The outlook for the 2014-2015 ski season appears to be strong, with record-setting snowfall in parts of the U.S. last winter priming travelers to hit the slopes this winter. From a host of new flights and amenities to the top areas to recommend to “been there, done that” clients, we’ve rounded up everything travel agents need to know about the upcoming season.
For the 2013-2014 season, the ski market was divided by widely varying snowfall.
“We had a strong winter, and the country had a strong winter, but the drought in the West really hurt some of the western resorts,” says Jeff Hanle, director of public relations at the Aspen Skiing Company.
In the U.S., ski visits were down slightly by 0.7 percent to 56 million visits, according to the Kottke National End of Season Survey 2013/14, which was prepared by the National Ski Areas Association in conjunction with RRC Associates, Inc. The highest visit gains were in the Southeast (up 11.9 percent), Rocky Mountains (up 6.6 percent) and Midwest (up 5.8 percent). At the same time, the Pacific Northwest and Pacific Southwest experienced heavy losses, with a drop of 19.4 percent and 27.8 percent, respectively. The 2013-2014 season was the most difficult season for the Pacific Southwest in 19 years. In Canada, conditions were more challenging. Season-to-date skier visits were down 4 percent for 2013-2014 compared to the previous season at Whistler Blackcomb, according to the company’s Q2 2014 statement.
All rooms at The Chedi Andermatt come with their own ski butler.
The changes in visitation tracked closely with changes in last year’s snowfall totals. According to the NSAA, the top three snowfall gains in the U.S. were in the Midwest (up 31 percent), Rocky Mountains (up 28 percent) and Southeast (up 22 percent). Snowfall was down sharply in the Pacific Northwest (by 17 percent) and Pacific Southwest (by 32 percent). In Whistler Blackcomb’s Q2 2014 statement, the company attributed the decline in skier visitation to “challenging early season conditions.”
Last season’s weather patterns could have a big impact this season by driving clients’ expectations.
“Last year, while some parts of the country were receiving great snow, major metropolitan areas like New York and Chicago were having cold and snowy winters,” says Dan Sherman, VP of marketing for Ski.com. Normally, cold winters drive ski reservations for that season, he says, adding, “What fun is the snow if you can’t play in it?” But because this past winter in these and other cities was unusually harsh due to the polar vortex, the usual desire for snow may have been delayed until this coming season.
“After a while, people were sick of the snow, so I think that some people may have had reservations about going to a snowy destination to escape their own snowy location,” says Sherman. “But I think that this year, starting fresh, there are people who may not have traveled last year but will make the trip this year.”
Where will the snow fall most this year? This season, forecasters are predicting an El Niño, which can have an unpredictable effect on snowfall totals across the country.
“They’re predicting an El Niño year, and depending on where the warm water comes in, it can be strong for some places and not so strong for others,” says Hanle. “Right now it’s too variable for us to tell. We get some predictions in advance, but you never know if they’re going to turn out.”
What can agents expect in terms of new trends? Equipment rental deliveries, which first began seven or eight years ago, are starting to take off in popularity, says Sherman.
|Restaurant Arola at the W Verbier has a two-Michelin-starred chef.|
“When you get to the resort, people are tired and they just want to get settled in to their accommodations,” says Sherman. “But to get ready for the next day they have to go to the ski shop and try on boots and, especially if you’re traveling with children, that can be overwhelming.”
With rental delivery, the service gets the guest specifications before they travel, and then when guests arrive at their accommodations, the rental company will bring the equipment directly to the room or hotel lobby, says Sherman. The rental company will bring several options for each guest to try on to find an appropriate fit.
“It’s almost the same price as going to the shop,” says Sherman. “It’s a little more expensive, but it’s well worth it, especially for families, and in most destinations kids will rent free with paying adults.”
|Red Mountain Resort in Rossland, British Columbia, has been garnering attention from the consumer ski media.|
Another advantage: The ability to change equipment to match changing snow conditions. “If the first day it’s bluebird skiing, but then it starts snowing that night, you can switch it out,” says Sherman. “That’s what’s really great about it—you can change it every day and you get the latest equipment.”
Renting private homes instead of staying in a hotel or condo also continues to grow in popularity, says Sherman. “We’ve added a significant number of private homes,” says Sherman. “Now we have a much bigger inventory, especially in places like Deer Valley and Park City, but also in Beaver Creek and Snowmass.”
