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As scientific evidence accumulates about the changing climate, winter resorts face many questions.

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Published in November 2015
Small ski areas are seeking ways to respond to change and overcome limits to growth.


Small ski areas face a variety of challenges, many of which are unique to the nature of a small area operation. SAM wants to get your feedback to help identify the most pressing issues you face as a small ski area operator. By taking this survey, you will contribute important information that will help the industry tackle some of these issues, and hopefully come up with useful solutions that will be covered in future issues of SAM. The questions cover a range of topics including mountain operations, guest service, marketing, and finance. It will only take a few minutes of your time, and we are positive it will be time well spent. Plus, everyone who completes the survey will be entered to win $100! Thank you for your time and think snow!

Smaller ski areas are in a change cycle, thanks to several converging trends. Ownership transitions are taking place, especially among family-owned ski areas. Buildings and facilities are aging, at a time when skier expectations are rising. Ticket pricing models and marketplace competition are also forcing smaller ski areas to react. Change is in the air.

Often, it is the infrastructure and facilities in the base area that are limits to growth, or limit the area’s ability to respond to changes in the market. To address these issues, the Intermountain Ski Areas Association and Montana Ski Areas Association conducted round­table discussions last spring and summer about current issues in the base area, particularly parking and buildings in their respective ski areas. The ski areas in these associations range in size from approximately 15,000 annual skier visits to more than 100,000 skier visits. In addition, several of the larger Utah, Wyoming, and Montana resorts shared their solutions and ideas.

PARKING

Pressures on parking areas was the leading topic in the discussions and roundtable. There are several reasons for this:

  • Partial day visits. Season ticket pricing models enable skiers and riders more flexibility in the timing of the ski day and the number of hours skied. This results in more skiers traveling in individual cars rather than traveling together for a whole day, putting more cars in the parking lot and fewer skiers per car on the mountain.
  • Friends using social media to make last-minute decisions to ski together. This usually results in group members arriving in separate cars and meeting at the ski area, with the same result as above: more cars in the parking lot, and fewer guests per car. This issue gets worse when the ski area has a college or university in the marketplace, as skier/students often come to the mountain for morning skiing and leave for afternoon classes (or vice versa).

All that complicates calculations for parking demands. Traditionally, observations of parking demand over the years have resulted in varying ratios used to estimate the number of skiers on the mountain based on the number of cars parked. The rule of thumb ratio is about 2 to 2.5 skiers on the mountain for every car in the parking lot. But there are several factors that require adjustment to that ratio. Typically, weekday ratios are lower, weekend ratios higher. Large ski areas with access to overnight accommodations and municipal bus services can achieve ratios of 7 to 10 skiers on the mountain for every car in the parking lot. The ratios also vary with the effects of school program busing, race programs, and ski group activity. All these impact parking demand.

MANAGING THE PARKING AREA

How to determine how much parking space is needed? Start with a simple estimate of capacity. Smaller areas aim for between 100 to 120 cars per acre of parking, depending on the shape of the lot(s), parking controls, and snow removal.

Probably the easiest management tool, but most labor intensive, is the use of parking attendants to direct parking and managing parking space size. Attendants have a tough job with that alone, but they also need quality guest service training, as they are the front line of the skier experience. That’s especially important after your guests have driven two hours to get to your ski area.

There are some simple ideas that can improve the attendants’ ability to manage the parking lot. One often-overlooked component is making eye contact with the driver while directing the parking movements. If all a driver sees is the attendants’ ski goggles or sunglasses, directions can become unclear, and control of the situation may be lost. It’s important that drivers feel a connection with the attendants.

Buses and mass transit schemes are often assumed to be potential solutions to parking and traffic problems during peak periods. This is even more true if your ski area is in a jurisdiction where city or county planning staff is made aware of traffic problems, or your ski area is moving land use permits forward. The Forest Service is also becoming more aware of the parking issues at smaller areas as well.

