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.
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.