Next season will also see resorts stepping up their game to bring new skiers into the sport.
“Resorts are offering ‘Learn to Ski’ packages so that if, say, the Jones family moves in next to the Smith family, they might bring the Smith family along on their next ski vacation,” says Hanle. “Resorts are really catering toward that—they’re saying, ‘Let’s make it as easy as possible to bring new skiers into the sport and set up programming to make it as easy as possible for them to keep coming back.’”
Managing a group of clients with different ski and snowboard experience levels can depend on the terrain mix of the mountain they are visiting.
“It depends on how wide the experience gap is within the group,” says Hanle. “Our Elk Camp beginner’s area on Snowmass is up on top of the gondola, so beginners can take lessons there while the rest of the group is skiing intermediate or advanced terrain before they all go back to the bottom for dinner. If they go to separate mountains, they’ll just meet up for après and dinner, but most resorts are set up with variable terrain to accommodate different levels of skiers and riders.”
Multigenerational travel will also continue to be a major part of the market, both to drive ski vacations now and to develop skiers for the future.
“Skiing and snowboarding have always been family activities,” says Hanle. “You can see three generations of people in a family out skiing and riding together, and I don’t see that getting any weaker. People continue to share family traditions with the family as it expands.”
Emerging Ski Destinations
For clients who are looking for something new this season, there are a few lesser-known ski destinations that are starting to build buzz in the consumer press that savvy agents might want to keep an eye on.
One such area is the “Powder Highway” in British Columbia, where a recent burst of attention by the consumer media has resulted in a new run of investment. Travelers to the area this season will be able to take advantage of the new amenities while still enjoying terrain that is relatively uncrowded. The “Powder Highway” has seven ski areas:
Red Mountain was named the #8 Best Place in the World to Visit by The New York Times in 2013, and it has also won Powder magazine’s “Ski Town Throwdown” and Skiing’s “Most Underrated Resort.” Travelers can reach the area by flying into Spokane, Washington, and driving 122 miles. “It’s a really easy drive,” says Sherman. The drive takes about two-and-a-half hours and there are no mountain passes in between.
In December 2013, Red Mountain added the new Grey Mountain chairlift, which added 22 new runs and 1,000 acres of skiable terrain to the resort. This coming season, the resort is expanding its terrain further by adding 200 acres of cat skiing on Mt. Kirkup. The snow cat will shuttle skiers from Grey Mountain to the top of Mt. Kirkup with seats sold on a first-come, first-served basis for $10 per run with the purchase of a lift ticket or season pass.
“They have modern accommodations, but there aren’t very many, so if there’s a powder day, you could have three or four days of skiing powder all to yourself because there just aren’t a lot of people who go there,” says Sherman. “It’s also easy to go to multiple resorts in one trip through the Powder Highway. For example, from Red Mountain you can go to Whitewater in Nelson, BC, which has been recognized by a number of publications as the ‘next great ski town.’”
Europe has also seen a renewed burst of activity. Last year, Ski.com added 16 new resorts in Italy, says Sherman. The company also added side trip extensions in gateway cities, such as Milan, Geneva and Paris, as well as cities that are not gateways, such as Florence and Rome.
“Europe is an interesting part of our business,” says Sherman. “It’s something that was growing, but we also brought on some new staff to expand it. It had kind of played a secondary role in our company, but there are so many great options we decided it was time to pay attention.”
|The InterContinental Davos is heated with 90 percent renewable energy.|
For example, over the past two years a spate of new luxury openings have boosted interest in Europe’s ski regions. The Alpina Gstaad kicked things off when it opened in December 2012 as the first new five-star hotel to be built in the famous alpine village in 100 years.
In December 2013, three new luxury hotels opened. The Chedi Andermatt has views of the Gemsstock mountain and St. Gotthard Pass. All rooms have dedicated ski butlers, and the property can also arrange customized day excursions, concert tickets for the Lucerne Festival and guided hiking trips to a cheese-making farm. The InterContinental Hotel Davos could appeal to environmentally conscious clients—the property is heated with 90 percent renewable energy. It also has three restaurants, including Studio Grigio on the top floor, two bars, a full-service spa, open-air pool, a lounge overlooking the mountains and an in-house gear shop. Finally, the W Verbier, the first alpine ski retreat for the brand, has a fireplace and balcony with panoramic mountain views in all guest rooms and Restaurant Arola, overseen by the two-Michelin-starred Chef Sergi Arola, as well as its own spa.
