To paraphrase comedian Stephen Colbert, "Snowsports industry, you're on notice." You've been warned that most first-wave Baby Boomers will largely exit the sport during the coming decade. You've been advised that, to combat the ensuing potentially steep drop-off in snowsports participation, bringing in and retaining newcomers must become a top priority.
Yet for the industry as a whole, success stories in trial and retention remain elusive. The retention rate industrywide is about 16 percent, up only marginally since NSAA's Growth Model was introduced nearly seven years ago. During the spectacular 2007-08 season there was an overall decrease, compared to the prior season, in the number of beginner lessons taught.
Still, some ski areas are attracting boatloads of beginners and retaining them until they're happily hooked. Here's a look at how some of these resorts succeed.
As one of the closest ski areas to Denver (1 hour on I-70), Loveland draws lots of ever-evers. "This is the place to learn to ski and ride," says Tracy Allred, ski school director for the last eight years. Allred estimates the mountain gives 24,000 lessons per season, almost 85 percent of them to entry-level adults and kids.
Loveland has done an admirable job retaining these first-timers as well. In 2004, the area's beginner retention rate was over 60 percent, which earned it an NSAA award for being a smaller ski area with the best program for skier retention.
The area's retention success story is due, in part, to its popular "three-class pass" program, which was implemented around six years ago. "We figure if we can get them up there for three lessons, they can play and have fun with blue terrain," says Allred. "We feel we can turn them into lifelong skiers and riders."
That, and inexpensive passes. Any adult newcomer who completes three lessons receives a free season pass. Last season, the introductory lesson cost $72, and the second and third lessons ran $87 each, so successful graduates of the program could land a season pass for a mere $246-a $113 savings off the regular season pass rate of $359.
Other ski areas have followed suit, but Loveland was among the first to start a free-pass program for first-timers. It works, too: every year, the number of passes issued increases.
Loveland recently expanded the program to include intermediates, "to help grow that end of the business as well," says Allred. The idea is to help newcomers progress in the sport at Loveland, and not leak away to the area's bigger neighbors. "Bigger mountains do call to skiers," Allred says. "We want to tie our guests into Loveland as a place they can grow into."
Another strength at Loveland: the convenience of having all beginner services located in one building. The ski area also offers beginners the option of adding on a second 2 1/2-hour lesson at half price after completing the first one.
"Our most important goal for first-timers is to show them an experience that will make them come again and again," says Allred. "We try to make it as easy and stress-free as possible, not complicate an already busy day."
MAPLE SKI RIDGE
With only 400 vertical feet, six runs, an old double and triple chair, rope and handle tow, Maple Ski Ridge, N.Y., is a small mountain sandwiched between major players like Hunter, Gore, and Whiteface. But the area, just outside Albany, has always made creating new skiers a priority. In fact, since it opened with a single rope tow in 1967, the ski area's survival has depended on it.
"We expect our customers to move on," says general manager Marilyn Peterson. "Our goal is to get as many new skiers in as possible." This is no small task for a family-owned business founded by her father and run by four female family members-Marilyn, sister Carolyn, and cousins Karen and Kate.
Also unique is that fact that the ski area and its Schenectady Ski School are owned and operated by two different families. "We have operated on a handshake since 1967. We don't even have a contract," says Christina Anderson, who co-owns and operates the ski school with Frederica Anderson, her 87-year-old mother (who has taught lessons at the ski area since it opened 41 years ago).
The ski area is thriving, teaching approximately 1,400 beginner lessons a week-up to 10 percent of which are for adults-and boasting an 80 percent return rate. "For a dinky area run by women, that's a lot," says Anderson. "A large percentage of the population in Albany, Schenectady, and Troy start their snowsports experience with us," Anderson says, "because of a) our accessibility and b) the terrain is perfect for beginner and intermediate learning. You can see the entire area from the lodge. It's tiny."
To ensure high retention rates, the ski area offers a single choice:?a seven-week-long weekend learn-to program. "We're successful because once people sign up for seven weeks of programs, they're in it for the money and are going to continue with it," says Anderson. The only way to get a single lesson is to reserve a private one in advance.
