Mountain Travel Symposium: How can the ski industry grow?
Ryan Summerlin April 16, 2014
BRECKENRIDGE — As snow sports industry professionals scratch their heads trying to figure out how to attract new people to skiing and snowboarding, existing participants think they know exactly what’s keeping the sport from growing.
“Everything about a winter vacation is too expensive,” said Michael Contrado on the Summit Daily’s Facebook page. “Imagine lodging, rentals, food and lift tickets for a family of four.”
Expense — that’s the answer skiers and snowboarders from Aspen to Vail to Summit County give when asked about the industry’s challenge of growth, yet expense wasn’t a topic brought up much at all during forum talks Monday at the annual Mountain Travel Symposium in Breckenridge.
Mountain travel professionals talked at length, in multiple sessions, about growing everything from ski and snowboard business to the year-round adventure travel business. Even some of the innovation within the industry that was featured in a Sunday evening forum focused heavily on growing winter sports.
The topic was compelling enough Monday morning to draw in at least 200 people — much less than Sunday’s attendance but significant when considering the 15 inches of fresh snow outside.
The problem with skiing and snowboarding is that it has been trucking along at the status quo for decades. The last time anything truly game-changing happened to the industry was when Jake Burton Carpenter brought snowboarding onto the scene. That was in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Invention and innovation is what’s going to grow the sport, according to professionals at the symposium. The status quo will only kill it, albeit slowly.
“Invention drives business,” said chief digital officer Winston Binch, of Deutsch advertising in Los Angeles.
There’s proof that’s true within the ski industry. As innovation has changed the gear — remember the skinny skis of the 1980s? — the sport has found new life.
But while new gear and toys such as GoPro cameras and GPS tracking devices that record vertical feet have come onto the market, the sport hasn’t seen major growth. It takes more than a few new gadgets to draw in new participants.
‘Good for the industry’
People including Schone Malliet, the founder and CEO of the National Winter Sports Education Foundation and the administrator for the National Brotherhood of Skiers Olympic Scholarship Fund, are giving invention a try. He’s leading a charge on the East Coast that he thinks has the potential to be a game changer.
His organization is buying a ski area in New Jersey that will be an instruction-only ski hill for youth-serving organizations. It’ll have 3,000 annual participants and Malliet said it will also be profitable.
The mission isn’t just to introduce new people to the sport, however — the goal is also to improve life, health and fitness through winter sports, reducing obesity and diabetes. Those are some of the selling points Malliet said will make the program eligible for grants and public funding, too.
The idea is similar to a plan Vail Resorts unveiled last year when it announced the acquisition of two Midwestern ski hills, one just outside of Detroit and the other outside of Minneapolis. Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz said everybody thought he was crazy when the company made the announcement.
“But I think people have then seen the wisdom of it,” Katz said during a session at Sunday’s forum.
He said part of the strategy is obviously to bring skiers from those markets out to the company’s western resorts, where they’ll spend more money because it’s a destination trip, but the company didn’t buy the Midwestern resorts for only that reason. Vail Resorts invested $10 million into Mt. Brighton outside of Detroit — a significant investment for such a small resort, Katz said.
“When these people are starting their ski experience, if we can make that a top-notch experience, we have a chance to really change the propensity for people to come into our sport and into our industry,” he said.
Katz also touted the company’s “cheap” season passes as a way to grow the sport. Data shows that people ski more days when they have a season pass. Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass debuted just as the Great Recession hit, and while prices have gone up incrementally year over year, the pass is still significantly cheaper than single-mountain season passes at comparable Western mountain resorts. The 2014-15 Epic Pass is currently advertised for $729. An Aspen/Snowmass season pass this past season was $1,649 if purchased early enough. It was $1,999 after Nov. 8.
But Aspen partnered with Jackson Hole, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Snowbird, Whistler/Blackcomb and Mammoth on a pass good for two days at each of those resorts. It was $359 for the 2013-14 season.
“This is good for the industry,” Katz said of the pass that emulates the Vail Resorts’ strategy. (The Epic Pass is valid at 11 resorts in the U.S. for unlimited days, and includes bonus days in Niseko in Japan, Verbier in Switzerland and 3 Vallees in France.)
Epic Passes are comparatively inexpensive compared to other season passes, and provide an undeniable value, but it hasn’t been enough to change the perception that skiing and snowboarding is expensive.
“Skiing is a rich person’s sport,” said Cindy McGinnis Kassales on the Summit Daily Facebook page.
