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Speakout & Issues

SPEAK-OUT -- HOW MUCH HAS SNOWMAKING TECHNOLOGY IMPROVED?


I enjoyed "Next-Gen Snowmaking" (SAM, May 2010), but some clarification and additional detail are required to fully understand volumetric testing and snowmaking efficiency. 

The results of the Holiday Valley snow deposition volume testing indicate an approximate value of 155,000 gallons per acre-foot for the snowmaking equipment tested. To fully appreciate these tests, we would need more information, including: 1) average measured snow density for each snow gun in the test, 2) metering procedure and volumetric calculation method, 3) snow volumes for each snow gun tested, and 4) general snow quality. Our test work at Mountain View Technologies over the years has yielded a density range of 24 to 30 lbs/cubic foot for the various snowmaking equipment tested at a specific snow quality. The varying densities produced by different snow gun types impact snow volumes. 

The comparison of new machines with older equipment that required an average of 300,000 gallons per acre-foot may overstate the case, since improper adjustment of the new equipment and operation in windy conditions will yield similar acre-foot values for both newer and older equipment. Our volumetric tests using "old style" equipment yield an average value in the range of 170,000 to 180,000 gallons per acre-foot. 

The statement, "The newer guns are better nucleators, so there is less evaporation" also requires clarification. True, newer guns have better ice particle nucleation technology. But that does not reduce evaporation in moderate snowmaking temperatures. The total cooling process (primarily evaporation and convection) continues irrespective of how many ice particle nucleation points there are. More nucleation points yield more snow crystal formation and an improved snow quality-that is the real benefit. 

-Yaroslav Stanchak 
-President, Mountain View Technologies, Inc. \

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SPEAK-OUT -- SOCIAL MEDIA ERRORS AND LESSONS


Using social media for marketing is easy, right? Hardly. Even social media gurus don't get it right every time. In an effort to learn from others' mistakes, here's some insightful errors and lessons from within the ski industry, including one of my own. 

Rufo, nxtConcepts--What I meant to say was... 
Issue: Trying to be funny on Twitter. After just a few months on Twitter, I decided to joke about a non-ski industry client that was e-mailing more than 60 images, one at a time. I thought it would be funny. However, another client that followed my tweets was put off. 

Lesson: Thankfully, Nate Wolleson, marketing director at Snow Trails, Ohio, called me to explain how he interpreted the tweet. Wolleson said, "If this is what you are saying about them, what are you saying about us"? I learned two lessons. First, be authentic when you write, but think twice about trying to be funny in 140 characters or less. Second, if you do write something, attempting to erase it may only call more attention to your gaffe. Instead, leave it, but follow it up with a comment clarifying what you meant to say or correcting your mistake. 

Mt. Bachelor-Turning the Tide 
Issue: A few years ago, a challenging relationship between the resort and the local community moved from offline conversations to online. Once online, negative sentiment rapidly spread from blogs to mainstream media. Once mainstream media took notice, they started reporting conversations as fact. Before 2008, the resort did not have a person or policy in place to refute comments or address conversations about the resort. 

Lesson: It took Bachelor years to recover. By 2010, the resort had changed its culture from ignoring to interacting. Through frequent participation and by replying to most posts, the area turned the tide from mostly negative comments to positive ones. According to former marketing director Alex Kaufman, "The last year or two were daunting. Many of the conversations were not fun, but necessary. Our goals were to help 98 percent of the people reading and watching make an informed decision, and have the media report correct information." 

Diamond Peak-Laying the Ground Rules 
Issue: After creating a resort Twitter account, the employee that managed the account left the company and deleted the page and the profile. The resort not only lost all the contacts and content, but also all the momentum of the account. 

Lesson: Without a documented social media policy in place, things like this can happen. Milena Regos, marketing director at Diamond Peak Ski Resort, recommends, "Although there can sometimes be a blurry line, when it comes to personal vs. company social media accounts, it is critical to have a policy in place to spell out what you consider that line to be. Do your research and understand the repercussions of allowing employees to engage in social media on company time." 

Anyone working with social media should know that errors are inevitable. It comes from being human. To me, the measure of the success is dealing with the aftermath-that is the lesson you walk away with.

