How much Does Snowfall Impact Oregon’s Winter Tourism Employment?

by Karla Castillo and Damon Runberg

November 27, 2017

The winter tourism season in Oregon is fast approaching. Snow is piling up in the mountains with many ski areas already opening across the state. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) recently released a “La Niña ” for this upcoming winter. This phrase may not mean much to you, but most skiers and snowboarders in the Pacific Northwest begin drooling when they hear the words “La Niña.” A La Niña is when the sea surface temperatures of the Pacific Ocean near the equator are colder than average. You may be asking yourself, what does the temperature of the ocean near the equator have to do with winter tourism in Oregon? Although these sea temperatures are just one variable impacting our local weather, a La Niña is highly correlated with cooler and slightly wetter conditions here in the Pacific Northwest. Over the past 15 years, average snowpack at a measuring site near Santiam Pass was 12 inches deeper (+23%) during  winters.

If the current La Niña comes through and provides Oregon with plentiful snowpack for winter recreation, will that translate into employment opportunities in Oregon’s winter tourism industry?

When talking about the tourism industry the broad leisure and hospitality sector is often referenced. This sector includes accommodations (hotels), restaurants, and recreation facilitates. However, the leisure and hospitality sector isn’t entirely tourism-based. Many of these businesses serve non-tourists; restaurants serve locals, business travelers stay in hotels, and bowling allies aren’t particularly noteworthy tourism attractions. Dean Runyan & Associates, an economic research firm specializing in tourism, estimates that roughly 44 percent of Oregon’s leisure and hospitality sector is tourism-related.

If we look at the relationship between Oregon’s winter leisure and hospitality employment and snowpack over the past several years we see no meaningful patterns (see scatterplot). To put it another way, a snowy winter in the mountains doesn’t provide a boost to the broad leisure and hospitality sector. This is fairly surprising as I am sure that many assume that snow sport recreation is a major driver of Oregon’s winter leisure and hospitality sector. This begs the question, what does drive winter leisure and hospitality employment in Oregon? It turns out that most of the variance in winter leisure and hospitality employment can be explained by broad economic trends in Oregon and across the nation. The business cycle is the best predictor, not the weather.
If we zoom in on the state’s ski resorts, a meaningful relationship between snowpack and employment emerges. Over the past 15 years, ski resort employment was positively correlated with snowpack; more snow translates into more jobs. This is not surprising as these businesses are directly impacted by snow. A strong snowpack and numerous “powder” days attract skiers and snowboarders both locally and from outside Oregon. Ski resort employment reached a new peak in 2017 with an average employment from January-April of around 2,500 jobs. This was during a relatively cold and snowy winter with snowpack nearly 12 percent higher than the 15-year average in the Central Cascades.
During the dismal 2015 winter where the measuring site near Santiam Pass recorded a winter snowpack that was 88 percent below the 15-year average, local ski hills posted some of the lowest employment levels in recent memory. The state’s lower elevation ski resorts either never opened or saw very limited operations. Hoodoo ski area opened for only 12 days, while Willamette Pass ski area and Mt. Ashland never opened to the public that year.

The relationship between snowpack and ski resort employment is not linear, meaning that we do not see a consistent rise in ski resort jobs as snowpack increases. Increasing snow depths beyond the average yielded no clear impact on ski resort employment.

Labor demand is largely fixed at a ski resort. Once the state’s mountains reach average snowpack, most ski resorts become fully-staffed. Jordan Elliott, Director of Human Resources for Mt. Bachelor, noted that it takes “three people to run a ski lift regardless of whether there are 20 skiers or 2,000.” Rather than hire additional staff during busy periods ski resorts set “mandatory dates of availability” for their staff. This gives them the flexibility to increase staff hours rather than hire additional staff to meet peak demand during holiday periods like Christmas, New Year’s, or President’s Day.
Although a major driver of ski resort employment, snowpack isn’t the only factor influencing the employment situation at Oregon’s ski resorts. Even when controlling for snowpack we see a positive correlation with Oregon’s population and economic output. More people moving to the state translate into more people skiing and more ski resort jobs. Although less significant, as Oregon’s economy improves from the recession we also see a rebound in ski resort employment. Skiing is a discretionary expense, a choice. Many folks feel more comfortable spending money on recreation when their financial situation is more stable. This helps to explain why there were more ski resort jobs and more hours worked in 2017 than the record breaking snow year in 2008 during the depths of the previous recession.

Although we are expecting to see a moderate La Niña this winter that will likely bring average or above average snowpack to Oregon’s mountains, don’t expect to see that translate into a significant boost to the state’s leisure and hospitality sector. However, it would be a boost to local ski hills and the communities that support winter snow recreation, such as Bend, Sunriver, Sisters, Sandy, Ashland, Chemult, Baker City, Government Camp, and Rhododendron.

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