By DAVID SHARP
PORTLAND, Maine (AP) – The Hathorn family used to head for the hills after work every Friday for a full weekend of skiing.
Those days are long gone, replaced by a blur of basketball practice, soccer practice and games for Scarborough High School junior Heather Hathorn.
The 16-year-old’s frenetic schedule demonstrates one of the biggest concerns for the nation’s ski resorts: Many families that have the money to ski simply don’t have the time, or they choose to do other things.
On the bright side, snowboarding is growing in popularity at the same time the bulk of the children of baby boomers are reaching their teens. The convergence may be the industry’s first opportunity for growth in more than a decade.
Attracting “echo boomers” while they are teen-agers may be the difference between growth and continuing flat ticket sales, said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association in Colorado.
“If we let this opportunity slip by, it’s not going to happen again anytime soon,” Berry said. “I think we recognize that.”
The last big boom for the $10 billion ski industry was when baby boomers themselves hit the slopes in the 1970s. While the years that followed have been flat, the ski industry noticed an important change in demographics about six years ago: the number of younger skiers had begun to grow.
The industry sees this echo boom as a pool of 72 million potential skiers. But hooking them will not be easy.
For one thing, they have a wide range of entertainment options – from youth hockey to basketball to indoor tennis to surfing the Internet. People consistently cite the time crunch, more than the expense, as the main reason they do not ski, Berry said.
Surveys also show families are more stressed out than ever when it comes to the plethora of vacation options, including sunny beaches, theme parks and cruises, said Jim Spring, president of Leisure Trend Groups in Colorado.
The biggest obstacle of all may be cable TV and the Internet, which have made teen-agers increasingly sedentary.
“The optimists say we’re on the brink of something absolutely terrific, this echo-boom generation. All we have to be is smart about tapping into it,” said David Rowan, founder and editor of Ski Area Management Magazine, a trade magazine.
“But are they as likely to become skiers and snowboarders as their parents were? The answer is no,” he said.
American Skiing Co., one of the nation’s biggest ski area operators, always has been aggressive about going after new skiers. But the Newry-based company recognizes that a greater effort may be needed to hook echo boomers.
The industry already offers free ski passes to fifth-graders in Maine, New York, Utah, Colorado and California and to fourth-graders in New Hampshire.
American Skiing’s chief executive, Les Otten, approached other major skiing companies last season and proposed an industrywide promotion campaign similar to what Kathy Lee Gifford did for the cruise industry.
There was interest, but contributions never materialized because it turned out to be a bad year for the ski industry, said Skip King, a company spokesman. There has been little talk this year.
“No single ski area can afford the type of campaign necessary to get the real image about what this sport does,” King said.
Randy Dunican, who owns Mount Abram ski area in Locke Mills, said it is critical to lure teens to stop the graying of the sport.
“When you look at the mean average age of the skiers, they’re getting older every day,” Dunican said. “And there are a lot more older ones than young ones.”
He’s experimenting with newfangled sleds so someone who doesn’t ski or board can ride down the slopes. The highly maneuverable sleds have been a hit so far.
To cut costs, he’s also building no-frills ski dorms, where skiers will be able to sleep for $15 a night.
Survey’s by Spring’s Leisure Trend Groups suggest the number of people taking up skiing is overtaaking the number leaving the sport, at least for the last two years. Whether the trend will continue for a third season remains to be seen.
That’s heartening for the country’s 509 ski resorts. So is the fact that people like the Hathorns who leave the sport don’t necessary stay away.
Even though basketball is fun, Heather Hathorn does not view it as something she will do for the rest of her life. Skiing, on the other hand, is something she believes she can continue into her later years.
Don Hathorn also said he and his wife plan to resume their regular weekend trips when Heather graduates high school.
“When she’s in college, we’ll be back to skiing as frequently as we can afford at that point,” her father said.