However, mass transit is often untenable for small areas. Buses and other mass transit operations almost always require predictable ridership demand and reasonable pick-up locations. With skier visits highly variable due to weather, snow conditions, day of the week and holidays, predicting demand is nearly impossible. And for ski areas with dispersed market areas, such as Montana and Wyoming where skiers are driving several hours in some cases to ski, or with relatively low visitation levels, there is little chance that a transit system would be viable. Employee busing is more practical, but can be costly.

One way to rein in busing costs is to work with the local school district. Every ski area lies within a school district, and almost every school district has a bus program. A check-in with a friendly district may result in costs that are reasonable.

Car pooling and ride sharing can be more effective than buses or mass transit, if certain conditions are met. These conditions include:

  • Meeting places for ride sharing are easy to access, and provide sufficient parking. If skiers are traveling long distances, the likelihood of carpooling or ride sharing drops dramatically.
  • Having adequate overnight or seasonal locker space at the ski area. Providing lockers can encourage carpooling and ride sharing. If skiers and riders can store their equipment at the area, they don’t have to cram gear into the car or transfer skis, boards, and boots between vehicles.
  • Incentives for carpooling. For example, some ski areas are experimenting with reserving 10 percent of the close-in parking spaces for high-occupancy vehicles—those with two or more passengers.

Charging for parking is another tactic. This is most common at larger ski areas. Some smaller areas are experimenting with adding a parking cost to the season pass price. Charging for parking may also make sense if the ski area parking lot serves non-skiers—sightseers and backcountry users, for example. However, make sure that paid parking is allowed by Forest Service permits or local land use regulations.

Tailgating is a time-honored tradition at smaller ski areas. Parking close to the slopes, and bringing out the grill and beverages, will remain with smaller areas for some time. But this often raises a variety of practical concerns. And management of this activity can be a sensitive issue, as tailgaters are often some of the most loyal and vocal season pass holders. The best most ski areas can do is designate a specific tailgating area and direct guests to this location. It is important to check local liquor laws/licenses and permits if alcohol is involved. Insurance carriers can provide guidance on liability matters.

BASE AREA BUILDINGS

Flexibility is the watchword in base area buildings. And it is the key consideration as resorts evaluate base facility upgrades due to building age, building and health codes, and—perhaps most important of all—the changing needs and demands of guests.

There’s a major trend toward reliance on more and smaller dedicated-use buildings. Dedicated buildings for families and children, with outside play areas and quiet zones for example, can build loyalty for families that include both skiing and non-skiing members. Separating ski and snowboard rentals into different buildings or areas is another tactic that can smooth out peak periods and help with group arrivals.

Such buildings can be relatively inexpensive. Some areas are using utility trailers or shipping containers repurposed for the storage of reserve rental equipment for peak times or groups. These “mobile” storage areas can be located in the key areas where the demand is the highest, like group arrival areas, teaching areas and competition zones.

When considering a move to smaller, clustered buildings as a means to creating needed and more flexible space, manufactured buildings can also be cost-effective compared to custom buildings. Exterior materials can meet Forest Service architectural requirements and local land use laws. Even some larger areas have adopted this approach for adding space dedicated to a particular use.

Yurts continue to be a useful means to add space and flexibility. Most jurisdictions in mountain areas are familiar with yurts, but check building codes and design parameters to make sure they meet snow and wind loading requirements.

Tension fabric buildings are another possible solution; these have been employed in the ski area marketplace for years. When using these structures, consider the need for insulation packages for cold and damp areas. Note, too, that interior noise can be an issue when trying to accommodate younger families in this type of structure.

Small areas will continue to face a variety of unique challenges. But owners of small resorts are nothing if not resourceful. As we’ve seen in our roundtable discussions, there are many creative ways to address challenges. Clever managers continue to find them.

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Published in November 2015

Ski areas continue to search for new skiers and riders to replace the aging, and departing, Boomers.

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Published in September 2015

But it may take them years to become widely accepted at winter resorts.

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Published in September 2015

Major summer improvement projects include summit and base lodge additions, bike parts, and of course, lift installations.

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Published in September 2015

Tubing has become an essential part of the revenue stream for many resorts; managing the business well takes care, attention, and a good set of rules.

