Winter Resorts Targeting Baby Boomers: I’m a Little Worried.

Well, you know me. I’m always a little worried about something. But hopefully, the fact that I have a tendency to bring up issues people wish would just go away is part of the reason you read me. 

We’ve all known that winter resorts tend to be dependent on the baby boomers for a big chunk of their business. You need a lot of disposable income and free time if you’re going to visit them regularly. I just took that as a fact and didn’t think much about it until I saw this article called “Best Ski Resorts for Senior Skiers.” It talks about programs that resorts have in place for senior skiers/boarders.
“Well, that sounds great,” I thought. But then I read, “All the marketing to boomers seems to be paying off as the National Ski Areas Association reports an 11 percent increase in skiing and snowboarding for people 45 and older. Strangely, on the flip side, there’s been a decrease in skiers 35 and younger.”
I kind of new that too. But seeing the two statistics in juxtaposition made my alarm bell go off. I wondered if by doing marketing, building facilities, and holding events that targeted the baby boomers, you weren’t guaranteed to be turning off younger (and more importantly potential) boarders/skiers. I wonder what the decrease in skiers 35 and younger is, what the size of that group is, and how it compares to the 11 percent increase in the over 45 crowd.
I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. The over 45s are going to stop visiting winter resorts a lot sooner than the under 35s and I don’t think there’s any amount of marketing or new programs that can change that. Every resort is different, and it may be a great tactic to attract older people with lots of money. But strategically, if you look beyond some limited number of years, it’s kind of a recipe for self-destruction. I mean, I don’t ever want to get the point where there are emergency medical care facilities on the mountain instead of bars, most skis are sit down, and some visitors need minders on the mountain so they don’t get lost (Oh-shit-I’ve gotten lost a time or two).
Haven’t we been spending, as an industry, a whole bunch of money and effort to attract new participants? If we’ve had so little success, why is that? Or maybe we’ve been successful, and the decrease in the under 35 crowd would have been a whole lot worse without it. But even if that’s success, it’s not enough success.
The devil is in the details, and it’s certainly possible for a given resort to balance its programs and facilities to appeal to a wider demographic spread. And yet, I would not be the only person who believes that if you think everybody is your customer, then nobody is your customer.
Maybe the Mountain Rider Alliance has some good ideas about how to manage this. Look at the way they are defining their potential customers. Full disclosure; I’m on the Mountain Rider Alliance (unfortunately unpaid) Advisory Board.
Hell, maybe resort managers have decided they can milk the boomers until global warming turns some of them into summer resorts. I don’t really think that’s true, but some years ago I had occasion to attend and make a presentation to the scuba diving association. They had some issues remarkably similar to the winter sports business. I learned a lot, and got quite a good perspective. You know, it wouldn’t hurt for NSAA to start a conversation with the golf trade association if they haven’t already. Golf is another sport that takes a lot of time and money to participate in (In my case, without much in the way of results). I’m not suggesting this because I believe all winter resorts can or should build golf courses (though of course some have) but because I think the cross fertilization of ideas concerning attracting participants might be valuable.
What I guess I’m reminding you of is that dependence on baby boomers cannot be a long term strategy. And dependence may reduce your ability to transition away from them as demographics will eventually require (is requiring?). It is also possible (I think likely) that this country’s economic profile over the next couple of decades may require winter resorts to rethink their offerings and financial model.



12 replies
  1. john bernards
    john bernards says:

    We older people take our grown up kids and their kids sking/snowboarding thus the young ones dont need to be marketed. Plus– there are more of us than the young ones and they will be aging soon enough.

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi John,
      Yes, but will they go when you aren’t paying? And are the facilities and conveniences you use the same they use? You spend much time in the terrain park? I can’t help but agree that the kids will get older too. But their anticipated span of visiting winter resorts is longer than yours or mine and it’s much easier to keep a customer you have than to get a new one (once you get them). So I’m not saying it’s bad to market to boomers that are already your customer. But I am saying that you’re going to lose that customer (are losing that customer), and you need to attract the next wave now, not after the boomers are gone.

      See you in January.


  2. Gregg Blanchard
    Gregg Blanchard says:

    Jeff, great points and great article. The industry does talk about this concern (your quotes were from an NSAA report after all), but I think people in and around the industry need to be more direct and frank like this about skiing’s biggest issues.

    The only feedback I’d have is that I think you took one idea – boomer targeting (from your title) – and turned it into something very different – boomer dependence (from your last paragraph) – later in your article.

    In my mind, targeting boomers is an extremely smart marketing strategy because of their income, time to travel, etc. Why wouldn’t you put much of your marketing efforts on your most valuable guests that stay longer, spend more, and are more likely to return?

    But I completely agree your last sentence, “this economic profile may require resort to rethink offerings.” This is exactly what happened as boomers started having families and increasing their income, resort marketers adapted to those demands, something they’ll have to do again over the next couple decades.

    However, I guess I’d just caution us from assuming that because resorts are targeting boomers now they don’t have their eye on the challenges and issues that are ahead.

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi Gregg,
      I agree with you. Like I said, each resort is different. I don’t have a problem with targeting boomers- in fact right now I don’t know how a resort avoids it (and maybe boomers and seniors shouldn’t be used to refer to the same group). But when I talked about resorts having to rethink their offerings because of our economic profile, what I meant was that our population growth is lower than it’s been in decades, and productivity is declining. Those two things are the only source of GDP growth. And average income has been falling for years. So even if we convert younger people to skiing and snowboarding, will they able to afford it under the current model?

      Thanks for your comment.


      • Gregg Blanchard
        Gregg Blanchard says:

        Thanks for the reply, Jeff, and I see where you’re going with that.

        In terms of the current model, I think a resort to look at in the case of changing models is Jay Peak. While they still consistently offer activities (typically concerts) that appeals mostly to the 45+ generation (not solely boomers, but close), they’ve also opened up a new indoor waterpark and actually cut lift ticket prices this last year. Word on the street is that they’re doing quite well compared to other, similar resorts..for what a word on the streets is worth these days.

        Whether every resort can simply do the same (and hope the increase in sales makes up for the difference in pass price) and come out scot-free, I don’t know, but it’s going to be quite the ride.

        • jeff
          jeff says:

          I think, Gregg, that I can guarantee that not all resorts can do the same as Jay Peak. But that’s not to say they can’t do some different things appropriate to their resort and customer base. I think the most important thing any resort can do is develop just a little summer business. I am only asking the industry to recognize that the economic model under which they functioned is changing. They cannot ignore that. Like I’ve been telling specialty retailers for years, the biggest risk is taking no risk at all.


  3. Chuck
    Chuck says:

    Not to be really boring, but Jeff I think they are taking a page from the cruise industry. The cruise industry has blown up capacity and always talks about attracting new passengers, but there is a lot of very subtle marketing to grandparents to take families. It is about who has the $’s to fill the lodges.

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Chuck, you could never be really boring. The cruise industry is a great example. What happens when the grandparents die?

      • chris
        chris says:

        I must say, I don’t see any correlation between the cruise industry and snowsports. The cruise industry can be enjoyed by anyone in any sort of shape. It’s my belief that most folks leave skiing when the tire around their middle gets noticeably difficult to drag around.

        It gets hard to justify the expense when you can only do 2 or 3 runs.

        Juat my two cents…


        • jeff
          jeff says:

          Hi Chris,
          Help me out here. I didn’t mention the cruise industry in my article, and I don’t think Marolt, in the article I referred to, did either. So, you have left me confused. Okay, more confused than usual.


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