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January 2007

Grrl Power

Teenage girls don't make up a big chunk of business-but they could.

Written by Sally Johnstone and James Chung, Reach Advisors | 0 comment

“I just don’t know why more teenage girls don’t go to the slopes,” says Diana Tom, a teen rider from Pasadena, Calif. “There are sooo many hot guys there.”

Diana was one of many participants in a recent survey who commented upon the lack of participation among their peers. Fortunately, it’s not because of a lack of interest, as the survey found that teen girls who ski and ride view the sport every bit as cool as the guys. So why aren’t teen girls buying more lift tickets and passes, and what can resorts do about it?

Teenagers can seem like a separate species to marketers long out of high school, and can be even more of a puzzle if you don’t have a teenage daughter—or even if you do. But in the process of deciphering the comments from the teen girls participating in the survey, it was clear that they love skiing and riding for the exact same reasons that the rest of us love the sport.

Not only do they love the sport for the same reasons, they also have a burning desire to participate more frequently. Of the teen girls in the survey, 82 percent report that they intend to increase their time skiing and riding in upcoming seasons. And they’re loyal, too: two-thirds of them have a favorite mountain they return to again and again. The desire is clearly there; but even so, teen girls don’t come out to resorts in anywhere near the same numbers as boys.

The Origins of the Gender Gap

The gender gap between boys and girls occurs only after they hit the teen years. As pre-teens, boys and girls are almost equally likely to ski and ride. In the teen years, ski resorts see the biggest increase in participation of any age cohort—but boys’ participation increases at twice the rate of girls.

Why aren’t teen girls flocking to the mountains, given the three decades that have passed since Title IX made sports a legitimate part of girls’ lives, in the decade of grrl power messages, and in the year following the U.S. Snowboarding team’s heroine hotties?

In the survey, the challenges contributing to this gender gap came through loud and clear: When it comes down to it, teen girls feel ignored. They feel that ski areas aren’t talking to them, aren’t providing the facilities they want, and aren’t making it easier to connect with others. The good news? All three of those points are addressable by ski areas.

Am I Invited to the Party?

In the follow-up interviews, teen girls pointed to several examples of how resorts ignore them. Take pictures, for example. Resort brochures and websites have lots of pictures: happy families, kids in ski school, older folks trying to act like kids, hardcore guys ripping it up…but rarely any pictures of teen girls.

We wondered if this was perception or reality. After combing through a number of resort websites, we found two teen boy pictures for every teen girl picture. Many sites lacked even a single picture of a teen girl. There is an easy fix for this: Shoot more pictures of teenage girls for the website! The beauty of this tactic is that not only can it help resorts become more relevant to teen girls, photos of teen girls makes the resort more relevant to teen guys.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside!

Many of the girls also said that resorts don’t provide them with the places they need to be comfortable. This isn’t about having a teen center, though—it’s about being warm. There’s a physiological driver for this: Due to lower basal metabolism and less body mass, women are simply more likely to get cold than men. You might suggest that covering bare midriffs would help, but 16 has always been a slave to fashion at the expense of comfort. The end result? Teen girls are looking for a comfortable space at a mountain to warm up—one that isn’t overrun with little kids or parents.

One memorable example was the old diner car that the U.S. Open had at one time dropped by the pipe at Stratton. A simpler example comes from Okemo, where the teen magnet has morphed from what was the former Mushroom Garden teen center to the Vermont Pizza Co. in the lower level of an on-mountain lodge. According to Okemo PR director Bonnie MacPherson, “It’s where the cool race kids hang out for lunch, which makes it especially appealing for teen girls.” Cool kids, cheap food and a location at the foot of two terrain parks ended up as the combination that works for Okemo’s teen girls.

It isn’t necessary to build a teen center to create a space for teens, but if you do, one of the best examples of doing it right in a related world is “The Ramp” at Club Med Punta Cana. Mark Wiser of the Wiser Marketing Group (and the former Club Med VP of marketing during that build out) flagged a few key steps: First, they took great effort to learn about their target with in-depth research. From that, they realized that what teens consider important was a far cry from what Club Med had been planning.

The research showed Club Med that teens have an intense desire for privacy combined with a need to develop their own public persona. “It’s a constant struggle between wanting to be seen and wanting to hide out,” says Wiser. “They wanted a place to hang out where they could meet other teens, but they don’t want a room with video games and a sign out front that says ‘Teen Center’—especially not one located in a major traffic area with parents walking back and forth right outside the door. Video games were something for home, not vacation. They were most interested in having an opportunity to communicate and socialize.”

