Strength in season pass sales a rare pandemic silver lining for ski resorts
The surge in interest last winter could point to a strong long-term outlook
In any normal winter, Cameron Birch and his family of five would pack their bags for an all-inclusive vacation somewhere warm and sunny.
But when the pandemic kept them from booking a trip south, the Kelowna, B.C., family looked closer to home and bought season passes to Big White Ski Resort for the first time.
"Last year was a little bit of a trial. Did we know if we were going to utilize it? Not really," said Birch, who took the plunge and spent around $2,500 on season passes for his wife and three children aged between eight and 12.
It ended up being a hit, with the family getting around 25 days on the hill, sometimes just to spend a couple of hours of the day outside. Now, Birch expects to buy a pass every year, and says many of his friends in the community will do the same.
Strength in season pass sales has been one bright spot in an otherwise difficult year for Western Canada's big mountain resorts as travel restrictions and other pandemic-related measures caused a plunge in high-spending destination skiers.
Michael Ballingall, senior vice-president of Big White, said last winter was one of their best ever for season passes, even as individual ticket sales dropped by roughly 80 per cent.
He said many residents took a chance on the resort because it was one of the few activities that would almost definitely be available during the pandemic.
"People knew the mountain was going to open, and they put down on the early bird season pass, so they at least had something they knew they'd be able to do," said Balingall, who said new skiers gave it a try, and lapsed skiers rediscovered an old love.
"New Canadians are getting introduced to the sport at a greater pace than they've ever done before, and a percentage of them fell in love with the sport."
The other thing is you had lapsed skiers and snowboarders who remembered the thrill of sliding, and we think that's caused a rebirth."
The surge in interest last winter could point to a strong long-term outlook, but experts in the industry say it also did little to help what was a disastrous year for ski resorts in the short-term financial picture.
Season-pass sales create much less revenue per visit than a single-day ticket purchased by a tourist. And the Canada West Ski Areas Association says international tourists will often spend four or five times as much money while at the resort compared with locals.
Industry experts say international visitors are the ones who buy tour packages, ski rentals and lessons, top-shelf liquor, fancy meals and all the other things that keep the resort and local economy churning.
More often, Canadian consumers are the ones coming to a resort with a car full of groceries and some existing knowledge of the sport and surrounding area.
"What we're seeing so far is that season-pass sales may be strong, and for some areas that may be a good thing, but in other areas it completely masks the significant net loss in revenue overall," said Christopher Nicolson, president & CEO of the CWSAA.
He said resorts near cities like Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton have more to gain from strong season pass sales, as their business model already depend less on international tourists and they have a larger population to draw from.
But smaller communities will continue to struggle until ticket sales from international visitors pick up again.
Nicolson doesn't expect that to happen immediately. He believes it will take years before resorts return to pre-pandemic visitation levels.
Robyn Mitz, a program co-ordinator and instructor for Selkirk College's ski operations course in Nelson, B.C., said some smaller resorts will look at new ticketing models to raise revenues in the interim.
One strategy for resorts that Mitz pointed out is a 10-punch pass. It lets locals save on each day of skiing and benefit from flexibility, while allowing resorts to profit more off of return visitors.
She said strong retail sales for ski and snowboard equipment last year are also confidence inspiring for strong demand from local markets in year to come. While skis were not as difficult to find as bikes in 2020, many products sold out quicker than usual.
Back in Kelowna, Ballingall said one of the big positives from strong season pass sales is a sense of confidence for resorts going into the ski season.
He said resorts often base their expectations for the season — and their ability to hire and prepare operations — on cash flow generated from pass sales in off-season months.
"The business survives off lift ticket sales and maintains itself on season pass sales," said Ballingall.
"The day that you open you've got to staff everything and groom the runs, and if your season pass sales can cover those costs, then your day ticket sales are going to be what's able to keep you going."
For skiers like Birch, a father in a family of five, the season pass represents a sense of community.
When indoor gatherings were banned last year, he said the ski resort was the place where friends could spend time together, whether it was playing in the snow or making s'mores in the parking lot.
This year, he says he's looking forward to more of the same.