Capitalism is many things to many people, but it's not always intuitive. For instance, with the preposterous lift ticket prices at Vail, Telluride and elsewhere, one might assume resorts owners are reeling in mountains of Benjamins. But as journalist and ski enthusiast Hal Clifford argues in Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry Is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns, and the Environment, that isn't the case. Rather, ski resorts operate much like movie theaters where, increasingly, profits depend not on the main feature, but on inflated concessions.
Clifford, who worked as a reporter and editor for the Aspen Daily News, began investigating the darker side of the ski industry while writing a real-estate column for Ski Magazine. In Downhill Slide, he takes a broad yet thorough look at the state of alpine America by focusing on the practices of the "big three" ski corporations: Vail Resorts Incorporated, Intrawest Corporation and American Skiing Company, which collectively account for nearly a quarter of the nation's ski revenue.
"The big three set the pace at which the industry runs," Clifford says. "Other resorts watch what they're doing and assume they have to play their game."
The name of the game is real estate: vacation homes for upper middle-class baby boomers who are the industry's target market. But the industry, Clifford maintains, is in a demographic crisis as younger skiers aren't replacing the aging boomers. In fact, he argues, if it were not for snowboarding, which in 1999 accounted for 26 percent of all lift tickets sold, the industry would be in an undeniable crisis.
By engaging in what Clifford calls an "arms race" of gimmicks and excessive improvements -- like more lifts and snow machines -- the big three have priced out would-be skiers of Generation X. Given the variety of cheaper forms of recreation and the fact that a day of skiing can run upwards of $150, the number of skiers has not increased in over 20 years.
Due to the real-estate boom in resort towns like Aspen, Vail and Telluride, the "ski bum" resort workers can no longer afford to live nearby. "We normally think of gentrification as something that happens in cities, cool places like Greenwich Village or Santa Monica that are suddenly discovered by rich people and transformed."
But skiing is not dead yet as Clifford evidences by the examples of Vermont's Mad River Glen and Idaho's Bogus Basin, resorts that have bucked the big three's practices by returning their focus to skiing. "These places don't have all the ski village amenities, Clifford says, "they're selling passes to locals who want to ski. There's still a real interest out there in the sport."
-- John Dicker