Slip, sliding away

Every now and then Woodall’s Campground Magazine, for whom the skies are not cloudy all day, nevertheless publishes something hinting at possibly stormy weather. The current issue includes a column by Peter Pelland that does just that, and it’s worth pondering.

Pelland is CEO of a small company that specializes in building websites and producing print advertising for the camping industry in general, and family-owned campgrounds specifically. But prior to that focus he worked more closely with New England’s ski industry, and 40 years later he sees a lot of parallels with what’s happening today in the campground sector. It’s not pretty.

The “golden age” of skiing occurred in the 1950s, he writes, when hundreds of “mom and pop” operations studded New England’s slopes, some operating on such a primitive level that their rope tow lines were powered by tractors or old Packard automobile engines. But as with mom and pop campgrounds today, gentrification set in. Monied investors, smelling opportunity, moved in, building destination resorts and buying out smaller operators, consolidating the industry and driving their rudimentary competitors out of business.

By 1975, Pelland observes, there were only 745 ski areas operating in the entire United States, even as New England alone had 605 defunct operations, documented by the New England Lost Ski Areas Project. And the number kept shrinking–509 in 2000, 470 by 2020–with the industry consolidating to such an extent that today there are only 10 major companies owning the bulk of all U.S. ski resorts. Skiers’ costs, meanwhile, soared to stratospheric levels. The price of a single peak-day lift ticket purchased at Steamboat, Colorado, for example, is now $279. At Big Sky, Montana, it’s $225–plus another $45 if you want to ride the aerial tram.

The problem, however, is that even at those levels the prices charged for lift tickets don’t begin to cover the costs of operations. As Pelland further details, the lifts have grown increasingly expensive to purchase and install, running into millions of dollars each. Snowmaking costs–the need for which has been exacerbated by increasingly funky weather–add tens of thousands of dollars more, not just for equipment but in electric bills. It may not come as a surprise, therefore, to learn that skiing is becoming incidental to the ski industry: “[T]he profit center is now real estate development, with million-dollar building lots for second homes, condominiums for every middle-to-upper income level, fractional ownership, absentee homeowners and artificial ‘ski villages’ that are designed to keep all of the dollars spent in the resort’s pockets,” Pelland writes.

Much the same evolution is now sweeping the campground industry, Pelland adds–and he’s absolutely right. As he concludes, “The bottom line is that there are forces that are driving up the price of camping and that profits cannot be based solely on camping fees. There is a strong demand for campgrounds as investment properties these days, with parks being bought and sold at a lightning pace, and most of those sales going from mom and pop operations to corporate ownership groups.”

Ski resorts, alas, are not the only ones who have to contend with slippery slopes.

Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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