Students in the seven-week program meet each weekend for their one-and-a-half hour session, always with the same instructor and in the same time slot. "They bond with the group. They're all in the same boat," says Anderson.
She says one of her greatest challenges is the inevitable "big split" in students' abilities following the first lesson. "Three still can't walk, two can't run, one's still in the middle," says Anderson. "The slower people get panicky, and embarrassed because they're holding the group up. This is where people get lost."
To address this split, Anderson adds instructors and reshuffles the groups based on ability. "The 32-year-old mom of twins won't be in the same shape as her younger brother who's a roller-blader. For her to have a great time, she has to be treated differently," she says. "This is where mom [Frederica] and I come in and work with the slower ones. We help get people up to speed, so they can matriculate back into the group. There's a constant flow within the groups. That's a key to retention.
"This is why our retention rate is so high," says Anderson. "We give them so much more personal attention, because we know we've got them for seven weeks. It all boils down to meeting people's needs."
Anderson always advises hesitant beginners to give the sport "three honest tries" before giving up. After that, if they still don't like it, she'll refund the balance of their lessons. "I want them to be happy," she says.
Gunstock Mountain Resort, N.H., one and a half hours from Boston, gets a lot of first-timers in its Mountain Magic program. The retention rate is big, too: 30 percent. "For a learn-to-ski-or-ride program, that's huge," notes Bill Quigley, director of marketing.
What's Gunstock's secret recipe for retention success? It incents customers-financially and otherwise-to return three times. At sign up, they have the option of purchasing either a one-day program for $90 (including lift, a two-hour lesson, and rental), or a three-day program for $180, good anytime during the season. Customers who opt for the one-day lesson are encouraged to upgrade to three days for an additional $90. Quigley says the buy-one-get-one-free aspect of the multi-day deal is a big draw for customers-and a key to retention. "If we get them back for a third time, that's when we think we've really begun to retain a customer," he says.
After completing the third day, Mountain Magic grads receive a "Magic Card" that entitles them to a slew of discounts for the remainder of the season: 50 percent off lessons and rentals; $15 off any helmet; 20 percent off skiwear; and a choice of either a) 50 percent off day or night lift tickets or b) a season pass for only $145, the preseason price (11 percent of all beginners took this option). "People can go from being a never-ever to a season passholder," says Quigley. "What's more fun than going out and practicing what you just learned?"
Another key to success:?Gunstock begins to treat its newbies well before they even arrive. A comprehensive website preps first-timers for their virgin trip to the mountain: what to wear, what to bring, what to eat and drink, where to go upon arrival, even where the bathrooms are located. The website also provides a front-of-the-line pass in the rental shop.
The perks don't stop there. On the hill, at the Mountain Magic meeting place, instructors hand sliders a free ski or board check, so they can easily find their gear. Otherwise, "beginners put their skis in one of 40 racks in front of the base lodge and they can't find them," says Quigley.
No first-timer program will succeed unless the lessons themselves are first-rate. To that end, he says, the ski school seeks out instructors "who show patience, passion, a caring attitude. Someone whose biggest thrill is watching somebody take a turn for the first time." Two-hour lessons are offered all day long, on-demand, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The 1-to-6 teacher to student ratio is on the smaller side. Also, the rental fleet is frequently upgraded, including a recent $40,000 investment.
Gunstock markets the Mountain Magic program widely, from the website to ski shows to a weekly "outreach program" (fliers toted home by thousands of school kids). On mountain, the ad campaign continues, on everything from buttons worn by parking-lot staffers to on-snow banners to stickers strategically stuck on base lodge windows. Quigley ensures that every last staffer is on board with the program, from guest services to rentals. "Mountain Magic people are part of our everyday life," he says.
His parting advice: "Be passionate. People arrive with their fun dollars. We think we're respectful of their issues and we make it easy for them. In our belief, there's really no other way to learn than Mountain Magic." Passion, indeed.