Skier and snowboarder visits to U.S. ski areas totaled 59 million for the 2020-21 ski season, the fifth best season on record and a strong recovery from the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season.
“What a year it has been. From utter uncertainty to a top 10 season in terms of participation. It shows the wide spectrum that our industry bridged this year,” said Kelly Pawlak, president and CEO of the Colorado-based National Ski Areas Association, which compiled the numbers. “We are proud of the collaborative adoption of COVID-19 best practices that all ski areas implemented and diligently followed from opening to closing day. Americans yearned for safe outdoor recreation, and ski areas across the country delivered.”
A skier visit is recorded every time a skier or rider guest visits a ski area or resort. The numbers are compiled annually as part of NSAA’s Kottke End-of-Season and Demographic Studies. NSAA began surveying visitation in the 1978-79 season.
Sun Valley Resort reported having a “banner season” earlier this year but declined to release skier numbers for 2020-21.
The No. 1 season for skier visits was 2010-11, when people made 60.54 million trips to the slopes in the United States. The 2019-20 season—when the pandemic hit—recorded just over 51 million.
Additional data shows that the average U.S. ski area was open for 112 days this past season, up from 99 days in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season. While forced closures impacted many ski areas that season, that wasn’t the case this past year. Most ski areas staying open for their planned season duration, the NSAA reported.
Small and medium-sized ski areas (defined by their lift capacity) performed well this winter, with more guests choosing to stay close to home for ski trips, and increased local demand for outdoor recreation in general, the NSAA reported.
The pandemic affected ski areas’ operations and guest behavior, the NSAA reported. The most common COVID-19 adjustments were skier capacity limits (both indoor and on-mountain), advance purchase or reservation requirements for both lift access and rental equipment, and changes to or elimination of group lessons. Despite these challenges, 78% of ski area operators said this season exceeded their expectations.
“People had to change their habits during the pandemic, and ski areas were no different,” Pawlak said. “We tried new things and quickly learned that not only did they function as planned but many of these ‘work arounds’ improved the experience for our guests and staff members.”
New technologies implemented include online reservation systems and updated website commerce systems. This resulted in the decline of window ticket sales from 46% in 2019-20 to 17% in 2020-21, the NSAA reported.
The percentage of visits from season-pass holders rose to 51% from 45% in the previous season. In previous seasons, guests skied most often on weekends and holidays, making it a consistent challenge to fill the slopes midweek, the NSAA stated. This past season, weekday visitation was responsible for 48% of total visits, a 27% increase from the previous season.
“Capacity restrictions, remote work and school flexibility allowed for more skiers and riders to visit ski areas midweek,” the organization stated.
Lessons decreased in number by 30%, owing to the prohibition of group lessons, which are traditionally popular. Because of the cancellation of large-scale events and imposed limitations on dining service, the NSAA expects revenue from those ancillary lines of business to be down in 2020-21. The Association is still analyzing that data.