With fall days when temperatures can still approach 100 degrees, it may be hard to think of the Phoenix area as home to thriving businesses that cater to snow skiers.
But the Valley of the Sun does indeed have its share of ski businesses that are looking forward to the coming winter season. There are buses that take desert-dwellers to mountain regions throughout the West, ski shops offering rentals and equipment, and of course even two popular ski areas in Arizona: Snowbowl near Flagstaff and Sunrise in eastern Arizona.
“There are a lot of skiers (in Phoenix) that came here from somewhere else,” Lee Shapiro, co-owner of Alpine Ski Club and Adventure Tours, said. “There is skiing out of Arizona, and it’s all ages — families, singles, couples, friends, reunions. They all come on our trips.”
Alpine Ski Club and Adventure Tours organizes and sells ski trips to groups or individuals. It provides transportation and “trip captains” to lead the tours. Most of their trips are in Colorado and Arizona, but they travel as far as Chile to get some powder.
“We wholesale out to other ski clubs, different organizations, and corporations,” John Henson, co-owner, said. “We try to keep everyone happy. People love it.”
The club was started in 1969 with the opening of Sunrise Ski Resort near Show Low. Around that time, Durango and Telluride were also opening, and the club considers those two their ”home mountains.”
The tour company owners said one key to keeping the business growing is to make more Phoenicians aware of the trips. To raise awareness, they sponsor ski events, promote more, and continue to build their website. The average price for the 17 trips in November and December is $392 per person, which includes hotel.
“We have trips in the beginning of April when it’s 100 degrees outside, so it’s a little tougher to fill up trips when people aren’t thinking about snow,” Shapiro said.
He said the company relies on repeat business and referrals, and has begun doing more marketing, especially using social media. “The Internet has been huge. Facebook is good, and we just started a blog this year,” Shapiro said.
The ski and snowboard industry in the United States brought in $2.4 billion in revenue in 2010, according to industry research group IBIS World. A slice of that revenue was generated in Phoenix despite its widely known reputation as a hot spot in the desert. And revenue in 2011 is projected to increase to $2.7 billion.
Shapiro and Henson said for them to consider this coming season successful they need about 2,800 customers, an increase from the 2,600 last season. The company also offers some adventure trips like whitewater rafting in the offseason, but they said the core business is with the snow.
Ski Pro, a ski and snowboard equipment shop, has three locations in the Valley, and owners said even though they sell some water-sports equipment, snow sports make up the majority of Ski Pro’s business.
“Conservatively, 85 percent of the revenue comes from snow sports,” co-owner Scott Matteson said. A lot, of course, depends on the weather. If it’s a good snow season, “then all the categories kick in,” Matteson said. Rentals go up, accessories sales are stronger, and skiers and boarders upgrade their equipment, he said.
Matteson said Ski Pro first opened in 1980. The business performs on par with the industry as a whole, according to Matteson.
“Retail is not easy. It’s especially challenging here in the desert (when you’re in the ski business),” Matteson said. But he noted that Ski Pro has survived while competitors have come and gone.
Ski Pro is always prepared for large swings in business, Matteson said, and that’s what helps keep them afloat. He said the industry can swing 20 percent to 30 percent in traffic depending on the snow conditions. And the weak economy has cut into travel budgets for many consumers as well.
“In the past, people here were willing to go when the snow was marginal,” Matteson said. “Now if they are spending the money they want the snow to be primo. Not as many want to go to central Utah or Colorado to get more snow.”
The industry still is performing better than it did in the 1990s, both in Phoenix and across the nation, Matteson said. The 1990s saw a huge drop in interest until snowboarding became popular and brought kids and a general interest back into snow sports.
“Snowboard was huge for us and all across the country,” Matteson said. “A lot of shops that didn’t embrace snowboarding went out of business.
“Now in the last eight to nine years, snowboarding has become mature and it’s not growing as fast, but kids are interested in skis again. The stuff skiers are doing on the X-Games are at least as exciting as boarding, if not more so,” he said.
Matteson said, however, Phoenix is often a little behind the trend when it comes to ski sports, so he expects the ski interest to start up again in a couple of years. He said kids need to be interested for the industry to continue to be successful in the desert.
”That’s one of the biggest issues,” Matteson said. “It’s not easy; if it was, there would be more shops.”