Skiers head back to the slopes

Snowboarders load the Black Mountain Express lift at Arapahoe Basin on May 27, the first day the Colorado ski area reopened after the state closed all ski areas because of the coronavirus pandemic.

New data details the coronavirus pandemic's brutal blow to America's ski industry.

The National Ski Areas Association on Wednesday reported skier and snowboarder visits were down about 14% from last season's numbers. A news release from the Lakewood-based association said COVID-19 cost the U.S. industry at least $2 billion, with estimates as high as $5 billion, accounting for an expected downturn in the 2020-21 season.

The virus "derailed what could have been a top four season" in terms of visitation, the NSAA said. Before the country's chairlifts stopped turning in mid-March, 51.1 million visitors were counted across 470 ski areas.

"To have two years in a row potentially rank in the top five seasons ever shows the strength of the industry," NSAA president and CEO Kelly Pawlak said in the release. "That being said, it is astounding how quickly this season went from promising to a complete disappointment."

Visitor numbers have yet to be released by Colorado Ski Country USA, the trade group representing most of the state's destinations. Last June, the group reported a 13% year-to-year increase at its 23 member resorts.

Additional data from the NSAA showed ski areas were open on average for 99 days this season, down from 121 in 2018-19. The closures came at what the association called "the critical spring break visitation period."

The period falls in Vail Resorts' third quarter, typically its most profitable quarter. This month in a letter to investors, the company announced a 47.8% loss in net income compared to last year, with total revenue down 27.5%.

Previously, Vail Resorts anticipated a hit upward of $180 million. In a letter, CEO Rob Katz told investors "results were favorable by approximately $40 million, primarily driven by cost actions implemented."

That included furloughing hourly employees and temporarily reducing salaries, the CEO's among them. Vail Resorts is also putting capital projects on hold this summer.

"We will rebound," Pawlak said in the release, "but the transition is packing a serious punch, requiring bold thinking and adaptation to new protocols while still delivering the same excellent guest experience."

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