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Published in September 2015
SAM surveyed media buyers across the U.S. to discover how and where they commit their marketing dollars.

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Published in September 2015

It takes planning and preparation to hire a first-rate staff. Here are best practices for hiring, onboarding, and training.

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Published in September 2015

sep15 silver standard 1

Willy Bartlett spins in his chair, ­juggling phone calls. He fields a sales inquiry from a church group, then switches focus as someone affiliated with the weekend’s downhill bike race drops off gear, along with a few cases of sugar-free Red Bull.

In between his duties as the marketing coordinator at Silver Mountain, Idaho, he’s also the bike park manager. His office was once the master bedroom of an apartment in the faded brown complex the ski resort has converted to administrative offices.

Bartlett, 32, looks every bit the mountain biker, dressed in shorts, t-shirt, and trucker hat. He moved mountains to breathe new life into the bike program at Silver, and his efforts have helped increase revenue and also helped Silver Mountain Bike Park earn a top spot in MTBparks.com’s 2014 Best Bike Parks Riders’ Choice Awards, the rider-voted annual survey ranking the top bike parks in North America.

Bartlett began monetizing the bike program in 2013, and the bike park was branded in 2014 with its own logo, social media channels, and marketing. As a result, in 2014, rider visits rose by 173 percent, and by June 2015 looked on track to surpass that by a large margin, with day ticket sales already at 250 percent of the same time last year. Season pass sales were up 175 percent.

The revenue stemming from the bike program comes from more than ticket sales. The new bike rental fleet, which consists of eight trail and eight downhill bikes, turned a profit in its first season and will nearly double in size in 2016. Food, beverage, and lodging have also seen a considerable bump.

“The riding community is excited. They appreciate a business that caters to them and takes them seriously,” says Bartlett.

According to Bartlett, Silver’s market is bigger than just the local scene; the resort is becoming a true summer destination for mountain bikers. For example, this year is the first in his 11 years as a local that he’s seen mountain bikers move to Kellogg because of the riding, whether it’s to work at the resort, be close to the riding, or both.

“Two years ago, no one was staying in the hotel to mountain bike. It was a day trip,” Bartlett says. “Now that we are improving our product, people are planning trips and booking hotel rooms to ride the bike park.”

Bartlett says the budget wasn’t there to bring in an outside building or consulting company for the park, and that such an option can be cost-prohibitive and isn’t realistic for every resort, whether due to budget or management that’s not ready to go all in up front. That’s where, perhaps, the most crucial component of building a do-it-yourself bike park lies: choosing the right people.

Bartlett moved to Kellogg at the age of 21. He was wrenching in a bike shop in Collville, Wash., outside Spokane, when he heard that Silver Mountain—a ski area known for its Swiss-built gondola, the longest in the world at 3.1 miles—was allowing bikes to access the mountain’s 3,400 feet of vertical drop.

Bartlett came to town and during the five years he spent at the shop, watched the bike program go through spikes that included some successful downhill racing between 2005 and 2008. By the time he was offered a marketing position at Silver in 2009, though, mountain biking was no longer a focus of summer operations. Ridership dwindled and trails went underutilized.

Bartlett jumped at the chance to leverage his position to capitalize on his passion and the opportunity he saw for the bike program. It wasn’t long before he met Drew Mahan, a ski patroller just as enthusiastic about two wheels as Bartlett. Mahan stuck around each spring, building and maintaining trails as fast as the melting snowline would let him, before leaving each summer for another seasonal job with the Forest Service. Eventually, they started putting shovels in the dirt in their spare time. Then, about eight weeks before the summer opening in 2013, they got the official go-ahead to open a real bike park.

“Having somebody who’s emotionally and physically vested in the program is crucial,” says Bartlett. “We’re committed. We’re in this long term, kind of married to the project.”

In just a few short years, Bartlett and Mahan, along with a trail crew of three and a bike park manager, have established Silver Mountain Bike Park as its own entity, and gone from just three main trails to more than 30, ranging from beginner flow to expert technical.

