The national ski-resort industry is coming off its second-best season on record, posting a 0.6 percent increase from last season's numbers, the National Ski Areas Association reported.
U.S. ski areas had 60.1 million skier and snowboarder visits during the 2010-11 season, up from 59.8 million visits the previous season, according to a preliminary 2010-11 end-of-season survey. A final report will be issued in July.
The figures came close to the 60.5 million-visit record set in the 2007-08 season.
Due to the economic downturn that began the following year, the ski resort industry saw a drop in visits. But the 5.5 percent decline that season was followed by solid gains in subsequent seasons.
"We don't see the economy as a primary factor (in 2010-11)," said ski association President Michael Berry. "We see the more traditional influence of weather."
The "La Niña" weather pattern brought wetter-than-normal conditions across the Pacific Northwest and dryer- and warmer-than-normal conditions across the South.
Snowfall was up 27 percent nationwide this season compared to 2009-10. The Rocky Mountain region saw a 31 percent increase in snowfall. The Pacific Southwest and the Northeast saw dramatic increases, up 43 percent and 37 percent, respectively. Only the Southeast experienced a decline in snowfall—a plunge of 42 percent.
Increased snowfall meant resorts could open earlier and stay open later.
The Rockies saw a 1.7 percent increase in visits, second only to the Northeast, which had a 4 percent increase from last season.
Sun Valley Resort topped off its season with late-season storms that created excellent spring-skiing conditions. The resort had 407,537 skier visits, a 2 percent increase over the previous season.
Whistler-Blackcomb in Canada expects skier visits to top the 2 million mark, according to a news release.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming had a record snow depth on opening day. Skier visits for the 2010-11 season reached 478,553, the second highest in the resort's history. Reduced season-pass prices contributed to the high numbers, according to a news release from the resort.
Sun Valley's appeal, challenges
Though Sun Valley saw skier visits increase this past season, the resort's ability to attract even greater numbers hinges on more than the whims of Mother Nature. What those challenges are, and how to address them, are up for discussion.
"Access has been the issue since day one," Berry said. "When you're in Sun Valley, you're in Sun Valley."
Berry said that adequate accommodations are also key to more visitors.
"The kind of beds you need are rentable beds, (known as) hot pillows," he said.
He said the area also could benefit from targeting younger skiers.
"How do you position yourself for a new generation of customers?" he said. "It's a huge challenge."
Greg Randolph, general manager of the Sun Valley Chamber of Commerce, said there are challenges, but disagreed that access is one of them.
Compared to similar ski resorts such as Aspen and Telluride, door-to-door travel time, even if flying into Boise, is faster.
"The assumption that we have an accessibility problem doesn't really hold water," he said.
Some seclusion, he added, can be a good thing.
"It keeps the experience a little more limited and a little more special," he said.
Randolph agreed that attracting new and younger visitors is important. He said all the strategic marketing thinking going on at the Sun Valley Marketing Alliance is focused on drawing in a younger demographic.
"The Sun Valley/Ketchum community has the potential to have a spectacular future," Berry said. "Coming up with a plan and a strategy is the true challenge."
Rebecca Meany: firstname.lastname@example.org