Skiing was once considered pretty much a young person's sport, but with ever-growing numbers of baby boomers approaching retirement age, gray hair is no longer a novelty on the slopes -- and the industry is paying attention.
According to the National Ski Areas Association, more than 12 percent of US skiers are 55 or older, a figure expected to double in a few years. With most ski areas reporting little or no growth in lift ticket and pass sales, keeping seniors skiing has become a priority, and they are being courted with deals and discounts.
This season, for instance, Mad River Glen in Vermont (www.madriverglen.com) began offering a special rate for AARP members. They now can ski midweek for $25, half the regular adult day ticket price. Seniors can also purchase a ticket good for 30 days' consecutive skiing for $210, a discount of $60.
Jay Peak (www.jaypeakresort.com), also in Vermont, charges seniors 65 or over $15 for a day ticket, compared with the regular adult rate of $58. A five-day pass for seniors is $75, a savings of $140.
Mount Sunapee in New Hampshire (www.mtsunapee.com) offers discounted passes to seniors ages 65-69, with more substantial discounts for so-called ''super seniors" 70 or older. For seniors, Mount Sunapee's Ultra Pass -- good for unlimited skiing, with no blackout dates, at Sunapee, Okemo Mountain Resort in Vermont, and Crested Butte Mountain Resort in Colorado -- is $795 compared with the adult rate of $1,429. Super seniors pay only $455, a $974 savings.
The American Ski Co. offers ''All for One" passes (www.allforonepass.com) good for unlimited skiing at its six resorts -- Killington, Pico Mountain, and Mount Snow in Vermont; Attitash in New Hampshire; and Sugarloaf/USA and Sunday River in Maine. Among them is a deeply discounted pass for seniors 65 or older. Priced at $949 compared with the regular adult rate of $1,700, the pass includes discounts at resort shops and lodging, both free and discounted tickets for friends and family, and four free group skiing clinics for the pass holder.
While senior discounts seem to be proliferating, free skiing is becoming rarer. An exception is Saddleback Mountain (www.saddlebackmaine.com), which still lets anyone 70 or older ski free.
Some senior skiers have organized themselves into clubs both for companionship and to take advantage not only of discounted lift tickets but also cheaper group lodging and air-fare rates when, as many do, they travel as clubs to ski resorts around the country and abroad.
Based at Wachusett Mountain Ski Area (www.wachusett.com) in Princeton, about an hour's drive west of Boston, the Wachusett Old Time Skiers (WOTS) Club was founded in 1987 with 30 members. Today, there are more than 250 members, men and women ranging in age from 55 to early 90s. Some, like founder Mason Flagg, 84, of Worcester, a World War II veteran of the legendary 10th Mountain Division, have been skiing Wachusett since the late 1930s. ''There was no ski area then," Flagg recalls, ''and you had to walk up."
WOTS is a loosely structured organization with no dues or elected officers and members meet informally in the ski area base lodge, often for lunch, and participate in events, programs, and clinics geared to senior skiers. There are also several off-season social events.
At Wachusett, seniors pay $27 for an all-day ticket weekdays and $32 weekends and holidays; the full rates are $36 and $48.
The country's largest senior skier organization is the 70+ Ski Club (www.70plusskiclub.com), with headquarters in Schenectady, N.Y. It has some 14,000 active members, including more than 2,000 in New England. Executive director Richard Lambert estimates that nearly 5,000 members are in their 80s and about 300 in their 90s. The club is growing at the rate of some 800 members a year, he says.
Members pay $10 annual dues ($15 for couples joining together) and get a club patch, a membership card listing areas that offer members discounts or free skiing, and receive the club newsletter twice a year. Members in their 90s are exempt from dues and have their own distinctive 90-plus patch. ''I sent out 104 of those patches last year," Lambert notes. The club organizes package trips to ski resorts and sponsors events such as senior races.
Lambert believes it makes good financial sense for the ski industry to woo senior skiers with freebies and bargain rates. ''Members of the older generation often take their children and grandchildren on ski vacations," he says, ''and when they do they usually pay the bills."
William A. Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column on senior travel appears the first Sunday of every month.