VAIL — There have been ski instructors for as long as there have been ski resorts, but Vail Resorts wants to change and improve the way people learn at its mountains.
The resort’s ski and snowboard school saw big changes in organization this season and have introduced a series of new programs that are likely to be the next big wave in instruction trends. Many other resorts have already followed suit, and Vail Resorts has capitalized on some burgeoning instruction ideas, said Bobby Murphy, Vail Ski and Snowboard School director.
January is officially dubbed Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month, and Murphy and his staff see it as a chance to introduce guests to the new and improved school. The resort is offering a “First Time Series,” a three-day package for adults that includes three days of group lessons and tickets for the price of two ($320).
“The benefit of learning with the school (instead of having a friend or significant other teach you) is that our pros are certified and trained at the highest level,” said Murphy. “They’re going to be able to eliminate many of the frustrations you’ll find when you try to teach family members. You tend to get a lot of negative energy that can be harsh on the whole experience. That’s probably magnified when trying to teach a spouse or girlfriend or boyfriend.”
Epic Mix Academy
One of the biggest changes students will notice this year at ski and snowboard school is that everything has gone electronic. Lessons are tracked via your card pass, eliminating the problem of lost lesson tickets.
The resort has also extended its popular EpicMix program, a popular app that keeps track of everything from days skied to vertical feet. The app has expanded to the ski school to help instructors, students and parents to keep track of progress. With each lesson level, there’s a list of skills students are expected to learn, and when they do, EpicMix will show they’ve earned a pin for that skill.
It’s a fun tool for kids and provides a report card of sorts that can be used at any of the Vail Resorts, Murphy said.
“There are fun pins in there, too, like you can get the Coffee Break pin by skiing short turns on Espresso and Cappuccino or the Crocodile Dundee pin by making medium radius turns down Kangaroo Cornice,” he said.
Small groups, better learning
Another “ahead of the curve” program is the introduction of small group lessons. Historically, your options were a bigger group lesson or a private lesson, but Vail Resorts has introduced the Ultimate 4 (no more than four kids to a class) with half- or full-day options, and Max 3 (for up to three adults to a class) geared toward intermediate to advanced skiers and riders.
The lessons straddle the distance between very expensive private lessons and big group lessons where you may get lost in the mix if you don’t catch on quick enough.
“This is a new trend that I’d say we’re leading,” said Murphy.
The small-group format has been wildly popular, said Mark Raymond, the school’s general manager of training and quality.
“Ultimate 4 is the fastest growing program and probably most popular product,” Raymond said. “We see a lot of return business for that, and I think it’s because the kids bond with the instructor.”
As anyone who snowboards can tell you, the first few days of learning can be brutal. The resort addressed those sore necks and behinds by creating a Learn, Turn and Ride program that offers three days of snowboard instruction that can be used anytime within five days.
“That way you don’t have to do the lessons on consecutive days,” Murphy said. “It’s the no-slam approach to learning how to snowboard.”
In addition, the ski and snowboard school has been working closely with the terrain park crew — but in the beginner areas.
“It’s called terrain-based teaching, and there are other resorts who have been doing it,” said Raymond. “The idea is that you build features in the snow, whether a berm or a hill with a hump that helps people make a clean turn or to find the fall line. It creates a comfortable, confidence-building experience.”
Behind the scenes
Some of the biggest changes at the ski school offices are likely ones that students won’t notice.
Previously, the school was organized by base area location with general managers and managers in Lionshead, Vail Village and Golden Peak. Now, a general manager of children’s programs and a general manager of adult programs oversees all locations, with supporting location managers. These general managers will report to Murphy.
“The way it was structured before, it became very segmented. This was to bring consistency and give us a way to share best practices,” said Murphy.
The training management team and supervisors have also taken a much more hands-on approach in training its pros, dropping in frequently on lessons, getting feedback from instructors and setting up a constructive way to communicate improvements and changes, said Raymond.
“It’s something some other resorts have played with, and we actually contracted a consulting company to help us with this,” he said. “We’ve worked with our managers to spend a lot of time focusing on interaction and leadership.”
“The benefit of learning with the school (instead of having a friend or significant other teach you) is that our pros are certified and trained at the highest level. They’re going to be able to eliminate many of the frustrations you’ll find when you try to teach family members.”
Vail Ski and Snowboard School director