Let’s face it: Sometimes the ski resort business can be a downhill run in more ways than one. Destinations of all sizes and in every region have experienced financial slumps, and often for reasons beyond their control—for instance, unseasonably warm winters and shifts in consumer spending and travel. For resort owners, it’s a never-ending crusade to attract visitors and keep them coming back for more, no matter what trends the weather or marketplace bring.
Making a year-round profit in a seasonal business only amplifies the challenge, and that’s why many ski resorts over the years have transformed into four-season destinations. From mountain biking to bungee jumping, they have found ways to re-package and promote their picturesque topography during the warmer months.
Thirty years ago, Bromley Mountain in Vermont and Attitash in New Hampshire were the first two ski resorts in the United States to offer the Alpine Slide. Stig Albertsson, who owned Bromley at the time, says he was looking for a way to increase revenue when his brother read an article about the Alpine Slides in Sweden. Albertsson immediately took an interest in the West German product and scheduled an overseas trip to meet the manufacturer. He successfully negotiated a license to make the Alpine Slide in North America and, in 1976, he introduced the Alpine Slide to North Americans.
“The first summer at Bromley we had three-hour lift lines on the weekends,” he recalls. “It was pretty amazing.”
Bromley and Attitash didn’t corner the market for long, however. Over the next six or seven years, more than 30 slides were built across the country. Heading the movement was Albertsson, who found a second career as the owner of Alpine Slide LLC. According to Albertsson, market demand remained steady for a time, but the former resort operator soon learned that the slide business could also be a downhill ride.
First, as more Alpine Slides opened on mountains everywhere, the cost of liability insurance for operators rose as high as 12 percent on receipts, which slowed the purchase orders coming into Albertsson’s shop. Then, in the mid 1980s, the material used to make the original Alpine Slides (a mixture of cement and asbestos) became obsolete in the United States. An attempt to continue production in Mexico ultimately proved unsuccessful. Though the customers seemed to love them, it suddenly seemed as if Alpine slides might be a short-lived ride.
Not so. Fast-forward to 2007 and Alpine Slides are in demand once again. Ski resorts from the Rockies to New England are refurbishing their existing slides and adding new ones. Why? According to Albertsson, the product has been renewed and it’s better than ever. Today’s Alpine Slides are made of fiberglass and the channels are wider and deeper. Moreover, slide sections are pieced together using a flange system versus an overlapping system. The slides can be installed in ground, on ground or above ground—the latter of which eliminates the need for expensive excavation. All these changes in materials, design and construction equate to a safer, smoother ride and the potential for cost savings and more flexibility on installations.
Sled design also has changed. While four-wheel sleds have been available in Europe for many years, Alpine Slides LLC and another manufacturer, Erbschloe of America, are offering them now in the United States. Alpine Slides LLC’s Augie Sled has a “speed restrictor” in addition to the standard hand-brake, and Erbschloe’s model offers adjustable speed control.
“The rear wheels help eliminate fishtailing,” Albertsson says of the Augie Sled. “Also, there is a speed restrictor mounted between the rear wheels. It’s a hydraulic device. The faster the rear wheels turn, the more resistance it creates.”
Albertsson says his business is “definitely seeing an increase in inquiries.
“Several complete track replacements and new installations are in the process for 2007,” he says. “Of the 26 slides that are in the United States and Canada now, six are all fiberglass; the rest are mostly cement with fiberglass replacement parts mixed in.”
In 2003, Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort, Utah, spent a little more than a half million dollars on a shiny-new fiberglass dual Erbschloe Alpine Slide. The slide features 1,300 linear feet of twisting turns that pass through two tunnels.
“We wanted to diversify our summer recreational options,” says Snowbird’s hill maintenance director Jim Baker. “We have a substantial amount of summer conference and meeting clientele, and it became increasingly obvious that we needed to add to our summer activities. It was a very good investment, as we’re seeing positive returns and happier guests. We saw the most substantial increase when we first offered the all-day activities pass, a day ticket that includes unlimited rides on the Alpine Slide, ZipRider, EuroBungy and aerial tram.”
Alpine Slides, which appeal to all ages, can be a great complement to other more adult-oriented summer activities, such as golfing and hiking, says Sam Geise of Geise Engineering Inc. Five years ago, Geise began selling Alpine Slides and equipment for Erbschloe of America. Today, the company sells both Alpine Slides and Alpine coasters. His clients include ski resorts and recreational parks from coast to coast.
“In most cases, you already have everything sitting there—the land, the ski lift, the lodge. All you have to do is install the slide, so the return can be huge, sometimes more than $1 million a year,” he says.
Yet, not all resorts can say their run with Alpine Slides began so smoothly. For instance, Jiminy Peak in the Berkshires began its journey in 1977 with the original model. According to Jiminy Peak president Brian Fairbank, it was the resort’s first attempt to generate summer business and boost the local economy year-round. At the time, Jiminy Peak did not even have overnight lodging.
“In hindsight, we made a major mistake, because back then the Berkshires was primarily a cultural mecca. Most of the tourists were older individuals and couples who came here looking for culture,” Fairbank recalls. “We had to rely on the locals to support the new summer business. In a sense, we ended up creating our own market.”
Though it was a stretch initially, the slide proved a boon in the long run because it spurred an avalanche of development at Jiminy Peak. Fairbank says that with business coming to the park year-round, it seemed the logical next step was to add overnight lodging. Consequently, a marathon of ground-breakings and construction followed. Jiminy Peak’s summer business really took off when the resort began offering a variety of rides and recreational activities in addition to the slide. According to Fairbank, the slide alone didn’t encourage repeat visitors, but a three-hour pass to multiple rides proved to be a winning ticket.
“Once we got a bed base and added other elements, we’ve seen the numbers go up every year,” he says, adding that Jiminy Peak will replace its original Alpine Slide with the new fiberglass model this spring. “These days we sleep 2,800 people and our tax rolls bring $125 million to the city; we have 150 year-round employees and 1,000 seasonal employees.
“And it all started,” Fairbank says, “because of the Alpine Slide.”
Introducing the Alpine Mountain Coaster
In 2005, the United States was introduced to another kind of Alpine experience—the mountain coaster, an amusement ride that originated in Europe. A mountain coaster, which can operate year-round, features individual two-seater roller-coaster cars that are fixed to a stainless-steel, looped track. Similar to a chairlift, the passenger-filled cars are pushed up the track to the summit. Once at the summit, gravity takes over and the passengers can control their speed on the descent by either coasting or braking.
Park City and Jiminy Peak were the first ski resorts to debut mountain coasters in the United States. Jiminy launched in July, and Park City in August. Larry Hays of Wiegand Sports USA, which sells mountain coasters, says a typical coaster averages between 2,800 and 3,500 feet of active track. The cost for equipment (rails, supports, sleds, electrical control system) averages between $600,000 and $1 million. Installation can run an additional 40 percent to 45 percent.
Says Hays: “Because all the rides we’ve done in the United States are new, there’s no solid information on the return on investment just yet, but I can say that Glenwood Caverns in Colorado did $600,000 in the first 160 days, and I believe Park City did about $250,000 in its first 50 days of operation.”