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SPEAK OUT -- CAPITAL IDEA: INVEST IN YOUR STAFF


If you had a baby and money was no object, would you take your child to the cheapest possible day care center, even if it provided questionable care and potentially bad influences? Same situation, different baby-your resort. Do you hire people who don't understand or even really care how your operation works? Does your staff understand why you do things a certain way, or care if the resort functions properly at all? Our industry appears to value stuff over staff, demonstrated by our tendency to buy high-tech equipment and then hire cheap labor to operate it. When we couldn't find folks to man the front lines for $8 an hour, we went overseas to recruit international staff rather than raise the pay rate. We would probably hire illegal aliens if we could get away with it. What we end up with is a staff whose incompetence requires constant work-arounds. One answer is more automation-but would we really need so much technology if we had more capable staff? And even if the automated operations have great merit, their benefits can be diminished, and the equipment's life expectancy shortened, when operated by unqualified employees. 

Subordinates with dependable decision-making ability and problem-solving skills are becoming increasingly rare. Wouldn't it be nice to hand over completion of a task at shift change and be confident of the outcome? Yet, when we do find a good staff member willing to go the extra mile, what do we do? We ask them to go three extra miles (for an extra 50 cents an hour, and perhaps benefits). There is an alternative: hire the right staff and pay them appropriately. A well-trained and properly-paid staff not only takes better care of your equipment, it can also improve productivity-both of which translate to the bottom line. Some resorts have sought the best of both worlds by bringing in contract labor for snowmaking and grooming operations. 

"Loss of production while training inexperienced staff, and additional income from a consistent opening with a good early season product, can easily overshadow the cost of hiring a professional team," says Nick Horgan, owner of Seasonal Labor Solutions. 

The current economy provides a great opportunity to attract qualified employees who might have been overlooked in the past-people who may be overqualified for the job but who will bring skills and a new set of eyes that may help improve your operation. This would require a commitment to retain these personnel when the economy turns around by offering increased pay and benefits to those who prove worthy. 

Let's make our industry a place to build a career again, instead of sucking the life out of people and driving them away. There has always been a tradeoff of less pay for increased pleasure benefits in our industry, but if employees are so overburdened in their jobs that they can't enjoy the benefits of living and working in the mountains, the monetary sacrifice isn't worth it. Sure, make your employees earn their wage, but give them something to earn and time to enjoy it all.

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The online generation is younger than you think. And this group is your future.

According to 2009 Nielsen Reports, time spent online by children increased 63 percent in the last five years. The growth rate outpaces the overall Internet population. As a result, kids ages 2 to 11 comprise 9.5 percent of the active online universe.

For many resort websites, however, content and activities for kids younger than 14 are a low priority. Since kids don't shop online, many ROI-driven executives ignore them. I was surprised when a marketing director at a family ski area told me, "children aren't a part of our marketing model."

Does that make sense? Don't forgo meaningful interaction with your youngest and potentially lifetime customers. You are giving the competition a chance to capture the hearts and minds of your future. Major league sports organizations make direct communication with children a priority-www.NFL rush.com is an entire website for kids, with links and custom content from all 32 pro football teams.

Better yet, check out Disney's homepage. It promotes films, television, merchandise, destination vacations, and a vast array of Disney products and services. Front-page buttons for kids serve as portals to games, activities and content. It's part of a methodical mission to develop a lifelong bond with Disney customers, regardless of their chronological age and their ability to make purchases. Mickey Mouse knows that all kids grow up, get credit cards, and have more kids.

In a tough economy, marketing must focus first on those who make purchasing decisions. Of all means to reach children, though, the Internet offers the best access at the least cost.

How kid-friendly is your website? Look at your homepage and ask, "If I was nine years old, where would I click?" Kids' content should be instantly obvious, not an Easter egg hunt.

Keep in mind that "mom content" is not for kids. No eight-year-old cares to see how loving and nurturing the instructors are. The words "children," "family," "safety" and "school" are total turnoffs. Games, bells, whistles and any sound resembling a burp or other bodily function is a plus. Cartoons and jokes rule. Photos of kids jumping, having fun, or crashing are cool. Snowplowing is not.

As for adult-centric priorities, consider that according to Nielsen's 2009 data, 26.3 percent of the online adult population has children age 11 or younger in the household-a seven percent increase from summer 2008. How can these adults introduce their kids to your website if there's nothing for the kids to look at? And remember, kid's content is actually one more way to reach parents.

