.

“These capture what we think is the reality for ski resorts at the end of a season,” Berry said Wednesday.

He said the goal is to help ski areas construct an accurate demographic picture of their visitors, and help head off potential threats to the industry. Berry said the overall data were encouraging for this winter and beyond.

“The underlying research is reasonably positive,” Berry said.

In the short term, overall skiing and snowboarding visits nationwide were down 6 percent last season compared to the study’s 10-year average, and declines were highest in the Pacific Northwest, which includes ski areas in Alaska, Oregon and Washington. Thanks in part to low snow totals across the region, visits to responding resorts in the Pacific Northwest were 46 percent lower than the 10-year average.

This matches anecdotal data from Oregon resorts, such as Hoodoo Ski Area, which was open just 10 days last season due to a lack of snow. The short season affected hiring, particularly later in the season, according to Leif Williams, vice president of marketing for Hoodoo. According to data from the Oregon Employment Department, 10 skiing facilities in Oregon employed 1,609 workers in March 2015, down more than 21 percent from the previous March.

“What we saw in the Pacific Northwest was back-to-back years of below-average snowfall,” said Dave Tragethon, spokesman for Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort.

Despite the lack of snowfall last season, Berry said the ski industry is in a good place. Perhaps the most noteworthy takeaway from the 103-page report is that the average age of skiers is no longer trending upward, which Berry said had been an industrywide trend for more than 15 years.

Tragethon added that baby boomers contributed to a huge bump in ski trips in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As the overall age of skiers continued to rise, those in the industry worried that boomers would not be replaced as they aged out of the market.

“It basically was a one-humped camel that was getting older,” Berry said of the market trend.

However, the average age of skiers nationally has held steady over the last two seasons at just over 38 years old, and Berry credited advances in equipment and ski-area grooming with keeping baby boomers in the market longer.

Even more encouraging for the industry, the study showed a rise in skiers age 17 and younger, as well as an uptick in less-experienced skiers and a continued rise in the number of female skiers.

Trends like these allow local resorts to focus their marketing dollars more effectively during tough seasons. For example, Hoodoo and Mt. Bachelor ski area s both have programs designed to teach new riders to ski. Hoodoo’s signature program, known as “1, 2, 3 and Rent for Free,” includes three ski lessons over three days with rentals for $149, Williams said. Mt. Bachelor’s program, “Ski or ride in 5,” was named the best program for beginners by the National Ski Areas Association in 2012.

Coordinated marketing helps as well.

While Stirling Cobb, spokesman for Mt. Bachelor, described last winter’s snowfall as “subpar,” the mountain had more snow than competing areas in California and Southern Oregon. A marketing push by the Central Oregon Visitors Association that targeted the San Francisco Bay Area resulted in high levels of satisfaction from visiting Californians, according to COVA President and CEO Alana Hughson.

“We’ve seen great results from that marketing campaign,” Hughson said.

As a whole, the ski industry still faces challenges.

Skiing has historically dealt with the perception of primarily appealing to affluent Americans, and the trend has intensified in recent years. According to the demographic study, household income has trended up for the past eight seasons, and skiers and snowboarders both skew considerably more affluent than the general population.

According to the study, 58 percent of national visitors earn $100,000 or more, compared to 23 percent of all U.S. households. Berry stressed that there are affordable ways to take to the slopes, and that the rise in income was driven largely by perception.

However, regular daily lift tickets for adults cost $48 at Hoodoo, while Mt. Hood Meadows charges $74 and Mt. Bachelor $84, according to their websites. Regular adult equipment rentals will run $28 a day at Hoodoo and $42 a day at Mt. Hood Meadows and Mt. Bachelor. All three offer discounts when buying or renting for multiple days.

The industry’s reliance on snowfall brings some degree of variability to the business, but Berry said ski resorts are well positioned to benefit during strong snow seasons. With strong underlying data and snow piling up at Oregon resorts, Berry expects to see strong numbers for the 2015-16 season.

“Watch this year,” he said. “Watch what happens.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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