Additionally, this December Club Med is preparing to debut the Club Med Val Thorens, which will serve as the resort chain’s flagship new generation ski resort. With direct access to the Three Valleys ski area, the new resort will have 348 rooms (including 12 Deluxe Rooms, five Junior Suites and six Suites), an on-property Ecole Ski Francais and the opportunity to try snowboarding, hiking, snowshoeing and a Paris “City Stop” option as an add-on. The all-inclusive rate will include airfare.
“There’s a lot of new things happening in Europe, but it’s been kind of under-the-radar for a lot of people,” says Sherman. “It’s especially relevant for travel agents and people on the East Coast.”
Top New Ski Developments in North America
With a new ski season almost upon us, resorts in the U.S. and Canada are putting the finishing touches on a host of upgrades to show off to guests.
Vermont resorts will roll out a $15 million snow gun efficiency upgrade that is being billed as the largest ever for the state. As part of Efficiency Vermont’s Great Snow Gun Roundup, resorts will be able to purchase approximately 2,300 new low-energy snow guns for the coming season by returning 1,800 older models.
In Vail, The Lodge at Vail, A RockResort will unveil renovations to 56 of its hotel rooms, as well as upgrades to its corridors, main stairways and lobby. The destination will also host two major winter sports events: the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships February 2 through 15, 2015, and the 33rd Burton U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships in March 2015.
In Aspen, Buttermilk will be getting a $10 million new ski-in/ski-out interactive children’s center dubbed “The Hideout.” The new center will offer young skiers the chance to enjoy kid-friendly terrain and indoor programs focusing on mountain adventure. The Limelight Hotel will debut a $1.1 million update to the décor in all of its guest rooms and suites and the Aspen Meadows Resort will offer a $1.5 million guest-room renovation, as well as snowshoe and ski tours for guests from the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) for the first time. The St. Regis Aspen Resort will add a new winter activity, Dog Skijoring (in which a person on skis is pulled by a dog or dogs), as well as a new après-ski spa experience with sommelier-paired wines with each treatment at the resort’s Remede Spa. Finally, The Little Nell will be showing off the recent redesign of its six signature suites by interior designer Holly Hunt.
In Utah, the buzz is around the ONE Wasatch concept: a proposed over-the-snow connection between all seven ski resorts in the central Wasatch Mountains via chairlift and ski run. While the seven resorts—Alta Ski Area, Brighton Resort, Canyons Resort, Deer Valley Resort, Park City Mountain Resort, Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort, and Solitude Mountain Resort—do not yet have a specific execution timeline, all have expressed support for the idea, which would allow guests to ski over 18,000 skiable acres, 100 lifts and more than 750 runs on a single lift ticket.
Utah is also getting a new resort. Cherry Peak Resort, which is 15 miles from Logan, Utah, will have three triple chairlifts and a 1.25 mile-long run. Nordic Valley Resort, previously known as Wolf Mountain, is cutting new trails to add 700 to 800 vertical feet to its current 1,000-foot ski hill in the wake of its acquisition by Skyline Mountain Base, LLC. Deer Valley Resort recently opened The Brass Tag restaurant in the Lodges at Deer Valley. It specializes in brick-oven cuisine. In Park City, one of the newest dining venues is “Burgers & Bourbon,” which pairs a whiskey selection from more than 100 large- and small-batch purveyors with eight signature burgers. Hand-spun spiked milkshakes are also available.
The Little Nell in Aspen recently remodeled its Signature Suites.
Squaw Valley has added $1.2 million in lodging improvements at The Village at Squaw Valley, including a new food truck and a mid-mountain Chalet at Alpine Meadows. At Tahoe Donner, a new Cross Country Ski Center is set to be completed in 2015. Even if the building is not completed as scheduled, cross-country trails will still be accessible and serviced by temporary structures.
Whistler Blackcomb has invested $6 million in new “Diamond” level cabins for its Whistler Village Gondola. The new cabins will have bench seating for all eight passengers and exterior racks for gear. Additionally, the destination will be introducing a new RFID system at lift gates to speed wait times, and a new Terrain Based Learning program at its Snow School.