BRANDING AND IDENTITY

In just a few short years the Silver Mountain Bike Park has established its own identity, and has grown from just three main trails to more than 30, ranging from beginner flow to expert technical.

Independent branding as a bike park separate from winter operations gave identity not only to the bike park, but to its rider base. By creating a logo, separate social media channels, and other branding collateral, mountain bikers have been able to identify with the product. Not all mountain bikers want to see skiing and horseback riding in their newsfeeds, but will be more likely to engage with content specific to them.

“Bikers know they are being treated as an equal with a product just for them, not ancillary to ski operations,” Bartlett says. While this isn’t specific to building trails or contracting outside vendors, it’s an important piece of the puzzle that can go a long way, especially when making the most of in-house efforts. Like other aspects, this is where having mountain bikers on your team who get it and can provide authenticity is crucial.

CAPITALIZE ON NATURAL STRENGTHS

Not every resort has enormous vertical drop or the perfect soil for sculpting jumps. One thing Silver Mountain has to work with is a huge piece of real estate that offers long, sustained descents over a solid drop in elevation, and soil that allows technical singletrack to be scratched in fairly quickly.

“We’ve got good dirt. We don’t have a lot of rock features, but we found what we do have and capitalized on it,” says Bartlett. “Those mining features—glory holes—we incorporated those and made berms out of them.”

Starting out, it was easy to have the trail crew go out and build the raw and technical trails that the racers were looking for fairly cheaply and easily. Once the money was coming in from that and it helped the mountain gain a reputation, they were able to turn their attention to some larger projects, like the new Hammer trail, and focus on progression by building a multitude of shorter, easier options in the Chair 3 Zone, a section of the upper mountain that doesn’t require riders to ride down the long, demanding trails all the way to town.

Silver also builds most of its ramps and wooden features from lumber cut during the trail building process. “We built them for nothing more than the cost of labor, nails, and saw gas,” Mahan says.

BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK

When it comes to trail building and maintenance, the bike park game requires an entirely different approach than the winter months, so figuring out the best return on investment can be tricky. An enormous machine-built flow trail might be tempting, but can be expensive and take a long time to see ROI, while a larger variety of hand-built trails may offer more options and lower initial cost, as well as a diversified investment while catering to different abilities and riding styles.

Although Silver’s few pre-bike park trails were built by machine, providing a predominately flow trail experience, in the last three years, most of the additions have been hand-built tech trails. They have added variety for different abilities and riding styles, and allowed the trail crew to build the network fairly quickly and affordably.

“Don’t overlook hand-built trails,” says Mahan. “It might seem like a wash when it comes to cost at first glance, but with a hand-built trail, you’re leaving behind a mostly finished product. Even with the best machine operator in the world, you’re going to have a significant amount of hand tuning to go back and do.”

A good trailbuilder knows how to create flow, but the ongoing maintenance costs can vary greatly. “On our advanced flow trails, we spend about five times as much labor maintaining as we do on our black tech trails,” says Mahan. “For one mile of flow, we’ll probably spend five days per season maintaining. We can ­probably do a season’s worth of ­maintenance on the same length of tech in a day. Hand-built trails have been a huge part of allowing us to grow quickly.”

YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR

Keeping costs low initially can be crucial for a bike program to survive when budget is a concern, but be able to recognize when you hit the tipping point and have to invest. There will always be a cheaper way, but that’s not always the right way, and sometimes providing the necessary tools for the job is a worthwhile investment.

Trail builders Drew Mahan and Nick Nathhorn on the job at Silver Mountain. Crews will spend about five times as much on labor to maintain the advanced flow trails as they do on the black technical trails. One mile of flow will require roughly five days of maintenance per person.

“We’ve gotten to the point where we realize that with certain things that we did as inexpensively as possible, they end up requiring more labor, maintenance, etc.,” says Bartlett. “You’re not saving money if you have to replace and retrain the trail crew because they’re burned out or have to rebuild the same section every year.”

