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The article "Trippin'" in the July issue of SAM inspired several recollections and thoughts about group business for me. While it can be a valuable option for resorts, the current value falls far short of the potential, for several reasons.

Group business has been on the decline for many years. An example is the adult ski clubs in the Twin Cities market. Their membership once numbered well over 10,000. Now they are about 3,000. Why? Because they aged, and did not replace members as they left the sport (or at least left the club).

When Welch Village began in 1965, there were 34 ski areas in Minnesota, and today there are 15 areas. In our early years the group business components were essential for survival, with a major influx of business on Saturdays with roving ski schools, and during the week from schools and churches. Then Title 9 came along, and school groups dropped by two-thirds. Church group leadership issues have reduced those numbers as well.

In today's business climate, growth cannot be achieved with groups alone, especially with groups who demand discounts and complimentary passes to excess for their single visit or two for the season.

Rather, membership options (season passes), designed to fit everyone's time schedule as well as their financial situation, have become popular as an alternative to groups. We have increased our membership numbers a hundredfold and more, and now the members comprise more than 50 percent of our total visits. We are building families and friends who have a long-term passion for the sport, rather than deep-discount, occasional, and fair-weather guests who show up a time or two per year and complain about prices, food, the weather, and everything else.

"Trippin'" inferred that ski areas want it all, from lift fees to rentals to food to lessons, and thus do not want groups who cut into those revenue streams. That's not quite the way we see it. We still welcome group business, but we expect groups to comply with our pricing policies, including comp pass levels, and to discipline their members to behave responsibly on and off the slopes. Further, strict adherence to safety policies is essential to enable repeat visits.

It's true that for most groups we provide lift, lesson and rental, and some food and beverage. For roving ski schools, like the one mentioned in the article, formerly owned by Otto Hollous and later Jim Heldt, the lesson and bus fees are part of the instruction package, and the ski areas provide the lifts, snow and base facilities for their trips. Nearly all the students have their own equipment, and some bring their food as well. Thus the revenue stream from roving ski schools can be considerably less per visit than from the walk-in guest.

Another issue with large groups is the concern for overcrowding on the peak day, Saturday, which has historically netted the largest attendance for most urban ski centers. Several times at our ski area, we have seen streams of cars turn away when they see the buses.

We all need partnerships to survive and grow, and we need new ways of seeing the future of our industry. We have new ways available to communicate our sport to young audiences. There is no reason to believe that we have plateaued with only about three percent of our population enjoying this greatest of all sports. And there are plenty of new ways to convince people to start now.

At 81 years young, I cannot wait for the first taste of winter, so I can once again share the sport with members and guests. As we closed the area last March, I skied the last two hours alone, thanking the associates who were on duty that day. As I stopped at our east chalet, several members were having their last beverage for the season in the sun on the deck. They spontaneously stood up and gave me a standing ovation for installing the Back Bowl, as if I did it just for them. But of course that is who I did it for, for those members and for all the guests who are yet to come.

-Leigh Nelson, President, Welch Village Ski Area

Ed.-We agree, there are lots of ways to introduce newcomers to skiing and snowboarding. See "Growth Spurt Ahead?" page 48.
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