Even though visitation to Colorado ski areas fell nearly 10 percent last season, revenues at the state's 23 resorts on federal land remained flat.
A review of ski-area permit fees paid to the Forest Service reveals that revenues actually climbed at 11 of Colorado's 23 ski areas operating on federal land. The fees, based on a percentage of gross revenues at ski areas, totaled $16.25 million for 2011-12, down slightly from $16.29 million 2010-11.
And five resorts paid their highest fees ever, indicating that Wolf Creek, Eldora, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Snowmass enjoyed banner years for on-mountain revenue in 2011-12, a season marred by 50 percent declines in snowfall and the lowest visitation in 21 years.
That's a sign that ski areas have whittled their dependence on snow to a new low. They have built their businesses to withstand decimating dry spells, using a thriving toolbox of strategies.
First is snowmaking, which began early in the 2011-12 season thanks to cold temperatures and built a base that kept runs open during the winter.
"Last year the investments we had made in our snowmaking infrastructure paid off. It truly was the year of the snowmaker, and the pride taken in the quality of our snow surface was evident from start to finish," said Gary Rodgers, chief of Copper Mountain, which saw its revenue climb in 2011-12. "While powder days were not plentiful, the quality of the ski experience, especially for many of our destination guests, was tremendous."
The National Ski Areas Association reported in its annual Kottke survey that overnight visits to U.S. ski areas climbed in 2011-12 for the third consecutive season, reaching 48.3 percent, compared with 46.4 percent in 2010-11.
And international visitation also climbed in 2011-12, reaching 6.2 percent of all national visits, compared with 5.6 percent in 2010-11, further bolstering bottom lines because international travelers tend to stay longer and spend more.
Aspen Skiing Co. saw revenues climb at three of its four resorts, despite a small dip in visitation and a 50 percent decline in snowfall.
"We definitely had a set of conditions that were pretty horrific," said Dave Perry, the chief operating officer for Aspen Skiing.
Perry credits Aspen Skiing's healthy 2011-12 season to early snowmaking, strong marketing bolstered by snow during the internationally televised World Cup races and the Winter X Games, and early bookings and pass sales.
Vail Resorts saw visitation to its four Colorado ski areas — Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone — fall 8.9 percent as its mountain revenues increased, according to its earnings statements. Lift-ticket revenue fell $15.9 million in 2011-12 compared with the previous season, but that was offset by a $15.8 million increase in season-pass sales.
Another growing revenue stream is summer activities.
Colorado ski resorts that paid their highest-ever ski-area permit fees. The fees indicate that Wolf Creek, Eldora, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Snowmass enjoyed banner years for on-mountain revenue in 2011-12, a season marred by little snow and low visitation.