Eighth Annual SAM Summer (Ops) Camp

“Summer does NOT equal winter,” declared SE Group’s Claire Humber at SAM’s eighth annual Summer (Ops) Camp, held Sept. 5-7, at Vermont’s Killington Resort. Roughly 170 resort-industry professionals from the U.S., Canada, and Japan gathered for three days to discuss the opportunities, choices, trends, and pitfalls in developing a summer activities program.

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2017 Summer Ops Camp

 

The overall agenda included seminars on everything from marketing and branding to the state of the adventure-park industry and risk management. A prevailing theme throughout was that, while many aspects of winter operations might apply to summer ops, ski-resort operators need to approach summer with an entirely fresh perspective. “Planning and implementing [for summer vs. winter] are very, very different,” said Humber.

Humber’s session, “If I Knew Then What I Know Now,” shared lessons learned in developing summer programs at Steamboat and Gunstock. Jim Schneider and Dave Hunter reported on Steamboat’s recent additions, including a mountain coaster and streamside beach, while Greg Goddard and Robin Rowe reviewed Gunstock’s experiences with zip tours, camping, and other activities. The message: it’s important to plan, and then equally important to improvise once the inevitable and unexpected happens—and to anticipate that in the budgeting process.

Trevor Crist of Inntopia outlined the scope and trajectory of summer business, both nationwide and in the East, and placed resorts’ summer prospects in the context of the larger travel and tourism industry. The bottom line: summer continues to hold great potential for winter resorts.

In describing the state of the adventure park industry, SAM and Adventure Park Insider editor Rick Kahl provided a barrage of statistics from a recent API survey of park operators—park attendance, types of activities, guest demographics, and so on. Interestingly, the top concern, by far, expressed by park operators was the challenge of finding and managing qualified staff. In that regard, ski resorts, always seeking to retain talented winter personnel on a twelve-month basis, might have a leg up, with trusted and experienced people already at their disposal.

Among noteworthy industry trends, according to Paul Cummings of Strategic Adventures, was an increased interest in multi-activity, condensed structures, especially for indoor parks. It is a trend, Cummings speculated, that might be feeding off the interest generated by American Ninja Warrior.

Another burgeoning trend that raised a few eyebrows among attendees was “glamping,” or glamorous camping. Tom Hinojosa from Bear Valley, Calif., presented insights about the resort’s recently opened glamping product, and Huttopia’s Claude Beaudoin offered an enlightening perspective from a company with years of experience in the glamping game.

Of course, one of the best ways to draw the summer crowds is through a comprehensive events schedule that caters to the young, old, and everyone in between. Jeff Alexander, head of Killington’s events and sponsorship program, took attendees through their summer calendar, and Billy Mattison of Kids Adventure Games discussed the value of kid-centric events and the ROI from bringing in the very young to rip around your mountain.

One of the best-attended seminars—led by Tim Bruce and Jesse Whitcomb from Safehold Special Risk and featuring a panel of defense attorneys, Tom Aicher and Sam McNulty—was a discussion focusing on summer risk management: how to minimize risk and how to handle injuries and the potential claims that might arise from them. Eleven bullet points were covered, from inspections to the documentation of incidents.

Conference-room seminars were augmented by smaller breakout sessions and on-hill workshops. Rich McCoy of Killington and Bob Serfass of Camelback discussed best practices for the transition from summer to winter (and back). Ben Colona and the Gravity Logic crew took groups through the rental operation and led a roundtable on operating successful mountain bike parks. Mark Petrozzi of AlpenRisk Safety Advisors led two discussions, one on the new Mountain Bike Responsibility Code and one on summer guest education. Bahman Azarm and Micah Salazar of Outdoor Ventures discussed their AAA (Aerial Adventure Academy) training techniques, and then took campers on-hill for a demo of the safety products for rescue and assist. Other topics included summer staff visas, and how to use digitally collected data to boost attendance and profits led by The team from The Flybook.

Killington proved to be a particularly suitable setting for the event, having embarked, in 2014, on an ambitious, five-year upgrade of its summer activities offerings. Camp attendees were set loose to sample as many of Killington’s summer activities as possible, and get a behind-the-scenes, hands-on look at the management and operation of those activities. The resort’s new summer menu includes, among other things, an expanded Gravity Logic mountain bike park, a mountain coaster, Skye Ropes Course, maze, Zipline Racer, Soaring Eagle, Jump Tower, Alpine Tubing, and Segway tours. The weather didn’t always cooperate, but campers still managed to find time for play, especially on arrival day.

To complete the picture, Killington president Mike Solimano’s keynote address explained the resort’s development process, and shared the area’s summer-related expenditures and revenues.

Speaking of menus: Killington’s F&B staff awed guests with especially varied and tasty meals. The uniformly excellent service was a reminder of how important F&B can be to the guest experience.

Also taking part at the camp were vendors in a summer attractions industry that has expanded exponentially in the last few years. Among the companies in attendance were manufacturers of artificial snow surfaces for summer skiing and tubing, designers and installers of zip line tours, adventure-park designers, and glamping experts.

A popular catchword throughout the three days was “conversation”—the ongoing sharing of information, ideas, and strategies among ski resorts tapping into the growing interest in summer activities. The many social events and collaborative atmosphere fostered valuable exchanges and expanded everyone’s network.

Yet while many resorts might feel an urgency to tap into a potentially lucrative summer revenue stream, Steamboat’s Hunter counseled patience. His advice: “Slow down, take a look at what the project is, and ask a lot of questions” before jumping into the deep end of the summer pool.

For most ski resorts, building a summer program still represents largely untrodden territory. It is not, as Humber put it, comparable to simply installing lifts. Summer is not winter. 

– Report by Peter Oliver

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