This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
VAIL — Early-season skier traffic to Vail Resorts’ 37 North American ski areas was up 12.5% through Jan. 8 compared with the same period last season, the company reported earlier this month.
That bump is not evident in Colorado, where the company’s five resorts are seeing pretty mellow traffic despite well-above-average snowpack. Vail Resorts, in its early-season report to investors, said even though continent-wide visits were pacing above last year’s record numbers, visits to its resorts in Colorado, Utah and California were “below expectations,” citing “extreme weather” and the airline industry’s struggles during the holiday season.
Breckenridge saw an annual dip in December holiday traffic as well as over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. The number of times parking structures have filled and forced cars to park on Vail’s Frontage Road is below this time last year. Crested Butte locals reported empty T-bars spinning over MLK weekend.
Even though Vail Resorts expects to see traffic at its Western U.S. resorts pick up later this season, the company told investors to expect annual resort revenue to fall in the lower half of the projected range of $893 million and $947 million that the company estimated in September.
At the company’s flagship Vail and Beaver Creek ski areas, parking lots are not filling and lift lines are nonexistent. That’s a big shift from the past couple years, as pandemic crowds, record pass sales, a high country labor crisis and a COVID-ravaged workforce swirled into a hurricane for the company’s destination resorts.
This season, through Jan. 30, the Town of Vail’s parking structures have filled 12 times, forcing cars to park on the Frontage Road. In the same span last season, that number was 19. For all of last season, cars overflowed onto Vail’s Frontage Road a total of 53 times. The tourism office in Breckenridge last week reported a 3% drop in December holiday bookings and a 5% decline in MLK weekend bookings.
Vail Resorts last August announced it would be capping daily lift ticket sales at all its resorts for the 2022-23 ski season to better protect “our guests’ experience,” read a statement.
The operator has not had a day at any of its Colorado resorts where the limit was reached and sales were halted, said company spokeswoman Lindsay Hogan, who credited the bountiful snow that allowed each resort to open terrain earlier than usual. Hogan said some resorts outside of Colorado have reached the cap and tickets sales were stopped.
Vail Resorts’ North American uptick in traffic through the holidays follows downturns in early-season visits for the previous two seasons. For its early season check-in last year, Vail Resorts reported a 1.7% decline in skier traffic through Jan. 2, 2022, compared with the same period for the 2020-21 season. In January 2021, the company reported a 16.6% decline in early-season visits compared to the 2019-20 season.
By the end of the 2021-22 ski season, Vail Resorts reported a 12.5% increase in skier visits over the 2020-21 season, crediting a strong rebound in traffic at its Colorado, Utah and Whistler Blackcomb ski areas. Across all 37 of the company’s North American resorts, the company reported a record 16.2 million visits for the 2021-22 ski season, accounting for 20% of all North American skier visits.
That compares with 13.9 million skier visits for the 2020-21 season and 12.4 million skier visits for the 2019-20 season, which was cut short as resorts closed in March 2020 at the onset of the pandemic.
The 2021-22 ski season was the busiest — and most lucrative — ever for Vail Resorts. The record traffic of 2021-22 came as the company reported its busiest ski area, Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, which regularly exceeds 2 million annual visits, “was disproportionately impacted” by Canadian travel restrictions related to the surge of COVID during December 2021.
After three years of travel restriction, Whistler recently reported strong holiday traffic rebounding to pre-pandemic levels.
Is the return of normal visitor numbers at Whistler enough to buoy Vail Resorts traffic counts by 12.5%?
Let’s keep digging.
Vail Resorts in December reported a 12% decline in the number of Epic and Epic Local passes it sold for 2022-23. Still, the company told investors last month that it sold 2.3 million passes and advanced-purchase lift tickets for this season, up from 2.1 million for 2021-22 and 1.2 million for 2019-20.
Vail Resorts CEO Kirsten Lynch told investors that she expected the 12% decline in season passes, noting that sales of season passes are up 55% from 2019-20.
The company reported a 4% decline in skiers renewing their season passes for 2022-23, which was also expected, Lynch said, noting, again, the company’s spectacular growth in pass sales in the previous two seasons.
Reports from Crested Butte also show a reprieve from the lines and crowding of the past couple seasons.
Vacationer traffic into Gunnison’s airport — with direct flights from Denver, Houston and Dallas — is about even through December with the previous season. And last season was a banner year for Gunnison, which saw record traffic alongside mountain airports in Aspen, Durango, Eagle County, Hayden and Montrose.
Skiers in Park City, Utah, are saying the congestion of recent seasons seems to have ebbed.
The sudden lack of lift lines and swollen parking lots may have something to do with communities reshuffling parking strategies — both Vail and Park City increased the cost of close-in parking this season — as well as strong early snow allowing fully staffed resorts to open more terrain more quickly. And there are a lot of new high-capacity chairlifts spinning in Colorado this year, which are reducing wait times.
So it may just feel less crowded. (Traffic through the Eisenhower and Johnson Memorial tunnels is pacing with last season, with the state transportation department counting 1.93 million vehicles passing through the eastbound and westbound bores from Dec. 1 through Jan 25. That compares with 2.17 million in all of December and January last season, 2.09 million in 2020-21, and 2.29 million in both 2019-20 and 2018-19. The first three weeks of January 2023 saw an average of 260,000 through the tunnels, which would put the December and January count for 2022-23 at nearly identical to the previous season.)
But it’s a good query: Could the 900,000-skier surge of Epic Pass skiers in 2021 be settling into a more even flow with an increase in less frequent skiers and a decline in the heaviest users? And could more skiers be dabbling with the Ikon Pass, which would mean Copper Mountain, Eldora, Winter Park, Steamboat and Arapahoe Basin would be seeing larger crowds than previous seasons? (Alterra Mountain Co. is privately held and does not report pass sales or traffic numbers. Ditto for Powdr, the owner of Copper Mountain and Eldora.)
Arapahoe Basin is sending out more weekend emails to skiers saying their parking lots have filled. Two weekends ago at Copper Mountain, the resort’s parking lots reached capacity and the resort turned away skiers at the gate. Steamboat was featured in a few social media posts last weekend featuring extra-long lift lines.
It’s important to note that skier visits don’t really mean much to operators like Vail Resorts anymore. Since the company sells most of its lift tickets and passes long before the lifts turn, traffic does not have as much influence on the company’s revenues as it did in the days before the Epic Pass, which debuted in 2008.
But visits certainly matter to mountain communities, which in recent years have felt deluged by record numbers of pass-scanning skiers. Either way, resorts and mountain towns are working hard to accommodate the shifting patterns of those pass-buying skiers. And their cars.
“I wouldn’t say this season has been particularly exceptional, but our growth and popularity over the past five seasons is certainly noticeable,” Copper Mountain President Dustin Lyman said. “To that end, we are prioritizing parking expansion and transportation improvements that we can implement during the next offseason.”