Speakout & Issues


Market research is a powerful tool for understanding customers and making decisions. As “The Changing Face of Guest Feedback” (SAM March 2012) notes, the tools for taking your customer’s pulse have never been better. Unless you match your methodology to your goals, though, research can lead you astray.

It’s crucial to know whether the survey population is representative of your overall customer base. Customer satisfaction surveys are useful, but rarely represent your total market. It takes truly inclusive, representative research to help you assess and evaluate decisions that affect your whole business.

Customer satisfaction surveys (which provide tactical level feedback) are a subset of market research (which supplies strategic level information). The distinction is important. Customer satisfaction surveys typically target those who have used specific services or facilities, such as F&B or ski school, and this feedback can help those departments fine-tune their service and offerings.

However, it takes a broader market survey to deliver results that represent your entire customer base, which can help guide big-picture decisions such as pricing modifications, capital improvements, or advertising/marketing strategies.

Ask yourself who will respond to the survey, and, by extension, who is not represented in the results. If you do a base-lodge survey, for example, you miss those who eat at the condo, in the car, on the lift, or skip lunch entirely. How much does that matter? Consider the following real-world examples:

  • A Colorado area did an online survey—tapping just some of its clientele—to gauge food & beverage preferences and inform design of an F&B facility. The results showed clear preferences. But when responses were weighted to reflect the area’s known demographics—based on a more representative survey—they pointed in a different direction. The area changed course and built a facility much different in size and format from the initial plan, and more in tune with guests’ needs.
  • A New England area wanted to grow visits through capital improvements. The area surveyed a representative sample of all existing visitors on specific proposed improvements, to identify those that would most encourage repeat visits. The results helped guide decisions, and the changes led to increased satisfaction, a safer on-mountain layout, and higher repeat visits.
So take care in gathering customer feedback. It pays to know what your survey research program can and cannot deliver.

[This is a summary of a larger piece on the subject, which can be found]

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Perhaps the most shocking lesson from this past winter is that snowboarding is sick. Not cool sick—unhealthy sick.

The clearest sign is shrinking Kottke numbers, as the percentage of riders, as reported by resorts, dipped below 30 percent. Surveys of participants on the hill put the figure closer to 26 percent. Both sources show a decline over the past five seasons.

Some of this is cyclical. Skate/surf/board culture waxes and wanes over the decades, and skateboarding has been on a longer decline than snowboarding. But could some of snowboarding’s ills stem from the way resorts have treated it? Have they left it alone too much, aside from building freestyle terrain?

Nate Fristoe of RRC Associates laid it out at the NSAA Convention in early May. The sources of the stall, he said, are many:

  • Riders have become less passionate, and spend fewer days on snow. Fifteen years ago, the average days riding was 7.6; last year, and for the past several, it was 6.1. For skiing, the average has varied little, 5.4 to 5.7, over the same period.
  • Snowboarding remains a male thing. Among snowboarders, 65 percent are male, and they rack up 68 percent of snowboard visits. Among skiers, males comprise 56 percent of visits, and 51 percent of participants.
  • There are fewer kids and tweens on boards. Eight years ago, 42 percent of downhillers 14 and younger got their starts on boards. That figure has shrunk to 36 percent.
  • Snowboard instruction has lagged ski instruction. Plus, many start snowboarding lessons at age 6 to 8, versus 3 or 4 for skiing.
  • Riders are getting older, and are in career- and family-building years. As with skiers, this cuts into their frequency.
  • And that leads to the question: what to do about this? Fristoe and others highlighted several steps:
  • Create pathways for families to return to winter sports. That means better instruction and programs for women and children. During the question-and-answer portion of Fristoe’s session, one manager asked, “Is there a snowboarding counterpart to PSIA?” That lack of awareness of AASI illustrates how little attention has been paid to snowboarding instruction.
  • Teach your children well. Burton’s Jeff Boliba pointed out that areas that have focused on developing learn-to programs for kids 3 to 6 are killing it. And it’s a worldwide phenomenon. Smaller class sizes and programs like Riglet and terrain-based learning speed the process.
  • Improve instruction for females. Can young male dudes be trained to teach women and girls? Employing more women instructors, and certified instructors, would help.
Snowboarding was a runaway success in the ’90s, which led to complacency. Now that the passion has cooled, it will take effort to develop and nurture riders, just as with skiers. Fristoe estimated that inattention to riders has cost the industry 10 million visits over the past five years. That suggests a little investment in snowboarding will earn some outsized returns.
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There is no denying, it's been a tough season for most of us, which makes the business we have all the more precious. These are our die-hards, and we owe them a debt of gratitude. But, the story I am about to tell offers up a much different reality. 

