The health of real estate markets in ski resorts depends to a great degree on the health and popularity of the sport of skiing. As the popularity of skiing grew after World War II, so did the popularity of ski resorts, and subsequently the real estate markets surrounding ski resorts. However, over the past decade, we have seen reports that skiing is declining in popularity.
Most recently, Vail Resorts reported that visitation across all of its properties across the country had declined by 7.8 percent compared to last year. Although Vail Resorts claimed the decline was due to poor snow conditions at some ski areas, this seems to add to the perception that snow sports are declining in popularity. However, despite all the naysayers who have for several years proclaimed the demise of sports like skiing and snowboarding due to demographic trends and the threat of climate change, we may in fact be on the cusp of the beginning of the third Golden Age of skiing.
When you look back at the history of skiing, you see two past periods when the popularity of skiing took giant steps forward, followed by periods of slow growth. Each ski popularity boom was preceded by an advance in technology that led to more interest in the sport. Modern skiing as we know it today started in the European Alps at the turn of the last century when the social elite of Europe started spending the winter months in Alpine resorts. In the decades before World War II, skiing symbolized luxury and was only available to those wealthy enough to decamp to remote Alpine locations for weeks or months. The first ski areas were in Alpine towns such as St. Moritz and Davos that had the infrastructure to serve these new elite tourists. From these towns, guides would take skiers on tours that would involve climbing, traverses and occasional downhill runs similar to what we know today as backcountry skiing. New equipment was developed for this purpose and the sport grew in popularity among the European elite.
This first Golden Age of skiing started in the late 1920s and 1930s as the first ski lifts were built around these early Alpine ski towns. The sport began exploding in popularity in the 1930s as new downhill-only ski resorts were developed such as Sestriere in Northwest Italy, which opened in 1938 with new hotels and a lift network that serviced 74 downhill runs. The sport spread to the United States in the 1930s as new ski resorts, such Sun Valley in the West and several areas in New England, opened to service well-to-do-skiers. However, the first Golden Age of skiing came to abrupt end when World War II broke out in Europe.
After World War II ended, the popularity of skiing started to rekindle. Several Alpine nations, such as Austria and France, committed significant Marshall Plan funds to developing ski resorts. In the 1950s and 1960s, the second Golden Age of skiing began in the United States. Ski areas were built in almost every town in America that had winter conditions, transforming the sport from elite sport to middle-class status symbol. Major ski resorts like Aspen, Sun Valley and Vail expanded and became household names. Warren Miller’s ski films became popular entertainment. Ski stars like Jean-Claude Killy and Billy Kidd became global celebrities on par with the top sports stars of today. Even James Bond became an expert skier in the 1969 film “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” New equipment and technology, such as snowmaking, made the sport safer, more dependable and more accessible to a larger audience.
There’s growing evidence that a third Golden Age of skiing and snowboarding is about to begin. The biggest transformation of the last few years has been the emergence of the Ikon and Epic passes. These multi-resort ski passes are making skiing more affordable and giving customers more flexibility to explore all that skiing and snowboarding have to offer. Sporting events such as the ESPN Winter X Games are exposing a national audience of young people to the excitement of winter sports. You’re also starting to see more articles about the skiing culture in the print media, including a recent full-feature weekend section in the Wall Street Journal devoted to the ski lifestyle.
Luxury ski wear is now becoming fashionable again to wear in cities from Los Angeles to New York. A new feature ski film called “Downhill” starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell was just released this past weekend. It appears that skiing is becoming cool again. If in fact a new Golden Age of skiing is unfolding, this can only be good news for ski resort real estate markets like Aspen-Snowmass.
Lori Small is a luxury real estate broker associate with Coldwell Banker Mason Morse; William Small is the founder and CEO of Zenith Realty Advisors LLC, a commercial-investment real estate advisory and investment firm. Lori can be reached at Lori@LoriSmall.com and William can be reached at William.Small@ZenithInvestment.com.