It’s a not-so-well-kept secret in the ski industry that, like the snowline, the average age of visitors on the slopes in established resorts around the world is rising.
UK data from travel firm SkiWeekends suggests over 66% of UK skiers (which is a £3bn market) are aged between 43 and 65. In the US, over the last 15 years the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) has been tracking the proportion of ski trips made by children aged 17 and under. It has dropped by 7%. For those aged 18-24, the fall in participation is 4%. Not to mention the swathe of kids who missed out on learning to ski at a young age due to pandemic restrictions.
In many places, the market is more than mature and the baby-boomers represent the majority of participants.Laurent Vanat, researcher
Short-term, the ski industry has bounced back post-Covid, despite weather issues, or at least returned to its pre-pandemic plateau in places, but the long-term lie of the land is concerning, according to industry experts.
Swiss researcher Laurent Vanat, who each year publishes an international report on and analysis of key factors in the ski industry, sums up the problem. “In many places, the market is more than mature and the baby-boomers represent the majority of participants. This generation will progressively exit some of the mature markets without being adequately replaced by future generations with the same enthusiasm for skiing.”
Some mountain sport lovers may relish the idea of ski slopes free of crowds of noisy youngsters. But along with diminishing snowfall and unpredictable seasons due to climate change, there are fears about the long-term consequences for the industry if new participants do not learn to love the slopes. So what can mountain sports do to reverse the trend?
New markets like Russa and China represent a potential lifeline, with the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics having galvanised interest recently. But those new markets are geopolitically unstable – the oligarchs have melted away since the invasion of Ukraine and sanctions.
Even prior to the war, the avalanche of Russian visitors in resorts like Courcheval may have been lucrative, but was creating a perceived culture clash between ‘old’ and ‘new’ money (despite Russians holidaying in France since the 19th century). Perceptions are important though. The known expense involved in the sport is already off-putting for many. Finding resorts full of people parading in designer ski gear and fur is not something likely to attract budget and planet conscious Gen Z.
New teaching methods and more comfortable and technically-advanced equipment that makes learning the sport easier should be great strides towards attracting and keeping new skiers, of all ages. Indeed, having tried as a teen with a pair of skis that were taller and heavier than I was, I finally learned to ski and enjoy it in my forties. But this equipment has been around during Gen Z’s childhood. So what’s the problem?
Issa Sawabini, partner at sport marketing agency Fuse, told delegates at the Mountain Travel Symposium in Banff last week that new approaches were needed across the board to refresh the image of snowsports, from the marketing platforms used, to the importance of eco-credentials, to diversifying activities on and off-piste.
Sawabini recommends attracting younger pockets through marketing in the form of snappy clips for YouTube, Tiktok, Instagram and Snapchat, where 94% of Gen Zers spend their time, according to Pew Research data. Gen Z watches an astonishing 65 videos per day on average, but often for only 30 seconds each.
Extraordinarily, 40% of Gen Z use TikTok and Instagram for searches instead of Google or other actual search engines. So resorts need to make sure their information, content and relevant tags work on those platforms.
Resorts must also develop a response to providers like AirBnB who disrupt the format of the classic ski package, which has been evolving anyway in recent years. There’s a positive trend towards resorts merging into larger zones where visitors can get great value from their passes to find plenty of slope variety on nearby mountains. However ‘more slopes’ is not the only type of variety and personal growth being sought.
Mountain music festivals, galleries and other sports are ways ski resorts can increase their appeal. Dr Robert Kaspar from Schloss Seeburg University in Austria, told the BBC that “People want to have other experiences in the mountains, for example on horseback. There is also the development of the culinary experience on the mountain. People want to have an enjoyable time and eat well,” he says.
As well as diversifying, actual diversity is a hot potato too. Last year, nearly 90% of US ski area guests self-identified as white. 63% percent were male. Such data is something Gen Z pays attention to, rewarding providers with strong social and eco values. Prioritising positive action and messaging around social causes and self-empowerment might make a generation of reluctant skiers sit up and take notice.