A friend of mine enrolled her 10-year-old girl in a ski program through her local town recreation center. It's a super program that busses kids to a local ski area where they get a one-hour lesson and a couple hours of free skiing. After their first outing, Iā€ˆspoke with my friend's daughter about her experience and received rave reviews. It's the kind of success story we need to duplicate a million times over. This girl is hooked and I know her parents will stop at nothing to support her new passion. But here's where the story takes a turn. 

When I spoke to the mother of this child, let's call her "Betty," a different picture emerges. Betty was a chaperone that day and told me this: After the lessons, one of the kids came up to her upset because her instructor had her $10 lunch money. Upon further questioning, it turns out at the end of the lesson, this girl reached into her pocket for lunch money and a 10-dollar bill dropped to the ground. The instructor picked it up and said "finders keepers," stuck it in his pocket and walked off. When Betty found out, she took the girl and tracked down the instructor and asked him if he was "holding" $10 for this girl and he laughed and said, "Oh yeah, I thought that was for me." Typical of a young staffer, you say? Hardly. This guy was 50-plus. And he not only stole from a 10-year-old, but also from the ski area he works for. That money was slated for the F&B department. 

But, wait, there's more! Betty then accompanied a boy to the rental shop to get some poles. As she was waiting in line to pay with her proper rental forms in hand, this boy went over to the pole area and handed the young kid working there $10 and said, "Can I have some poles?" The staffer took the $10 and gave him some poles. When Betty found out how the boy got the poles, she went over to the young man behind the counter and asked for the $10 back explaining she had already paid for them. He sheepishly handed the money back. Oh, and by the way, poles cost about $7. 

End result of that day? The director alerted all participating parents to instruct kids to be careful with their money at this ski area. How's that for PR? 

In the end, the kids won't be affected by these infractions. They had a blast. Ah, but this Mom-she'll remember, as will all the other parents in the program. This ski area, and this industry, simply cannot afford this type of negative publicity, especially now. With an off snow year, it is more important than ever to provide a quality experience that people will rave about to their friends. And that means a culture of excellent customer service from the top down. I ran into Rob Walz of Cascade Mountain and he said he accomplishes that positive vibe from his staff by simplifying his company's core values into four easy-to-remember actions: smile, hold the door, pick up garbage and say "thank you." 

And, for God's sake, don't steal the kids' lunch money.

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The Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act, signed by President Obama on Nov. 7, 2011, paves the way for more robust summer operations at the 121 ski areas that operate on public lands under the jurisdiction of the U. S. Forest Service. The measure will allow ski resorts in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming to offer their guests a wider array of activities in summer, including ziplines, mountain biking, ropes courses and more.

Simply put, this is the most important piece of legislation for public land resorts since the overhaul of the USFS fee system in 1996. The passage of the bill opens up a new frontier, giving resorts on public lands more flexibility to be year-round providers of developed recreation.

Through the cooperation of many, and years in the making, the bill clarifies and gives guidance to USFS staff in the field to let them know what they should and should not entertain. Proposals for a whole suite of summer activities can now be presented to the Forest Service without the question mark of whether there is adequate authority at a local level to approve them. Additionally, this will make agency consideration of summer activities, from the Master Development Plan process to project approvals, smoother and more predictable.

At Mammoth, we have long sought to offer a wide range of activities within our permitted areas to enhance the experience of summer visitors. We do, after all, serve as a major portal for the public to experience and recreate in the National Forests. Attractions like ziplines, bike parks, and mountain coasters can create a buzz in summer and greatly enhance a visitor's experience to the mountains-especially for youth. These unique, sometimes adrenaline-fueled experiences in the outdoors build affinity for the mountains and mountain vacations. At Mammoth, we are committed to developing summer experiences for our guests with the same environmental and safety ethic that is the hallmark of our winter operations.

To our small community in Mammoth Lakes, the passage of the bill means job creation. A more diverse and year round product offering could yield hundreds of jobs in the region, providing more opportunity for our local employee base and more economic stability to our fragile rural economy.

The ski industry owes its appreciation to Rob Katz, CEO and chairman of the board of directors for Vail Resorts, and Beth Ganz, director of public affairs for Vail Resorts, who joined me in providing critical testimony to Congressional committees on this legislation. And we owe a debt of gratitude to Geraldine Link, director of public policy for NSAA, who worked tirelessly to push expanded summer use of ski resorts from an old concept to a new reality.

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Tropical Storm Irene did its worst damage across upstate New York and northern New England in late August, but it brought out the best in people and businesses-including the ski biz. 

Resorts were mostly spared. (For some exceptions, see "Construction Site," page 56.) But many down-valley towns were hit hard. And almost without exception, resorts lent a hand in community recovery efforts. 

