Image: Young skier
Robert F. Bukaty  /  AP
Today, some of the entrepreneurs opening areas are including snowmaking and looking to youth as baby boomers start heading for the hot tubs. They are also looking at niches.
updated 1/3/2007 6:57:51 PM ET 2007-01-03T23:57:51

When Echo Mountain Park opened for the first time last spring, an employee donned a monkey suit to greet skiers and snowboarders in the dirt parking lot as tunes from Blackalicious, Of Montreal and the Red Hot Chili Peppers blared from nearby loudspeakers.

Besides irreverence, the freestyle terrain park is banking on something else to lure young snowriders: It is just 35 miles from Denver, a much shorter drive for the masses than resorts like Breckenridge, Vail or Aspen.

"All the analysis I did said if you want to be successful now in this industry, build a skate park on snow near a metropolitan area," general manager Doug Donovan said.

There were 727 U.S. ski areas in the 1984-1985 season, but that number has dropped steadily — to 490 in 2000-2001 and 478 last season, according to the National Ski Areas Association. Many smaller mom-and-pop areas shut down because they couldn't afford to set up snowmaking operations.

Today, some of the entrepreneurs opening areas are including snowmaking and looking to youth as baby boomers start heading for the hot tubs. They are also looking at niches.

"The growth in the industry is in 'boarders and the terrain park," said Echo Mountain owner Jerry Petitt, a longtime hotel industry executive. "The old-fart skiers like me, our knees are going bad."

Echo Mountain, which made a $700,000 investment on the same ground where the Squaw Pass ski area failed, is one of at least four ski areas opening or in development in Colorado alone. The Ginn Co. has submitted blueprints for a nearly 4,500-acre development in Minturn, near Vail, with a private ski resort. Michael Coors is developing Eclipse Snow Park on 350 acres near St. Mary's Glacier. On the plains of northeastern Colorado, the golf course community Water Valley is toying with a beginner slope or sledding hill.

Breaking from traditional ski areas makes sense, since season passes for access to five major Colorado resorts for around $400 have made it pointless to compete on price, said Kent Sharp, a principal at the resort planning firm SE Group, which has worked with Echo Mountain and Eclipse.

"It needs to be something a little more unique to compete," Sharp said.

Elsewhere, Whaleback Mountain, which has had a string of owners in New Hampshire, is undergoing a transformation, this time hoping to cater not just to skiers and 'boarders but also skateboarding, BMX and inline skating.

Whaleback managing member Frank Sparrow said so-called core action sports fans, ages 10 to the late 20s, are the future of skiing and snowboarding.

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"If you're going to survive in winter business, it may do you good today to attract 40- to 60-year-olds because they have more disposable income and all the rest of it, but the young people are dictating what's going to happen in the future," Sparrow said.

Established resorts have paid attention by upgrading or adding terrain parks with music, while also upgrading lifts and expanding terrain.

"Look at the national trends, aging demographics," said Sharp, the resort planning expert. "It's something the resorts absolutely got to do. People are dropping out of the sport at an increasing rate."

Echo Mountain has far less terrain than 5,289-acre Vail Mountain, for example, but kids who spend all day on just a few jumps don't need thousands of acres, Donovan said.

While bigger resorts may embrace baggy pants and punk music, they also must cater to owners of high-end condos, families, baby boomers and first-timers. Sparrow said smaller resorts have more flexibility to build a culture just for their core customers.

At Echo Mountain, one main building with corrugated metal walls is modeled like a teenage basement, where kids can play Atari games. Graffiti art hangs from the wall. The kitchen eschews $12 burgers in favor of selling microwave meals from Hot Pocket or Jimmy Dean.

Staff members mingle with riders and compliment them on jumps.

"It's pretty cool. It's an awesome mountain just dedicated to the park," Kyle Danaher, 18, of Littleton, Colo., said during a visit this spring. "There's a lot of local riders. There's no beginners. Everyone is out here just to ride the park. We all have something in common. We all love riding."

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