Opinion: Is more always better?

Bob Berwyn.

“Instead of counting skier days, let’s figure out a way to measure skier happiness.”

By Bob Berwyn

Skier visits appear once again to be increasing this year in Colorado, which is generally perceived as a good thing. But since I’m not a big fan of conventional wisdom, I’d like to offer a somewhat contrarian take on the subject: Instead of counting skier days, let’s figure out a way to measure skier happiness.

I first spent some time thinking about this back in 2007 when Colorado was heading for a record season in terms of sheer skier numbers. As I scanned various news reports about the statistics, I noticed that there was an unquestioning tone in the media that more skiers is automatically better for everyone.

A Denver Post story on the numbers superficially appeared to be value-neutral — or objective, in journalistic terms — yet in the context of our culture, it’s clear that the high number of skier visits is generally considered to be a good thing, at least by anyone that matters. That’s probably not surprising, given our fixation with statistics and records, our insistence on measuring success in economic terms, not to mention our worship of the almighty dollar.

Our tendency to measure everything in terms of dollars and cents represents a real lack of creativity suggests a certain small-mindedness. Sure, it’s the simplest way, as it merely requires simple addition.

I started to wonder whether it’s even worth raising the possibility that we should be more concerned with the quality of the ski experience rather than with the economics associated with skier visits. Of course, a strong argument could be made that there is a link between the two; that people wouldn’t be flocking here in such great numbers if Colorado skiing weren’t the cat’s meow. I accept that correlation, and acknowledge that there are some very happy people living all around me in our fabulous mountain towns.

But I wonder how much their happiness depends on the fact that 3 million skiers visited Colorado in the past few months. It seems that the happiest people I know are the ones who actually benefit the least from the $210 that every one of those visitors supposedly spends while they’re here.

They are the people who live here for the sheer joy of waking up every morning to a panoramic vista of snow-covered mountains. They are the people who have been able to balance their lives, putting their families at least on equal footing with the never-ending chase for dollars, who have time to get out ride their bikes, snowboards, skis and kayaks, and frankly, most of them could care less whether the state’s ski areas surpass 13 million skier-day mark this year.

Most of them would be equally happy — maybe even happier — if there were a few less tourists crowding the roads, parking lots and trails, and if they didn’t have to work two jobs to be able to afford a place to live in our resort towns, where, even now, in a “recession,” real estate prices are still hyper-inflated, thanks to the scourge of high-priced second-home McMansions.

So where is all this money from the tourists going? It certainly hasn’t been used to ease congestion in the I-70 corridor, which carries a huge share of the skier traffic to and from the mountain resorts. It certainly hasn’t been used to improve the quality of life for the ground-level service workers who keep the resorts functioning. It hasn’t been used to address streamflow and water quality issues related to massive diversions needed to supply extensive snowmaking systems. Could it be that most of that money doesn’t even stay in the state, but flows out to shareholders of the big corporations that control most of the tourism business?

I’d like to suggest a new way to measure success in the Colorado ski industry, one that isn’t based simply how many people visit the state’s resorts, but on the number and the size of smiles among both visitors and locals. I’d like to see success measured by how many ski instructors and dishwashers can afford health insurance at the beginning of the season, by how many teachers, firefighters and nurses can afford a place to live that’s close to where they work. Call me crazy, but I’d suggest that we cap skier numbers until we’ve collectively addressed some of the critical infrastructure and social issues, including transportation, housing and water supply.


15 thoughts on “Opinion: Is more always better?

    1. If I wanted people to like me, I would be a PR person, not a journalist 🙂 But really, this isn’t so radical. You gotta ask at some point, what is enough? I really don’t get the concept of endless growth. As Ed Abbey famously put it, that’s the ideology of a cancer cell.

  1. Excellent article!

    As a life long skier, I believe that increased lift ticket sales are actually a detriment to my overall ski experience. Not only are there longer lift lines, but less fresh tracks and more skier congestion.

    Creating a happy skier index sounds like a great idea to me!

  2. Right on Bob!

    One thing that everyone overlooks is that not all of those skiers are “visitors.” Most ski areas count their daily ticket scan numbers as that day’s total skier visits, and that number includes locals with season passes and even on-duty employees such as instructors, both of whom are not spending an average of $210 on supplemental t-shits, hot chocolates and pricey burgers on the hill.

    As skier visit numbers go up this year, it’s important to remember that there are only about 12 million +/-active skiers in the US in a given season, and they are just skiing more this year due to great snow conditions and an improving economy. The emphasis on “record” skier visits is just another way for the corporate ski industry to sell the idea that they are all important to local and state economies, so you better let them do what they want, like approve Peak 6…

  3. Skier numbers do seem to be the barometer for hte success of the industry as a whole. Those numbers alone do tell the story of profitability or impacts on local communities. There is no question that more skier numbers equals poorer experince on the hill on any given day. Anyone who skied Breck pre-buddy pass can tell you that.
    Does more skier days lead to quads and other amenities that skiers “demand”, thus improving the experience for them? Maybe so. Unfortunately, it hasn’t led to increased patrol and lift crews in the early season when snow does fall, as evidenced in 2010 season opening.
    Can’t say how much of the $210. stays in the county, but ask anyone in the service business how many shifts there are as a function of skier numbers. The further out you go to teachers and firefighters, the less direct effect there is.
    In the end, the problems created by 20,000 skiers per day at peak times do need to be fully addressed before everyone can cheer record numbers without hesitation.