First, though, areas tended to the welfare of their employees. "Immediately after the storm, the call went out, internally at Okemo, for donations to assist staff members who were in need," says PR chief Bonnie McPherson. "We had a couple of staff members lose their homes and all the contents. And sadly, we had one associate who lost his life to Tropical Storm Irene." 

Okemo mobilized its staff and began rebuilding roads and assisting neighbors with cleanup. The resort helped sponsor a Phish concert fundraiser, established a flood relief fund, and raised $10,000 through a previously-scheduled music festival. 

Mount Snow and Stratton provided free housing and shelter for those who were displaced. Killington provided housing and raised $27,000 for the VT Farm Relief Fund. In the Mad River Valley, Sugarbush and Mad River helped with clean-up and Sugarbush donated $100,000 to the Community Fund. 
Plattekill Mountain, N.Y., also pitched in. "We packed up our skidsteers, etc., on trailers and helped clean parking lots, driveways, school tennis courts, etc., and volunteered at local food and clothing distribution centers," says spokeswoman Danielle Vatjay. The area collected donations from mountain bikers for flood relief, and donated 50 percent of ticket sales on Labor Day weekend. 

Windham Mountain hosted a Hurricane Relief Benefit Dinner & Auction in early October to support the Town of Windham's recovery efforts; that yielded nearly $172,000. The area provided workers and equipment whenever it had manpower to spare, and hosted a Red Cross shelter for more than 100 on the second floor of the base lodge. As area businesses reopened, Windham's communication outlets got the message out. 

Windham itself received several offers of assistance. Hunter's Russ Coloton and Bruce Transue visited the day after the storm to offer help. Laszlo Vatjay, of Ski Plattekill, Ted Blazer of ORDA, and several industry suppliers also called to help. 

And these are just a few examples of how businesses and locals came together to help each other out. No doubt, there are still scars, and it will be years before all the damage has been cleaned up. But the overall recovery demonstrates the well-earned reputation of easterners as resilient and can-do kind of people.

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The ASTM F27 Committee on Snow Skiing is poised to start considering standards for the design and construction of terrain park tabletop features. The committee's vote on expanding its jurisdiction was set to take place in August and September. 

As a result, there has been quite a bit of wariness on the part of park builders and many resorts. "We have come a long way in the last 10 years," one builder told SAM. "Terrain park quality is far more consistent than it used to be," thanks to "the charge of a passionate group of builders, skiers, and riders who used their intelligence, work ethic, communication skills, and absolute persistence to solve problems and come up with the product that our customers demand. 

"The amount of communication, research and attention paid is astounding," he added. "I look forward to seeing how fast a group of engineers can catch up with this train." 

No doubt, park designers have done their research and terrain parks have evolved enormously. Will ASTM involvement slow down or hamper the continuing evolution of terrain parks? That is a big unanswered question. 

Looking back at the rental shop practices standard developed through the F27 committee in the 1970s and 1980s-which resorts follow today-the ASTM process did improve the safety of rental gear and reduced the liability exposure of resorts. ASTM probably accelerated product development. 

However, trying to put numbers, or standards, to a variable medium like snow is a far trickier process. And even if the perfectly engineered feature were realized, the user component still remains a key variable, a variable that can only be addressed through education. And throughout the last decade, resorts have made significant progress in that area. 

On a positive note, it is important to recognize that ASTM works slowly and cautiously; it can be expected to be especially deliberate and careful as it moves into terrain features. 

One reason for the slow process: The ASTM F27 committee includes a range of interests, with widely varying viewpoints: insurance providers, ski and snowboard manufacturers, engineers and academics, resort representatives, representatives from the legal field, and other industry organizations. 

The adoption of design standards, if any, through the ASTM process is several years off. It will likely take years of research, analysis, and debate by the committee before it's clear whether any industry-consensus standards are possible, or what those standards might look like. Any final standards are determined by a consensus vote of the entire F27 Committee. 

In anticipation of the expansion's approval, F27 set up an informal task force to review the existing information on the issue of designing tabletop features. The chairman is Dr. Jake Shealy, who is no stranger to terrain parks. But nowhere on the task force are actual builders of parks-an omission that seems rather odd given the scope of the committee's proposed purview. 

To make sure that the terrain park subcommittee considers the input and needs of park designers and builders, it's important for them to join the F27 committee. And do it soon: The next meeting of the ASTM F27 committee will be held at the SIA show in Denver, Colo., Jan. 24-25. Membership details are on ASTM's website,, or you can contact the F27 recording secretary-Sid Roslund of NSAA-at (720) 963-4210, It only costs $75 to join. 

And let us know how you feel. Send a letter to the editor ( or log on to and click on current issue, go to this Speak Out and comment. Open dialogue will help ensure an outcome we can all live with. \

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