This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
The ski industry has bounced back from COVID.
Vail Resorts made $372.6 million in February, March and April this year. That’s about $100 million more than the same quarter last year, $220 million more than the same three months in 2020 and $80 million more in net income than the company reported for those critical three months in 2019.
So the final months of the 2021-22 ski season for North America’s largest resort operator were the best the company ever had, with the highest third quarter net income it has ever posted.
Colorado Ski Country, which represents 22 of 28 ski areas in the state, on Thursday announced its member resorts, along with estimates from Vail Resorts’ five Colorado ski areas, likely posted 14 million skier visits, setting a record. Visitation to the trade group’s resorts climbed 14% above the previous season and inched past the statewide 13.8 million record set in 2018-19.
It wasn’t a rosy start to the season, with weak snowfall and labor shortages challenging resort operators. But well-timed storms boosted skier traffic in January, February and March.
Colorado Ski Country boss Melanie Mills said in a statement that “business has recovered from the worst impacts of the pandemic.” That’s a milestone, considering the angst when resorts suddenly shuttered in April 2020 as the first waves of a prolonged pandemic swamped the world.
The National Ski Areas Association last month reported that despite the coast-to-coast lack of good snow in the early season, U.S. ski areas posted a record 61 million visits for the 2021-22 season.
The growth in visitation was not without its headaches as local communities struggled with traffic and other impacts. A resurgence of COVID around the holidays, combined with a nationwide shortage of workers, left many resorts struggling to handle the crowds.
Vail Resorts entered the season with news it had sold a record 2.1 million advance-sale season passes and lift tickets, a 47% increase over the previous season. It also told investors it had $1.3 billion in cash. Those numbers were widely mentioned in news reports detailing how the lack of workers had left the company struggling to meet demand during peak traffic. The company said some resorts saw as many as 10% of employees at one time unable to work due to COVID.
Vail Resorts responded to the labor crisis with a $175 million investment in its workers, including a new $20-an-hour starting wage at all its resorts and more support programs for employees.
The company also broke out some visitation trends for the 2021-22 season, including a 12% increase in visits across all its 37 North American ski areas. The increase in pass sales, “did not drive dramatic increases in visitation,” Vail Resorts CEO Kirsten Lynch said in a statement.
The growth the company saw in visitation through early March, compared to visits before the pandemic, was not on weekends and holidays, Lynch said, describing a 9% increase in midweek and non-holiday traffic. Lynch also said peak days mirrored the traffic seen in previous years. The company saw 69% of its visits come from season-pass holders, compared to 56% in the same period before the pandemic in 2020.
That means Vail Resorts, which retained the same 20% discount on 2022-23 Epic Pass products that it offered last season, remains “committed to our strategy to move lift ticket purchasers into advanced commitment products.”
That strategy is working for Vail Resorts. Early sales of the Epic Pass and advanced lift tickets are up 9% over last year’s record-setting pace. The company is investing up to $337 million in its resorts this summer, including $180 million on 21 new lifts at 14 ski areas. The company in March told investors it was upping its expected resort earnings for fiscal 2022 to between $813 million and $837 million. On Thursday the company bumped that range up again, with its projected earnings for the fiscal year expected to fall between $828 million and $842 million.
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