THE Over the Hill Gang does not sound menacing. But the members of this Colorado-based skiing group for the over-50s, and their peers, now dominate the slopes. With their new hips and costly kit, baby-boomers have propped up America’s ski resorts for longer than anyone expected. The average age of customers rose from 33 in 1997-98 to 39 last season, according to the National Ski Areas Association, and the share over 55 has risen from 7% to 17%. “Grays on trays” (as one snowboarding outfit calls them) ski more than youngsters, since they have more free time and money. But they must one day bomb their last bumps, so the industry needs new blood.
To hook younger skiers, several states now offer free ski passes to pupils. For example, most of New York’s ski areas have begun allowing third- and fourth-graders from anywhere (even overseas) to ride its slopes free—as long as they come with a paying adult. New designs for skis and terrains make it easier for beginners to find their balance, says Scott Anfang, a snowboard instructor at Steamboat in Colorado
January is “Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month”, a nationwide scheme to lure beginners with bargain packages and cheaper lift tickets. Since it began, in 2009, the programme has spread to include more than 300 resorts (out of 478 in America). Anyone can take part, but the real target is young people. A ten-year-old is more likely to return to the slopes year after year, and so will spend perhaps $73,000 over a lifetime, whereas a new 25-year-old skier will probably spend less than $20,000, according to SnowSports Industries America, an industry group.
Skiers who give up tend to blame a lack of time and a surplus of children. Many—particularly women—say they would be more likely to ski again if it were easier to include (or guiltlessly dispatch) their sprogs. Resorts are becoming more family-friendly, offering more lessons and other activities, such as snow tubes and mini-snowmobiles. Squaw Valley in Lake Tahoe has introduced a yoga studio, a play zone and a ski-in/ski-out Starbucks. Many of these features can also be enjoyed without snow; which is handy in drought-struck California.
Some ski resorts are trying to become year-round destinations. A federal law introduced in 2011 allows resorts on public land to introduce attractions that are not environmentally destructive, so they have been busily adding bike trails, zip lines and climbing walls, but not golf courses or amusement parks.
Rich rewards will go to anyone who can figure out what the Millennials want. Some try to reach them via their gadgets. EpicMix, an app created by Vail Resorts, tracks how many trails and vertical feet users cover (though only on Vail properties) and lets them compete with others and share stats on social-networking sites.
Another gimmick that is proving popular, particularly among young men, is the terrain park, where snowboarders and, increasingly, “free-skiers” (who ride on shorter, more manoeuvrable skis) can perform tricks to an audience of peers, and share their feats online. Most American ski resorts have at least one park; some have more. Powdr Corporation, which owns nine ski areas in America, has a “barn” full of foam pits, trampolines and half-pipes, where people can practise their daredevil jumps. With such a soft landing, even the old-timers may give it a try.