Skiing downhill
By STAFF Michael Rogers, Patricia Sellers, H. John Steinbreder, Eleanor Johnson Tracy, and Daniel P. Wiener

(FORTUNE Magazine) – This ski season's forecast calls for several resort operators taking a powder on a base of deep gloom. Lift ticket sales rose less than 1% last year, far from the rapid growth of the Sixties and Seventies. The rising cost of liability insurance has closed many smaller areas, which introduce skiers to the sport, and could affect the larger resorts next (though tort reform laws will soften the blow). Jim Branch, president of Sno-engineering Inc., a ski industry consulting firm, says that four to six Colorado ski areas will not open this season. Jerry Jones, executive vice president of Vail Associates, which runs two Colorado resorts, says that while his company is not for sale, some 25% of the 685 U.S. ski resorts are. How did the industry get into this mess? Harvard Business School Professor Douglas Anderson says it is a classic case of managers assuming the future would resemble the past. The ski explosion of the past two decades led resort operators to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on faster and better ski lifts, plus hotels and condominium complexes to handle the hordes. But schuss-booming baby-boomers' interest in skiing has been sliding as the generation enters the job market, forms families, and buys houses. Airline deregulation and the strong dollar have made travel to Mexico and the Caribbean a worthy and warm competitor for vacation spending. In response, many ski area operators are leaning on their marketing staffs for new ideas. Sample: Colorado's Keystone resort is trying to attract Hispanic skiers by staging a Ski Fiesta in January and supporting Puerto Rico's two-member Olympic ski team, which trains at the site. Operators are also offering day-care facilities and package deals for families. As resort operators battle for a bigger share of a stagnant market, the real winners will be skiers, who will be wooed with attractive package deals. ''Only the best areas will make money over the next few years,'' says Harvard's Anderson, ''but the skier is going to have a great time.''