In response to these preferences, Club Med designed The Ramp with a skateboard ramp, specific places like hammocks to simply hang, telescopes for stargazing (or scoping out other guests), and retro-hip analog devices such as a jukebox. And they nailed it.

Was Cindi Lauper Right?

A third thing that teen girls found missing at ski resorts: other girls. After all, these are people who prefer to travel to the bathroom in teams of six. Similarly, they will often be a lot more comfortable if they have the chance to ski or ride in a group. While half of the teen girls in our survey started the sport with their families, the other half started with friends. And two-thirds of them say that they and their friends want to ski or ride together even more frequently.

And where do they want to spend that time? They dearly wish they could spend more time in the parks and pipes. But parks and pipes can be intimidating. The barrier to greater participation by teen girls is a sense that those are intimidating environments flooded with what one girl described as the “macho aggressive jumping thing.” Not that the girls are shying away from pushing themselves and having fun. It’s just that, like most teens (only more so, if possible), they are deathly afraid of looking foolish in front of their peers.

What can resorts do? Create opportunities for teen girls to learn how to rip in a park or pipe with other girls in a non-threatening and non-embarrassing atmosphere, the girls said. That could be through special clinics, or through park ambassadors who are tuned into girls who want to take their first steps. Beginner parks are perfect venues, with their park features that the testosterone-driven guys might avoid but that will help the girls make the leap. But really, they will respond to anything that helps them join the fun and that creates the critical mass of participation to make teen girls feel socially safe at a ski resort.

There are a number of resorts offering teen programs or women’s programs, but hardly any focused on teen girls. Bogus Basin, Idaho, is one exception. The area is expanding its successful Xtreme Team children’s freeride program by offering GirlZone, a six-week program for intermediate to advanced teen girls interested in freeriding and terrain parks. Leading the program is Melanie Simboli, the gold medalist in aerials at the 1988 Olympics.

“Some girls are too self-conscious to try something new or go outside of their comfort zone around guys,” says Bogus Basin marketing director Jenifer Johnson. “The goal is to provide an opportunity for those girls to improve their freeriding skills just like the guys, in a positive and supportive all-female group.”

And They Told Two Friends…

The bad news first: Over time, audience attention to various forms of media has become more and more fragmented and distracted, and this is especially true for younger generations. The typical 45-year-old might alternate between glances at newspaper headlines and the “Today Show,” which passes for simultaneous media usage.

Their teen daughters, though, are likely to be chatting on a cell with one friend, IM’ing four others about a homework assignment, watching Laguna Beach, downloading JoJo for their iPods, and updating their weekend plans on Facebook while using it to stalk a cute guy—all at the same time.

The good news? At least you know how teen girls get their information. They rely on word of mouth more than any other group. Their world is no longer about mass media. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who observes their behaviors, but we have confirmed that through other research we’ve fielded.

One of the more interesting efforts to leverage word-of-mouth marketing is Whistler/Blackcomb’s “If Ullr Was a Girl” contest—the search for the ultimate mountain babe. It’s a brilliantly designed promotion in which people are encouraged to nominate Ullr Girls for a competition at Whistler. The candidates encourage friends to visit the website and vote for them. This helps Whistler/Blackcomb build a reputation as the dream destination for young women who don’t settle for just corduroy.

“We limited our use of traditional media,” says Meredith Armstrong, manager of brand and destination marketing at Whistler/Blackcomb. “We’ve really relied on the campaign to spread virally over the Internet and through word of mouth to our core market.” And how has it panned out? Before the start of the season, the contest already had generated 6,000 registrations and 250 contestants online.

But take a look beyond the mechanics of Whistler’s Ullr Girl word-of-mouth campaign. The personal profiles posted at offer insight into how the most popular young women on your mountain are different from the guys:

“For the past 4 years I've been coaching girls how to ride the park. No, I don't work at a ski resort. I do this for fun. I love seeing the girls stomp crrazzy sh*t!”

“An amazing on-line gathering of incredible shredders...Hopefully we get to ski together!”

It’s what sociologists, linguists, and directors of women’s ski programs have been saying for years: Boys are more likely to compete, girls are more likely to cooperate. And there’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of that tendency to get teen girls to share the sport with others. After all, if ski resorts can close the gap between teen boys and girls, that’s a lot more incremental skier days to harvest than from any other demographic target.

Sally Johnstone is a senior consultant and James Chung is president of Reach Advisors, a marketing strategy and research firm that serves the ski resort and resort development fields. For more information, call (617) 489-6180 or e-mail

The findings for this article are based in part on a survey of 10,400 skiers and riders conducted in May 2006 by Reach Advisors, plus follow-up interviews with 250 of those respondents. Copies of the research are available by e-mailing