Colorado captures six top-10 spots in best ski areas

Filed under: Focus |

Vail is No. 1, according to the annual Ski Magazine reader survey of the best ski resorts in North America. Colorado retains a giant presence among ski enthusiasts, as five other resorts place among the survey’s top 10. Snowmass ranked third among favorite slopes; in fourth place was Beaver Creek; Breckenridge came in sixth; and Aspen and Steamboat Springs placed seventh and 10th, respectively.

Ski Magazine published the survey results in its October issue.

Adam Aron, chairman and chief executive officer of Vail Resorts, said in a news release that, “for 13 years, Vail has captured the No. 1 spot as the best ski resort in North America by raising the industry bar and exceeding the expectations of our customers year in and year out. No other resort in North America has consistently achieved this level of excellence for such long period as king of the hills.”

Vail always scores high in all 17 Ski Magazine categories, said Greg Ditrinco, the Boulder-based magazine’s executive editor. Readers select their favorites based not only on snow and terrain but also on dining, nightlife, shopping, family programs, etc. “We ask our readers to rate the areas where they’ve skied the past two years,” Ditrinco said. “We send 20,000 surveys, and the return is usually between 10 and 20 percent in any year.

“The results reflect our readers’ priorities, and the soup-to-nuts resorts attract those who are interested in a whole, comprehensive ski vacation.”

However, the purists care about snow, Ditrinco said. Two Utah resorts – Alta and Deer Valley won for the best snow and best-groomed mountain categories.

Denny Bride is one of those snow-ski purists and the marketing director for Christy Sports, a Colorado owned ski and snowboard retailer and equipment-rental company. Bride has worked for the 46-year-old company for 20 years, and, as a former ski patrolman and a “ski bum,” he has spent plenty of time on the slopes. “My first choice for the best ski area is Canada’s Whistler Blackcomb (No. 5 in the survey),” he said. His Colorado ski bliss is Crested Butte, which, Bride said, is the best “steep and deep” in the continental United States.

He agreed with Ditrinco that the ski-area popularity contest comes down to “the sum total of the skiers’ interests.”

“What are you looking for?” Bride asked. “Is it night life? Is it the most luxurious hotels?” Is it a great shopping experience?”

However, he said, regardless of the desires of ski enthusiasts, the ski areas’ nightclubs, hotels and retail stores are all reliant on Mother Nature. Bride likened the ski industry to farming. “Snow is to Christy Sports and the entire ski industry what rain is to the farmer,” he said. “Without snow, there is no skiing. Without rain, there are no crops. How do you work through the drought years?”

The farmers learned to battle the drought years with irrigation systems, and Bride said the ski industry did the same in the late 1970s when they purchased the equipment and created the infrastructure to make the snow. “Now everyone does it,” he said.

Snow making was just one aspect of the ski industry’s evolution that took place between the 1960s and 1970s, Bride said. In the ’60s, millions of Americans adopted the new and exciting sporting event, he said. “As the number of skiers grew, the ski areas raised the prices and eliminated the people who couldn’t afford it,” Bride said. “They did this for two reasons: to control the numbers to maintain a quality experience for the skier, and to find more revenues.”

The ski industry evolved again with the introduction of high-speed chair lifts – a new technology that moved people quickly up the mountain. Bride said that overcrowding isn’t a problem today, but the combination of snowmaking, speedy lifts, larger trails and additional groomed slopes continues to drive up the price of skiing, which somewhat limits the audience. The challenge to the industry is drawing a younger group of skiers and snowboarders to replace the baby boomers.

The target market for the industry still somewhere between the baby boomer and the younger person, Bride said. “The older market still has the buying power, but that younger market will grow up someday to have the money, too.”

The baby boomers have driven the industry, he said. “As they age, many will leave the sport, and we will have to look to the younger generation to fill those spots.”

Ditrinco agreed. “The ski area has done a good job with the parks and pipes explosion to attract the younger generation,” he said. (The terrain parks are ski slope areas that have jumps, rails and pipes, which are constructed out of snow specifically for flips and other tricks.) “However, we still need to attract new skiers, and the industry is more competitive today. The competition isn’t just against other ski areas; it’s the beach industry that we compete with, too.”

If the baby boomers trade skiing for snorkeling (a less physically demanding sport), ski specialty shops like Christy Sports will have to continue to diversify their products to embrace the younger skier, much like they did when the snowboard craze hit the slopes. Bride said skateboarding has fostered another new skiing style and a new product – a twin-tip ski that allows frontward and backward skiing.

Whether it’s a twin-tip ski, a snowboard or regular skis, capturing the buyers, young or old, is as competitive as any black diamond run. Bride said Christy Sports doesn’t compete with the big box stores. Fighting for its share of the market are all the ski-specialty stores.

“We’ve tried to outlast the competition by providing quality products, great customer service and convenience through additional store locations,” Bride said. “We’ve expanded from our one original store in Lakewood to 36 locations.” Store placement is especially important with the ski rental market, he said.

“Today, people can rent better equipment than they can afford to buy,” Bride said. “The rental market is getting stronger. The out-of-state skiers who come in once a year to Colorado don’t necessarily want to invest $1,000 for the best skis.”

Although skiers can buy quality equipment for less than a grand, the best equipment is pricey; thus, more vacationers are opting for rentals, he said. “Skiing is still a great family opportunity,” Bride said. “It’s an exciting outdoor experience to share with the whole family.”

Ski season is around the corner, and Colorado’s winter niche is obvious, according to the Ski Magazine readers.

Despite a lag in the economy, Ditrinco said the ski industry has remained strong. “Skiers are passionate people, and they find a way to ski in down times, too.”

- Marylou.Doehrman@csbj.com