The "Digital Generation" is just that-online. These kids have never known a time when the Internet didn't exist. For any resort's bottom line, now and in the future, ignoring your youngest customers doesn't make either sense or cents.
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I let my love of the mountains and passion for skiing lure me into the industry on March 1, 1969. I abruptly left a great paying job in NYC and started work at Killington. It was a Saturday-a clear indication of the requirements, commitments, and uniqueness of a job at a ski area. I did get to ski five of the first seven days, though, so I was on cloud nine.

At the end of December 2008, after 28 years at Killington and SKI Ltd and another 12 years at Stowe Mountain Resort, I decided it was time to let the next generation develop and incorporate their dreams for the future of mountain recreation.

At the May 2009 NSAA convention, I became concerned and somewhat disappointed at how the "experts" were describing that future. They were probably factually correct in their comments on the faltering economy, aging demographics, climate warming, passive electronic entertainment, high gas prices, difficult air travel, and other challenges. But I reject their predictions of negative outcomes when compared to past achievements.

Where was the optimism? Not one person talked about the industry's strengths in the face of these headwinds. No one extolled why we do what we do, why our lifestyle is so special, why the youth working at mountain resorts should be excited and committed, or why the future will be full of challenges successfully met-just like the past 50 years. I wondered aloud how I would feel if I was a young adult, embarking on a dream job for a lifetime commitment and attending these seminars to learn and develop business relationships. Would I leave with a can-do spirit of "damn the torpedoes" excitement, rather than a head full of gray clouds and doom-and-gloom?

So, on the third day of the conference, when I had a chance, I summarized six priorities for future success. These have worked in the past when times were equally challenging. In the past 50 years or so, we faced 18 percent inflation, no gasoline for travel, winters with small amounts of snow, auto workers out of work for months, droughts that left no water for snowmaking, airlines on strike, savings and loan bankruptcies, and more. We have been successful despite these roadblocks and will continue to be successful despite the current challenges if we keep the following priorities in mind.

1. Be an educated risk taker. Successful results require thoughtful, progressive, and creative solutions. Today's minimum expectations for ski resort operations are defined by changes inspired by the challenges of the past. This applies to snowmaking, steep grooming, high capacity lifts, slope safety initiatives, ski/ride equipment designs, warm/breatheable soft goods, ski/ride schools, and many other developments. Those who lead the push, the leaders who dream and focus with positive energy-at times faltering, but who persevere-they define the future through their successful solutions.

2. Take care of your employees. In most instances, it isn't just about pay, it is about why many came to the mountain in the first place-their passion for skiing/riding opportunities, a desire for a youthful spirited outdoors environment, and yes-enough pay to live close to the mountain and have some fun! When the aforementioned is highly prioritized, employees become your most important asset, as they are much more reliable, responsible, and respectful of special/quality outcomes.

3. Treat customers as your friend/neighbor. Huge marketing expenses are wasted annually through poor communications, both spoken and written. It is critical to communicate regularly and openly with customers (it is a two-way process), just as you would with your best friends and neighbors. Many of today's electronic communications are timely and cost effective, but also impersonal and one-sided. Friends and neighbors always remember that special relationships are enhanced only through personal and regular efforts.

4. Skiing and riding is a lifestyle. Skiing and riding differ in key ways from other recreational activities. Our sports are centered on a real and natural activity, significant social interaction, considerable physical challenge, continuous family bonding, and take place in an outdoors healthy environment. They create a spiritual tie to the mountain. No other sport or recreational activity encompasses so much for so many for so long during one's lifetime.

5. Listen to your passion. What draws us back to the mountain time and time again? It isn't the real estate, the hot tubs, the food, the hotels, or the special deals. It's the enjoyment experienced only on and within the mountain environment. It is the excitement, the views, the weather, the raw natural mountain challenge that keeps us coming back. It is only the mountain that reenergizes us, rewards us with a sense of accomplishment, and satisfies us with memories of friends, families, and a special place. Your passion comes from the mountain!

6. Take time to have fun. Our lives are overloaded with responsibilities, consumed by schedules, and filled with challenges. We need regular breaks from the hassle, and a bit of fun is the best medicine. A ski run down the mountain, a coffee break with an employee, a hike with Mother Nature, a book with a child, a laugh with your spouse-fun contributes significantly to reduce stress, improve effectiveness, and support positive outcomes. That's the ultimate win-win proposition.

Ed. Note: Hank Lunde presented his six points during his acceptance speech for the NSAA Lifetime Achievement Award.

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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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