Condor Capital Management’s 2015/16 Ski Season Wrap-Up: Strong Season in the West Counters Above-Average Temperatures in the East
MARTINSVILLE, N.J., June 13, 2016 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — With the memory of a difficult 2014/15 ski season still fresh in the minds of many snow sports enthusiasts, the hope was that this season would deliver sufficient powder to spur a return to the slopes. On the whole, the 2015/16 ski season was favorable in many parts of the country, including drought-stricken regions like the Pacific Northwest and Pacific Southwest, according to Ken Schapiro of Condor Capital Management. Despite a mild start to the winter across the United States, snowfall totals in the western-half of the country outpaced that of the eastern-half. As a result of a record-breaking El Niño pattern (a term used to describe the fluctuation in sea-surface temperatures taking place in the tropical Pacific Ocean), the West was presented with a generous quantity of moisture-laden air, while the East experienced a lack of snowfall after a record-breaking winter storm at the start of the New Year. Due to the strength in the West, data released by the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) revealed that nationwide skier visits rose to 53.9 million, up 0.6% from 53.6 million during the 2014/15 season.
In general, weather conditions during the past winter season were a mixed bag. In the West, the big unknown during the season was a forecast of a strong El Niño pattern, which often results in drier precipitation totals and milder weather. This did not occur, however, as Western resorts saw steady and strong snowfall from November through January, leading to strong visitation. Most notably, resorts in Utah reported the largest number of visitors in more than a decade due to favorable weather conditions and the opening of Park City, a rebranded mega-resort in one of the state’s largest cities. Similarly, the Colorado Ski Country USA (CSCUSA) trade group released figures indicating that ski visits at its 21 member resorts were up 4% year-over-year, indicating further strength in the West. Overall, the Rocky Mountain Region saw an 8% rise in skier visits from the 2014/15 season, according to the NSAA. Despite a dry spell last year, the Pacific Northwest region of the nation saw a remarkable increase of 141.5% in skier visits year-over-year. Similarly, pent-up demand from previous years resulted in a 53% year-over-year increase in skier visits in the Pacific Southwest. In the remaining regions of the nation, weak snow totals and above-average temperatures led to a lackluster season in the Northeast, Midwest, and Southeast. Especially in the Northeast, this was a season to forget. To illustrate, Killington Mountain Resort, one of the largest resorts in the area, had a mere 81 inches of snow during the season, which was less than one-half of its average snow total of 250 inches. With that said, skier visits in the Midwest, Northeast, and Southeast fell 17%, 28%, and 30%, respectively.
On an individual resort basis, North America’s largest resort operator, Vail Resorts, reported a 13.9% year-over-year increase in skier visits for the period from January 31, 2016 to April 30, 2016. The firm also reported that revenues for the same period increased 17.4% year-over-year. Most notably, Vail Resorts announced that season pass sales for the 2016/17 season jumped 29% in dollar terms through May 31, 2016, compared to the previous year. According to Rob Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts, this season’s strong metrics were the result of exceptional snowpacks at a large majority of the firm’s resorts, as well as increased visitors during the Easter holiday. Moreover, Whistler Blackcomb, the largest single ski resort in North America, announced growth in visits to the tune of 26% for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2016. Revenues also rose 26% as a result of favorable weather and a weak Canadian dollar that brought approximately 23% more international visitors to the resort than in its previous fiscal year. However, Intrawest Resorts, a resort operator across the U.S. and Canada, reported mixed results as its East Coast resorts saw a significant drop in skier visits.
The ski resort business can be uncertain, but a larger number of resorts are trying to limit risk by generating revenues primarily through the sale of season passes over daily lift tickets. Ever since Vail Resorts debuted its Epic Pass during the 2008-09 ski season, other resorts have jumped on the bandwagon and created similar season pass packages. One such example is the Max Pass, which was introduced this season through a partnership between Intrawest, Powdr, and Boyne resorts. It is important to note that with daily lift tickets rising to over $100 during peak season, season passes are rising in popularity. Resorts are not only using these passes to add value for their loyal clients by allowing them to visit a variety of resorts, but also to hedge themselves from seasonal trends by locking in revenue before the season starts. Likewise, with the number of skiers in the United States falling by 5.1%, to 53.6 million visits during the 2014/15 season according to data provided by NSAA, resorts are raising the prices of their season passes to make up lost revenue. Currently, season passes start at about $375 at the lower end of the spectrum and may cost over $800 for top tier packages. Nevertheless, snow sports enthusiasts have not objected to these prices and Schapiro predicts that as popularity for season passes continues to increase, their prices will rise even further during the coming season.
Similar to resorts, retailers in the ski industry are very reliant on changes in the weather. During the 2015/16 ski season, Mother Nature played a large role in determining overall sales of equipment and apparel across the United States. East of the Rockies, retail sales suffered in lockstep with ski visits. Compared to those of the previous season, snow sports sales for the period from August 2015 to February 2016 fell 13.5% in the Midwest, 13.2% in the Northeast, and 0.3% in the Southeast, according to SnowSports Industries America (SIA). On the contrary, the West experienced a 14.9% increase in the amount of merchandise sold during the same period. With difficulty this season, retailers are approaching the next season cautiously. One of the largest challenges for snow sports equipment vendors is the rise in e-commerce, which is decreasing pricing power in the space. During the period noted above, online sales increased 3.8% compared to the same time period last year, while specialty and chain store revenues fell 1.0% and 5.1%, respectively. To gain ground, many retailers are increasing their online and social media presences and reaching out to families with younger riders. Overall, the retail space for snow sports equipment continues to become more competitive and only time will tell what the next season holds in store.
Regardless of the divergent nature of this ski season between the eastern and western parts of the country, the overall ski industry is looking quite healthy. While this year’s 53.9 million skiers visits is down from the 10-year industry average of 56.5 million, industry revenue has increased at an annualized rate of 2.6% from 2010-2015 to about $3.2 billion, according to IBIS World, a company specializing in industry-specific research. This season’s weather, although unstable, has allowed areas that suffered during the 2014/15 season (notably the Pacific Coast) to recover. Additionally, resorts have begun taking advantage of the summer season to attract visitors by offering recreational activities such as hiking, ziplining, and mountain biking. Although skier days during this season fell short of Schapiro’s predictions, an increase in global travel and healthy economic fundamentals should boost visits in the upcoming season.
For more information about the ski industry, as well as other commentary from our firm, please visit our blog.
Condor Capital Management
Founded in 1988, Condor Capital Management is an employee-owned, SEC-registered investment advisor based in Martinsville, N.J. employing 15 professional and support staff. Since Condor is a fee-only investment management firm, its fees are based on portfolio size, not sales commissions or number of trades. For more information on Condor Capital Management, please visit www.condorcapital.com or call 732-356-7323.