    1. Tom, I think you’re partially correct, but I do think it’s more a function of HOW MUCH people spend. If you look at the difference in total skier numbers in the county in 2007, the best year on record, and last winter. it’s not anywhere near the percentage difference that we’ve seen reflected in sales tax collections. The difference in absolute numbers is minimal – the length of the season plays a bigger role than the economy. And you partially missed the point- which is that our obsession with numbers is just downright weird. But hey, I’m that way about weather stats …

  4. Excellent commentary, Bob. And a whole bunch of thoughtful commentary as well.

    I think what I hear a lot of people say in the community, both from the electeds at Town Hall and BOCC, is that “we wouldn’t have a town without tourism”. This argument has an end point, but few in the hospitality industry want to admit that it exists. Sadly, they’ve got the elected officials by the short hairs, be it by direct over-representation or simplistic, “doomsday” arguments delivered to an empty town or county meeting hall.

    I would like to urge that anyone who is concerned about this project, join the facebook page for Save Peak 6. You can search for it there. The more voices who counter the lone paid consultants or employees of those who stand to gain from this project, the better the chances are that the USFS will listen.

    1. Yeah, Dave, there is an endpoint, and we should try to get to it consciously and not just wait til we hit a brick wall. In other words, we should set a target of sustainability. I think in some ways we’ve done that, with a countywide and Upper Blue cap on density. but that’s only part of the puzzle.

  5. So where is all the money going? Since skiing/tourism is our only primary industry, it is the money that pays for everything and everyone here. Without the tourist dollars, this would be a ghost town. There would only be a few ranchers to enjoy waking up every morning to a panoramic vista of snow-covered mountains. There would be no fun loving lift operators, ski instructors, firemen, waitresses, construction workers, or editors.

    While I agree that the allocation of money can always be debated and I’d certainly like more allocated to my bank account, every incremental increase in spending by tourists helps everyone here. Remember that of the $210 per skier day, over half of that goes to non-ski area merchants.

    1. Dave, points taken, but remember, nobody is talking about NO tourism. What I’m trying to ask in part is, what’s a sustainable level, and can we risk relying on never-ending growth?

    2. What I find so troubling about the “ghost town” argument is that it’s the same one used by folks who believe that we can’t thrive without *more* all the time. This isn’t a “either we expand or we die”, because it’s been proven that if you over-do it, you can kill the golden goose.

      I do think that most rational folks in the back of their minds know there is a point where this occurs. Even the ski area will quietly admit this to you (until those people are fired).

      And elected officials who aren’t financially gaining from “more at any cost”, also struggle to balance this. It’s subjective, to be sure, and based on a lot of funny math from the ski area designed to ensure the argument fits their stated purpose and need without any proof that the expansion addresses the actual issue (crowding).

      But here’s the reality: There is a point where we get too little for the impacts, and actually harm what we have already. A point when traffic, parking become a negative for a destination, a point when a ski area become too crowded for a destination (which is one of the false arguments from the ski area–that this expansion would really solve this vs. just bringing a new marketing opportunity for BSR in “a new peak!”), and at what point does the quality of life suffer for those who work AND live here.

      But let’s dispense with the “ghost town” argument. We aren’t going back, and it’s an unproductive argument to make. Sure, there are a few folks who would rather see Breck be like this, but that train left the station in 1972 when the crap condos were built for an olympics that never came.

      Last I checked, the ski area is still the most visited in the country, the town budget is around $23 million, and there are almost 40,000 pillows to lull our guests into a nice sleep after a long day enjoying everything we have to offer.

      So let’s have the debate about whether this expansion is worth the environmental impact, if there is a “compromise” expansion, if there are other improvements that will help not just the skier experience, but the locals and business folks who rely on the guests having a GOOD experience, because guess what: Copper is just down the road.

      Peak 6, I believe, will not improve the guest experience as stated, and has every potential to only hurt our image as the marketing of it brings simply more crowds to the slopes who are still stuck in line due to a poorly-designed Quicksilver, aging lift equipment, and poor facilities throughout the mountain.

      And as I’ve said for years now, this is being pushed out of marketing, not out of guest improvement, because it’s just simply not sexy to market a new mid-mountain ski school. Yet those types of improvements are exactly what then-COO Roger McCarthy presented to Town Council in 2006 with the goal of improving the experience. This is a plan designed to just get more people here, period, at the expense of one of the last swaths of healthy forest in the 10 mile range. All for horrendously flat runs back to your (coincidentally!) Grand Lodge and Vail Resorts timeshares.

      Study up on it, and you’ll see: There are better ways to ensure our town thrives, the sport thrives, and we all continue to find this town a great place to live. Let’s not force the “either-or” argument.

  6. I believe the Alan Bard quote is, “The world would be a better place if more people skied.” I agree in this whole heartedly. It is easy to wish that more people stay home and watch Nascar or play video games so that we would have the mountains to ourselves. I, for one, would prefer that people come out an experience the mountains so that they can understand the response that we, who love these mountains, have and why we want to save them. I actually worry more about the number of people in the US who do not ski (especially in comparison to European countries.)

    Plus, I don’t know about you, but the more skier days I get in, the happier and healthier I am.

    1. Hey, I knew Allan when I lived in the Mammoth area and I couldn’t agree more. Personally, I try to add to that total as much as I can. But I also try to balance quantity with quality.

  7. Bob, As a West coaster that can only dream of the days I actually lived in Colorado, I must limit my happiness on skis to the few days that I get out to the Rockies. That said, I am a very happy skier and agree that the quality of my snow time is far more important than the quantity. Of course, I would love to have more, but more is inevitably just a mess. Love at Vail itself…more, more, more and now, while the skiing may be great there, the crowds will always keep me somewhere else.
    Breckenridge always had a small, ski town image if not reality to me. I hope that you can protect the forests around you and concentrate on preserving what draws people: a beautiful place in the mountains and not an overrun resort.

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