As the park’s traffic increased, they found that there are certain sections of trail that have to be completely rebuilt by hand each season. They now recognize the benefit of bringing in a machine and changing the flow of those sections to be more sustainable, providing a long-term solution that alleviates ­maintenance issues.

“We have some old trails that have some real maintenance challenges,” says Bartlett. “Now that the park is generating more money, we are going in and eliminating a lot of these areas.”

GROW ORGANICALLY

Huge upfront investments and build-outs can lead to unrealistic expectations and missed ROI targets. Opening new trails and features incrementally throughout the season can amortize the cost of improvements and keep riders coming back because there’s always something new.

“Skiing changes so often depending on weather,” says Bartlett. “With biking, that trail hardly changes, so being able to open new terrain and features keeps people interested and coming back. We had a new trail opening almost every month last year.”

OWN YOUR HOME MARKET

Understanding your core local riders and influencers early on is key. While the ultimate goal is to become a destination, building a solid local base helps cover initial costs and plant the seeds by word of mouth. Silver Mountain employs a local shop program that allows the region’s bike shop employees to ride for free. They are core influencers with a great deal of interaction with the local bike-riding public.

“Odds are pretty good that if you walk into any shop within 200 miles of here, someone on the sales floor rode at Silver this weekend,” says Bartlett.

He also goes to organized trail rides in nearby urban centers like Coeur d’Alene and Spokane to help spread the concept of lift-served riding to mountain bikers who may be unfamiliar or just haven’t tried it.

BUILD COMMUNITY

Look for people with a special skill set, whether they are a photographer or a promoter that is willing to work with your budget. If they want to support and be a part of the scene, you may be able to trade to help generate content or complete certain projects. Local riders may be willing to dig in exchange for lift tickets. Be aware not to take advantage—your community is essential to your success.

“Those guys are presenting awards, announcing, just because they want to be a part of things. And people love it,” says Bartlett. “There are probably locals who want a bike park more than the resort wants a bike park, who are willing to go to exceptional lengths to make it happen.”

HAVE A PLAN

Third-party operations offer planning services, even if a resort is building a park in-house. But if you’re flying completely solo, doing it yourself requires a fair bit of “big picture” vision.

“We knew we wanted enough trails to justify a week-long visit,” says Bartlett. He approached the project with a goal of a diverse trail network to offer multiple options for all riders and abilities to challenge themselves. “Try to grow your trails so that you are adding for all abilities at an equal rate,” adds Mahan. “You don’t need 10 beginner trails. If you have a solid beginner run, you can focus on more advanced and vice versa.”

Look at how you’re going to utilize the space, says Mahan. “On a given slope, you’re trying to avoid trail crossings as much as possible. You want merges as opposed to crossings. Beginner trails take up a lot of real estate, so put them somewhere you won’t use up land that could be better utilized for advanced trails.”

FIND THE RIGHT TEAM

Perhaps the most important key to bike park success, especially with limited resources, is having the right people in place. Whether it’s marketing or building trail, you need someone who not only has the necessary skill set, but is a mountain biker who gets it. Not every ski patroller will make a great bike patroller. The best machine operator in the world probably won’t follow flagged trail properly if he doesn’t understand what it’s like to ride the finished product. And someone who isn’t passionate just isn’t going to put in the same amount of effort.

While Silver Mountain’s summer bike park success is certainly not alone in the North American market, the growth and established identity as a result of a small but dedicated in-house crew is certainly an example as to what’s possible. With a plan, a supportive management team, and a dedicated crew of mountain bikers who get it, becoming a destination resort for lift-served mountain biking is an attainable goal for almost any ski resort.

About MTBparks.com

MTBparks.com is North America’s most comprehensive guide to lift-served mountain bike parks and resort destinations. Developed to be the one-stop guide to all of North America’s best bike parks, MTBparks.com provides news and event info, trail descriptions, maps, reviews, ticket prices and more. The site helps riders discover new bike parks and plan their next adventure, whether it's a weekend in the local mountains or an epic road trip across the continent.

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Published in September 2015

An impact on every bottom line.

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Published in July 2015
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