“Mega resorts have priced out the general population,” wrote Mike Maher on the Vail Daily Facebook page.
Industry groups like the National Ski Areas Association try to debunk that perception. The association released a short report in February entitled “Skiing: Not as Expensive as You Might Think.”
The report’s title is misleading because it goes into detail about the costs of the sport, including explaining why it will basically always be expensive (energy, equipment, chairlifts, staff, etc.). The report also provides tips on ways skiers and snowboarders can save money through thrifty, smart shopping. Examples include choosing smaller resorts over larger ones, using discount sites like Liftopia and skiing during off-peak times.
“No one is arguing that Alpine skiing and snowboarding are inexpensive activities. They aren’t, nor have they ever been,” the report reads. “But when one adjusts for inflation and real growth in disposable income in the United States, snow sports have actually done a remarkable job of keeping prices affordable, and there’s no question that the quality of the ski experience — in terms of snow quality, reliability and speed of uphill transportation — is far superior to that of the past.”
In a slowly recovering economy, that can be a hard sell to a new participant who hasn’t yet developed enough passion for the sport to justify the costs. That’s why programs like Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month exist — to hook in those new folks and keep them coming back for more.
Mary Jo Tarallo, the executive director of Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month, told attendees at a workshop about growing the industry Monday morning that it’s up to the individual ski resorts to work together.
“I can’t stress enough how important collaboration is within the industry,” she said.
She talked at length about the various marketing efforts and media impressions the program has received since its inception. She said since 2009, more than 500,000 children and adults have participated in the month, which is every January.
And while deals are part of the hook, it’s up to the resorts to decide how much of a deal they want to offer. Some resorts choose minimal discounts, but some are leading a trend skiers and snowboarder think will help grow the sport.
Maher said resorts would be smart to let kids ski free until they’re 10 to 12 years old, as well as offer free beginner lessons. Some resorts are doing just that.
Resort officials have introduced some aggressive retention programs in recent years. At Grand Targhee Resort in Wyoming, for example, beginners get a free season pass for the year after they’ve completed three group lessons.
In Killington, Vt., beginners who complete a four-day learn-to-ski package get a free pair of Killington Resort-branded skis and bindings.
For the message about those deals to get out to consumers in time, though, it has to happen much earlier, said Raelene Davis, vice president of marketing for Ski Utah.
“In Utah, I can’t tell you how cheap it is in January to learn to ski or snowboard — we need to push that out,” she said.
There are also programs like SOS Outreach, that try to draw new kids into the sport who otherwise wouldn’t have the means or desire to try it on their own. But perception problems plague the industry even as do-gooders try to erase the stigma that skiing is for the 1 percent.
When Facebook executive Erik Hawkins was asked at Sunday’s forum about digital marketing why he thinks the ski industry is an attractive niche market, he said it’s because skiers are wealthy.
“Skiing has an affluent, influential audience that is worthwhile to serve,” he said.
Beyond the cost
It’s not a lot of fun to pay $100-$200 to do something that you immediately fail at, said Joe Hession, the CEO of Snow Operating, a company that is bringing something called terrain-based learning to ski resorts.
Through surveys and research, he said first-timers describe the skiing and snowboarding experience as scary, frustrating, cold and painful.
“The world is changing rapidly and it’s changing fast, and we haven’t changed anything in the ski industry since 1936,” he said. “I think it’s time to do something.”
The terrain-based learning program is based on fun with less falling, more intuition and more movement. Terrain is designed for beginners to help them get the sensation of sliding on snow without wiping out all the time.
“All resorts on the program have seen at least a 20 percent increase in key conversion metrics,” he said.
Vail Resorts introduced a program this season that is intended to excite beginners through tracking accomplishment. Epic Mix Academy allows ski school instructors to certify certain achievements or skills. And keeping in line with its Epic Mix program, the accomplishments are all shareable through social media channels.
Katz thinks the Sochi Olympics are a peek into what’s to come within the snow sports industry. With so many new sports added, and the growing obsession with action sports seen in events such as the X Games or Red Bull events, change isn’t just on the horizon — it’s here.
“This next generation is served up for us, but they’re fickle,” Katz said. “And so we, as an industry, we have to keep changing because this is a group that’s not going to get stuck in their ways maybe like the Baby Boomers did. This is a group that’s going to want new things, different things, and I think we just have to stay fresh.”
Lauren Glendenning is the editorial projects manager for Colorado Mountain News Media. She can be reached at email@example.com or 970-777-3125.
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