Era of the Super Pass: Ski resorts forced to adapt and change with demographic cycles

Tom Ross
Vacationing snowboarder Marcia Fletcher, of Fort Smith, Arkansas, right, takes a break in the sun Tuesday to rest her leg muscles with Steamboat Ski Area instructor Danny Pinegar. Fletcher and her husband, Ep, have returned to skiing after a 15-year hiatus and introduced two young children to the sport. The Fletcher family could be considered emblematic of the generational cycles that the ski resort business is subject to.
Tom Ross

— Ski resort operators understand that not far in the future, they will face a demographic trend that will force them to adapt as two distinct generations of skiers and snowboarders arrive at a stage of life when they may be less likely to hit the slopes.

The millennials, alternatively known as Generation Y and the Echo Boomers, had birth dates ranging from the early 1980s to the early 2000s. The older millennials in their early 30s came of age in the recession of 2009 and many have entered the life phase of child-rearing years.

“This is a very interesting time for the ski industry,” veteran ski industry executive and educator Tim Cohee said. “The world is turning 30 and 60 at the same time, and neither one bodes particularly well. Sixty is OK; 60 is so much younger that it used to be. But 10 years out, the boomers will be between 60 and 80 and the echo boomers will be between 30 and 50. What’s going to have to happen here is we’re going to have to have a pretty good birth rate.”

Cohee said couples with infants and toddlers are less likely to embark on ski vacations: “Visiting a ski area with three kids and diapers is not exactly fun.”

Arkansas travelers

Marcia and Ep Fletcher, of Fort Smith, Arkansas, dropped out of the skiing scene 15 years ago, but they were vacationing in Steamboat from Nov. 29 to Dec. 6 with their 7-year-old son, Kale, and his 3 1/2-year-old sister, Scout. Already, the Fletchers are planning their return.

“The last time we were out here was before the kids were born,” Marcia Fletcher said. “We’re already talking — we’ve got to find a way to make this happen again, either every winter or every other winter. I haven’t seen Kale this happy about anything before.”

The Fletchers, both 38, don’t fit either the millennial or boomer demographic pattern. At their age, they are solidly in the middle of Generation X. But their experience illustrates how demographic trends can impact the ski resort industry.

They exited the sport of skiing well before they decided to start a family, but any plans to resume skiing were delayed by the arrival of Kale and Scout.

The good news is that the Fletchers enthusiastically have returned to skiing.

The Fletcher family includes three adults (Marcia’s mother also is skiing at Steamboat this week), and they were able to get free lift tickets and rentals for their children. That alone has Marcia sold on Steamboat. But Marcia said the extra care the staff at the Kids Vacation Club took with Scout’s food allergies — and the peace of mind that brought her — really sealed the deal.

“I don’t know why we’d go anywhere else next year,” she said.

Steamboat, with its performance stage right outside the entrance to the gondola, and other ski areas have set themselves up to reach different skier demographics with free live concerts that seem to affirm that guests have arrived at the right place with people who share their tastes.

The economic challenges that millennials have faced in the post-recessionary job market make Vail’s focus on the wealthiest segment of the destination ski market strategically wise, Cohee said.

“The high ground is pretty safe ground, and that’s going to be the Vail Resorts type of vacationer — because of the level of wealth, they’re not people who are worrying about interest rates on their mortgages.”

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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