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Red Lodge Mountain

Pliza Kuntz, director of base operations at Red Lodge Mountain, surveys the mountain as skiers Jon Bushey, right, and Jon Grave begin a hike up the mountain for a pre-season run Wednesday morning. Red Lodge Mountain opens for the season Friday morning.

Montana ski resort operators hope to get a little more help from the state after a survey conducted last year showed the industry contributed an estimated $49.5 million into the economy from out-of-state sources and supported more than 1,000 jobs.

"We'd really like to see the state as a whole get behind promoting the ski industry," said Donnie Clapp, a spokesman for Whitefish Mountain Resort. "It would be awesome to see some support."

The survey was conducted by the Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana during the 2009-2010 ski season. The institute surveyed skiers at Red Lodge Mountain, Bridger Bowl, Moonlight Basin, Big Sky Resort, Showdown Montana, Discovery Basin and Whitefish Mountain. There are 16 ski areas in Montana.

For the 2010-11 winter season, the state Department of Commerce has budgeted more than $776,000 for promotion of all winter tourism activities. Gov. Brian Schweitzer met with ski area operators Tuesday to discuss better ways to promote and fund the state's ski industry. He suggested they come up with some money and ask for a portion of bed tax funds to match their dollars.

 

Defying the economy

Overall, the ski industry did well last year despite the tough economic times the nation was experiencing. The season was the second-best ever and was only 1.2 percent below the 60.5 million visits in the 2007-2008 season. In Montana, skier numbers increased by 2.3 percent to climb to 1.35 million skier visits — the second-highest season on record.

So who are the people sliding down Montana's slippery, snow-clad slopes?

Among resident skiers and snowboarders, the average age is 39, with 81 percent of them making less than $100,000 a year. This average resident spent almost $140 per trip.

Nonresident skiers are older — almost 42 on average — and more wealthy; 53 percent make more than $100,000 a year. What both residents and nonresidents agreed on was choosing a ski area by location, rather than reputation or terrain. They also got most of their information from the ski area's website, but that could change.

"I think next year you'll see the social network side go up," said Jeff Schmidt, Red Lodge Mountain manager. "We already have 3,000 friends on Facebook."

Who's skiing?

Looking at the ski areas in more detail, Red Lodge Mountain recorded the oldest average age for skiers and snowboarders — 43 for residents and 44 for nonresidents — while Moonlight Basin had the youngest at 35 and 39, respectively. Moonlight was also the only ski hill that both residents and nonresidents picked for its price. All of the others, except for Big Sky, were chosen for location. At Big Sky, terrain was listed as the top reason for choosing the mountain.

Skiing and snowboarding also remain male-dominated sports, but not by much. For residents, 56 percent were male, while 58 percent of nonresidents were male. Only Showdown ski hill near White Sulphur Springs recorded a mostly-female clientèle.

Showdown's Ben Hogan said that may be because women were more likely to stop for the survey, or that many of their first-time skiers and boarders are girls.

Out-of-state draws

Possibly because of its national exposure in ski magazines and the fact that it has the highest lift ticket prices in the state ($81 for an adult full-day), Big Sky Resort was the only hill to have more nonresident than resident skiers. Red Lodge Mountain attracts a large number of out-of-state skiers, as well, but many are from northern Wyoming, which is within the ski area's drive market.

"That's a function of where we are," Schmidt said.

Wyoming skiers are a mainstay at Red Lodge; for the rest of the state, Minnesota, North Dakota, Washington and Alberta were the big contributors of out-of-state skiers and boarders.

Clapp, of Big Mountain, said the ski area's Canadian contingent has increased thanks to favorable exchange rates and more once-younger skiers who visited in the 1980s return with their own families.

The institute said the "study provides an excellent baseline of skier spending and characteristics for Montana" and that each ski area may want to update the spending figures every couple of years to track changes. For now, though, the numbers are pleasing to a booming Montana winter business.

"The survey reassured us that the different things we were trying are working," said Hogan, of Showdown. "The ski industry is a pretty major driver of the economy in winter."

Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor, at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.