Canadian slopes saw 10 per cent fewer visitors in 2008-09 season, figures show

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WHISTLER, B.C. - The number of skiers and snowboarders on Canada's mountains this past winter fell by 10 per cent year-over-year, a drop being blamed on poor weather conditions in some regions, the recession and an aging population.
The Canadian Ski Council said Tuesday that 18.4 million visitors hit the slopes from roughly the November 2008 to March 2009 period, down from a record 20.5 million visitors the season before.
The 2008/2009 season was the seventh best for Canada's ski and snowboard industry in the past 15 years, the council said.
Council president Colin Chedore said the statistics aren't bad given the current recession, which is causing consumers to spend less, and the fact that the previous season was a record year thanks to good snow conditions.
"To be down only 10 per cent is incredible," Chedore said in an interview Tuesday at the council's annual conference in Whistler, the ski mecca that will soon be in the international limelight as one of the locations for the 2010 Olympic Games.
He said the industry knew the recession would have an impact on visits and many resorts adjusted their plans accordingly with special promotions and other marketing efforts.
Many resorts geared their promotions to so-called "rubber tire visitors," Chedore said, meaning attracting local visitors as opposed to international travellers who stayed home, scared off by the impact of the global recession.
At home, Alberta had the steepest drop in visitors this past season with 17.4 per cent fewer skiers and snowboarders on their mountains compared to last year. Quebec saw its visitors fall 11.8 per cent year-over-year, British Columbia was down 11.2 per cent and Ontario was down 4.7 per cent, while Atlantic Canada was up 9.1 per cent.
Chedore said the Ontario resorts, such as Blue Mountain near Collingwood, were headed for a record-breaking season, but were set back by poor snow conditions during the critical March break period.
The council statistics also showed the number of "active" participants in the ski/snowboard industry in Canada fell to 1.8 million in 2008/09 compared to 2.1 million the season earlier.
There were a record 2.7 million Canadian skiers and snowboarders in the 2002/03 season.
Michael Berry, president of the U.S.-based National Ski Areas Association, said participation in the snow sports is dropping across North America among the Baby Boom generation as they grow old and less willing to keep up with the sport.
Berry said the key for the industry is to keep the boomers, who helped drive the popularity of the sports over the past few decades, interested in sticking with it for longer.
That's why many resorts offer attractions for the finicky baby boomers from gourmet meals and high-speed lifts to luxury accommodation.
Now that there's a recession, Berry said the challenge for ski operators is even more difficult. Not only do they have the weather to worry about, and the aging population, but now the economy is keeping skiers away in droves.
Canadian consumer confidence and unemployment rates are not as low as in the U.S., but the industry has a tough road ahead, said Nate Fristoe, director of recreation industry consultancy RRC Associates.
"Next season will be just as challenging, if not more than this season," Fristoe told industry players at the conference.
As for the pending 2010 Olympics in Vancouver-Whistler in seven months time, Fristoe doesn't think the event will necessarily drive more people to the slopes.
He said during the Games there will be less business because the hills will be taken up with the Olympic events.
However, he said marketing around the event could have a "halo effect" afterwards.
"We'll have to wait and see on that one," said Fristoe.
Bill Jensen, CEO of Intrawest, owner of the 2010 Winter Olympics venue Whistler Blackcomb, also said he isn't sure the Games will necessarily bring in more money for ski resorts.
However, he said it is a great marketing opportunity and has helped improve infrastructure in the area.
Overall, the industry says snow conditions from year-to-year are a key factor driving skiers and snowboarders to the slopes.
"We would rather have good weather in a bad economy," than the other way around, said Berry.

Organizations: Canadian Ski Council, National Ski Areas Association, RRC Associates Intrawest

Geographic location: Atlantic Canada, WHISTLER, Ontario U.S. Alberta Quebec British Columbia Blue Mountain Collingwood North America

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