Say goodbye to skiing as we know it?

Vail Resorts (“Vail”) is one of the largest mountain resort companies in the world. In the locations where Vail operates, snow is currency and climate change is expected to contribute to warmer winters, reduced snowfall, and shorter snow seasons [1]. Given the sustainability of mountain resorts such as Vail is largely dependent on consistent snowfall each winter, does this spell the end of enjoying snow sports as we know it?

What is happening to snow?

The facts are straightforward: The planet is getting hotter. Since 1970, the rate of winter warming per decade in the United States has been triple the rate of the previous 75 years, with the strongest trends in the Northern regions of the country. Nine of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000 [2].  Given snow melts above 32 degrees Fahrenheit [2], the rise in temperatures is directly related to less snowfall each year. Aspen, now averages 23 fewer days below freezing each year than it did before 1980. If global action is not taken to reduce emissions, the average temperature here is expected to rise as much as 9 degrees by 2050 [3].

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The warming trend spells economic devastation for a winter sports industry deeply dependent upon predictable, heavy snowfall [1]. Not only are opening dates being pushed farther and farther back each year (Two major Colorado resorts delayed their opening last November because of warm temperatures [4]), but less snowfall means fewer and fewer tourists. As a result, the entire economies of Vail’s mountain resorts are tied to how much snow falls each year. If snowfall is not significant, very few people visit the company’s resorts and it loses the majority of the revenue stream it is dependent upon.


How Vail is Fighting Climate Change

Vail appears to be dealing with climate change primarily through adaptive methods. This is because in the short-term it is much easier (and cheaper) for Vail to limit their vulnerability to climate change impacts than to reduce climate change itself.

First, Vail has combated less snowfall by simply producing more artificial snow, evidenced by increasing levels of equipment expenditures each year [5]. Unfortunately, snowmaking requires a large amount of resources (see picture below), including energy, labor and equipment, making it a very costly solution.

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The second strategy which Vail has pursued is to make strategic acquisitions to diversify its geographic exposure to bad weather. Most recently, the company acquired Whistler Backcomb resort [6], located in Canada. Whistler Backcomb CEO David Brownlie mentioned, “Combining Whistler Blackcomb with Vail Resorts’ portfolio broadens the geographic diversity of our company with resorts across the United States, as well as in Australia and Canada.” So, what this means is that when snowfall isn’t great in Canada, consumers can head to Colorado and vice-versa since Vail has a pass which allows its customers to visit any of its resorts across the world.

Lastly, Vail Resorts has focused on becoming a multi-season mountain by diversifying the activities it offers. Specifically, the Vail website has a summer webpage, outlining a full summer activity guide, including scenic gondola rides, zipline tours, bike paths, and popular events. I see Vail’s strategy of selling itself as a destination with “something for everyone” similar to how Las Vegas was able to reposition itself from an adult playground to a family destination.

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What Else Can Vail Do?

In 2013, 108 ski resorts signed a declaration that called for reduced energy consumption and deployment of clean energy technologies [4]. So, beyond pursuing mitigation tactics which help limit their exposure to climate change, Vail should think about how it can be more active in conversations regarding climate change. This will help others become more aware of the issue and what they can do to combat global warming. Moreover, they should engage with federal policy makers to encourage more action on climate change.

Vail should also consider how it can become more energy efficient and reduce its own footprint on the environment. This could include strategies to reduce electricity and natural gas usage from snowmaking equipment, lifts and facility heating to decrease carbon emissions. If Vail is to encourage others to reduce their emissions, it should start by doing so itself.

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Sources:

[1] Natural Resources Defense Council, “Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States,” [Online]. Available: https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/climate-impacts-winter-tourism-report.pdf

[2] New York Times, “The End of Snow?,” [Online]. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/08/opinion/sunday/the-end-of-snow.html.

[3] Los Angeles Times, “Rocky Mountain resorts race to defend their businesses against climate change,” [Online]. Available: http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-sej-mountain-climate-change-20150728-story.html

[4] Vice News, “Climate Change Could Decimate the American Ski Industry,” [Online]. Available: https://news.vice.com/article/climate-change-could-decimate-the-american-ski-industry

[5] Vail Resorts, Inc. “10-K,” [Online]. Available: http://investors.vailresorts.com/secfiling.cfm?filingID=812011-16-115

[6] WSJ, “Vail Resorts to Buy Whistler Backcomb,” [Online]. Available: http://www.wsj.com/articles/vail-resorts-to-buy-whistler-blackcomb-1470656971

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4 thoughts on “Say goodbye to skiing as we know it?

  1. One of the hard things about convincing people to change their behavior to prevent climate change is that some of the effects are not visible in the short term. Vail can have a huge impact fostering change among its regular visitors by starting a campaign educating skiers on the tangible effects of climate change on one of their favorite sports. Thus people would not only reduce energy consumption during their vacation, but hopefully change their behavior throughout the year after seeing the effects of climate change first hand.

  2. You raise a good point that Vail should be doing more to drive the conversation on the impact of climate change on skiing and improving their own environmental footprint. Producing artificial snow is a short-term solution, as it’s not cost effective to produce artificial snow in increasing volumes each season and skiers will not have the same experience as with fresh powder. This could translate into a lower willingness to pay, further straining the ski resorts. Additionally, expanding into different geographic locations spreads the risk for Vail Resorts but does not reduce the impact of the shortened ski season on Colorado communities or resorts. Although summer in Vail can help offset the loss in winter revenue, Vail has an opportunity to develop a market for winter activities that are less dependent on snowfall and offer an alternative to skiing.

  3. It’s interesting that Vail has to combat two things here: climate change and losing customers in the short term. They seem to be fighting for revenue while also fighting global warming. Something else Vail could do to try and help mitigate the effects of global warming is issue discounts or incentives to people who, for example, drive electric cars or are doing their part in other ways. It seems like the company is trying to do their part, but if they could incentivize others to as well then that would only help them in the long run (ski pun).

  4. Extremely interesting post! It makes sense that tourism depends on good snow conditions and is highly sensitive to snow-deficient seasons. Research findings show that there will be an increase in the number of winters with little snow on account of climate change. What are your thoughts on technical measures, especially artificial snow-making, to maintain ski tourism rank at the forefront? As an avid skier yourself, have you noticed any change in consumer behavior that has led you to choose one resort over another during certain times of the year? Tourists demand good snow conditions, and hence, this is what has to be offered by the ski resorts. The impacts of climate change will involve significant costs for tourism, and behind these costs are the people who are directly affected.

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