A snowboarder slides under a chairlift at Big White Ski Resort.
In any normal winter, Cameron Birch and his family of five would pack their bags for an all-inclusive vacation somewhere warm and sunny.
But when the pandemic prevented them from booking a trip south, the Kelowna family looked closer to home and purchased season passes for the Big White Ski Resort for the first time.
“Last year was a bit of a try. Did we know if we were going to use it? Not really, ”said Birch, who took the plunge and spent about $ 2,500 on season passes for his wife and three children aged eight to eight. 12.
It ended up being a success, with the family spending around 25 days on the hill, sometimes just to spend a few hours a day outside. Now Birch expects to buy a pass every year, and says many of her friends in the community will do the same.
Strong season pass sales were a bright spot in an otherwise difficult year for major hill stations in Western Canada as travel restrictions and other pandemic-related measures caused a drop in skiers from high spending destinations.
Big White senior vice president Michael J. Ballingall said last winter was one of their best season tickets, even though individual ticket sales fell about 80%.
He said many residents had tried their luck in the complex as it was one of the few activities that would almost certainly be available during the pandemic.
“People knew the mountain was going to open up, and they put in the season pass for the early risers, so they at least had something that they knew they would be able to do,” Balingall said, who said new skiers have tried, and non-practicing skiers are rediscovering an old love.
“New Canadians are introduced to the sport at a faster pace than they have ever been before, and a percentage of them have fallen in love with the sport. “
The other thing is you had skiers and snowboarders who didn’t remember the thrill of riding, and we think it sparked a rebirth. “
Last winter’s surge in interest could indicate strong long-term prospects, but industry experts say it hasn’t helped what has been a dire year for financially strapped ski resorts either. short term.
Subscription sales generate much less revenue per visit than a day ticket purchased by a tourist. And the Western Canada Ski Resort Association says international tourists will often spend four or five times more money at the resort than locals.
Industry experts say international visitors are those who buy tourist packages, ski rentals and lessons, premium alcoholic drinks, fine dining and all the other things that keep the resort and the resort going. local economy.
Most often, Canadian consumers are those who come to a resort with a car full of groceries and some knowledge of the sport and the surrounding area.
“What we are seeing so far is that season ticket sales can be strong, and for some areas that may be a good thing, but in other areas it completely masks the net loss. significant revenue overall, ”said Christopher Nicolson, President & CEO of CWSAA.
He said resorts near cities like Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton stand to gain more from a strong sale of season passes as their business model is already less dependent on international tourists and they have a population. most important to tap into.
But small communities will continue to struggle until ticket sales from international visitors pick up.
Nicolson doesn’t expect this to happen immediately. He believes it will be years before resorts return to pre-pandemic attendance levels.
Robyn Mitz, program coordinator and ski operations course instructor at Selkirk College in Nelson, said some smaller resorts will be looking at new ticketing models to increase their income in the meantime.
One strategy for the resorts that Mitz pointed out is a 10-punch pass. It allows locals to save on each ski day and have flexibility, while allowing resorts to take more advantage of returning visitors.
She said strong retail sales of ski and snowboard equipment last year are also inspiring for strong local market demand for the coming year. While skis weren’t as hard to find as bikes in 2020, many products sold out faster than usual.
Back in Kelowna, Ballingall said one of the big pluses of strong season pass sales is a sense of confidence for resorts entering ski season.
He said resorts often base their expectations for the season – and their ability to hire and prepare for operations – on the cash flow generated from pass sales during the off-season months.
“The business survives on the sale of lift tickets and maintains itself on the sale of season tickets,” said Ballingall.
“On opening day you have to staff everything and prepare the tracks, and if your season ticket sales can cover those costs, then your day ticket sales will be what keeps you going. “
For skiers like Birch, father of a family of five, the season pass represents a sense of community.
When indoor gatherings were banned last year, he said the ski resort was where friends could hang out together, whether playing in the snow or making s’mores. on the parking.
This year he says he is looking forward to the same.