Sugar Mountain Resort's Summit Express, a newly installed six-seater, detachable, high-speed chairlift. Photo by Justin Grimes.

Journalism with impact

I want to receive independent, investigative local news every day.

A newly released study confirms that Western North Carolina’s ski industry is functioning as an economic engine of winter.

Enjoying almost exponential growth, it’s positioned demographically to attract increasing numbers of visitors in coming years.

During the five-month season of 2014/15, the state’s six ski resorts contributed almost $200 million to the economy, a $60 million increase in five years.

More impressive, what’s happening in North Carolina is the opposite of the national trend. The industry here is also drawing more visitors than some of the state’s highest-profile spectator sports.

Meeting at Sugar Mountain Resort on Wednesday, the North Carolina Ski Areas Association presented an economic value analysis, produced by RRC Associates of Boulder, Colorado.

RRC, a leading consulting and market research firm in the alpine snow-sports industry, tracks many statistics and figures for the industry throughout North America.

RRC publishes annually on behalf of the National Ski Areas Association the Kottke End of Season Report, the National Demographic Study and the Economic Analysis of US Ski Areas, three industry reports that track patterns of significance related to operational, demographic and financial information, respectively.

Kim Jochl, co-owner of Sugar Mountain Resort and president of NCSAA, welcomed the large crowd to Wednesday’s event and introduced Dave Belin, director of consulting services for RRC.

Belin opened by saying North Carolina is bucking the trend: “The state’s ski visits were up while the national ski visits were down.”

Economic value

The ski-resort industry is very important to the state, Belin said as he presented the report. This importance is heightened during the time of year when such businesses operate, from November to March. The report quantifies the industry’s economic value to help in understanding its significance.

The economic value is defined as the total value to the economy due to the existence of ski areas. The total value is the amount that such ski areas contribute to the North Carolina economy, and the amount by which the economy would suffer without those ski area facilities.

The total economic value documented in this report is the sum of winter value, employment value and capital improvements, along with economic multipliers that take into account the ripple effects (indirect and induced effects) of the industry’s impact.

Primary sources of information for this analysis included surveys of skiers and snowboarders at North Carolina ski areas and a survey of the ski-area operators. The guest surveys profiled visitors in terms of demographics, geographic origin, satisfaction and expenditure patterns, among others factors. The survey of ski-area operators documented total volume of business (skier visits), revenue, expenses, employment, days of operation and capital expenditures.

Truth delivered daily

Using these data sources, a model was created to estimate the total economic value of the ski-resort industry to North Carolina: direct value for the 2014/15 winter season was $119.5 million; indirect and induced value was $77.7 million.

The overall economic value of the ski resort industry to the State of North Carolina was $197.2 million for the period covering the 2014/15 season.

“That’s the result of 653,654 skier visits.” Belin said. “That’s more attendance than the Carolina Panthers.”

Winter impact

From conversations across the spectrum of Western North Carolina businesses with ski resorts nearby, large and small, including restaurants, tourist attractions, motels and retailers, there is no doubt that the ski industry is a major source of income to thousands of mountain workers during the winter months.

Vice President of Grandfather Mountain Harris Prevost said, “We have lots of people working at Grandfather during the winter that otherwise would not have winter jobs with us. That’s how much the ski industry has grown to mean to the area.

“Most of our winter visitors come to the area to ski. Our Christmas week now parallels the attendance of a typical week during the high-summer tourist season. In fact, any given winter day has the potential and does sometimes equal the traffic of a summer day.

“One of Grandfather’s top-five busiest days of any given year often occurs during Christmas week.”

Belin pointed out that a direct benefit of the ski resorts to the local economies can be attained from the gross lodging revenues generated in local municipalities like Boone, Blowing Rock, Maggie Valley, Beech Mountain, Banner Elk, and Sugar Mountain, as well as Madison County (Wolf Ridge Ski Resort), Haywood County (Cataloochee Ski Area), Avery County (Sugar Mountain Resort) and Watauga County (Beech Mountain Resort and Appalachian Ski Mtn.).

These revenue figures are calculated from Tourism Development Authority occupancy tax collections, and they corroborate the lodging expenditures from visitor spending.

As examples, Belin noted the 78 percent share of the annual gross occupancy revenue from the five-month winter period for the Village of Sugar Mountain and in the Town of Beech Mountain, winter represents about 71 percent of the annual gross lodging revenue.

Of interest, data provided to Carolina Public Press by VISITNC, shows that ski visitors stay a little longer in motels, condos, and hotels than the average visitor to the state: skiers, 3 nights; average visitors, 2.8 nights.

According to RRC, the six ski resorts provides 87 year-round jobs and 1,787 seasonal jobs. The industry generated nearly $40 million in gross revenue from ski area operations, including lift tickets, lessons, equipment rental, retail stores, food & beverage (which is a concession at some North Carolina ski resorts), and other operating departments.

This is a 13.3 percent increase in total jobs in the ski industry since the last study was conducted in 2009/10. Many of the industry’s positions are coveted as employees return season after season.

Visitor profile

The per-person average expenditure for a ski trip within the state was $183.

Compared to national averages, the state’s six ski resorts collectively attract more families and groups with the average group size being 6.8 people; the national group size in the ski industry is 3 people, and the average group size of visitors to North Carolina in general is 2 people.

Fifty-eight percent of the ski visitors came from out of state:

  • Georgia, 17 percent
  • Florida, 15 percent
  • South Carolina, 14
  • Tennessee, 6 percent

Asked about the primary reason for their trip to the WNC mountains, 88 percent of those surveyed said skiing/snowboarding was the primary reason for the trip to the North Carolina mountains.

Become a Carolina Public Press insider.

Text INSIDER to (919)897-8555 and be among the first to hear about special events and exclusive content.

The gender split is 55 percent male, 45 percent female. Household incomes among ski tourists are moderately high, with 44 percent of the customer base in the $50,000 to $150,000 range. Some 27 percent earn more than $150,000 annually, while 29 percent report making less than $50,000 per year.

The average age of skiers/snowboarders in WNC is 36.4 years, which according to Belin is much lower than the national average.

“Millennials (18-34) make up the largest group and this bodes well for the future of the state’s ski resorts; especially when combined with the continued explosive growth of the Southeast,” he said.

The report also points to a correlation between the ongoing large capital investments the resorts commit towards improving customer experiences — almost $9 million in 2014/15 — and the growing success of the industry.

Like farmers, ski resorts make large investments up front in the hope that Mother Nature cooperates.

“As time goes on, all our resorts have expanded snow-sports activities,” Jochl said,

“We all offer ice-skating in the High Country. Now, our customers have activities they can enjoy before, after or in addition to skiing and boarding. We’ve introduced ice-skating, snow-tubing and snowshoeing at Sugar Mountain, for instance.

“These newer activities not only attract another category of consumers, they impact the economy by our purchases of tubing and ice skating equipment.”

Justin Grimes

Justin Grimes is a contributing reporter to Carolina Public Press. Contact him at gjournalist@gmail.com.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *