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January 2010

Fearless Predictions

When we entered the new millennium, we asked a few experts to predict the future. Here we revisit these experts for an update.

Written by Moira McCarthy | 0 comment

Indoor slopes to keep us sliding even when nature isn’t in the mood. Giant “ski circuses” like those in Europe that connect resorts to one another in a massive way. Affordable and delightful employee communities that allow resort workers to live in the environment they love to work in. Lower-priced lift tickets. It’s all part of our industry’s future.

At least that’s how industry leaders saw it a decade ago, or even as recently as five years ago, when we last sought predictions for the future. So maybe it didn’t quite turn out as many of us expected (not yet, at least). Employees still struggle with how to live in their ski towns. Skiers and riders drive millions of collective miles between resorts. The economy played a funny little trick on many of our plans. Lift ticket prices? Well, they remain a work in progress.

But it’s 2010, and as we humans seem inclined to do on these round-number years, it’s time to look ahead again. We called on several industry leaders of the future—many of them our own SAMMY Future Leadership honorees—to use their 20-20 vision to look forward to 2020. They were forthcoming and more than a little brave in their willingness to project some trends and go on record, so that in another 10 years we can laugh with them about how this round of predictions pans out.

What’s in our future? Recurring themes—from the past and the present—include the need to make our sports easier to access (both on the slopes and to the slopes), more comfortable, a bit more affordable and, yes, even more fun.

Five years ago, Ecosign Mountain Planners president Paul Mathews predicted that we’d see the building of “ski circuses” here in North America, meaning resorts that have a bit of distance between them (and some competition between them) would team up to create simple methods of transportation and connected runs that will unify them in the eyes of the guest. He foresaw a Utah interconnect that would link seven resorts, as well as lifts connecting Mammoth and June in California, and joining Vail, Copper and even Breckenridge. “Before you realize it,” he said, “North America will have at least a couple of ski circuses that rival Europe’s.”

Today, he says, his prediction still holds true. He points to the Whistler/ Blackcomb connection that whisks visitors from one to another in 11 minutes. “If that’s not a connection, I don’t know what is, and it has completely changed the way we ski the mountain,” he says.

In addition, the recently vetted master plan for The Canyons in Utah has “forced (the industry’s) hand” when it comes to such plans. “So I would say it’s underway. The idea has not laid dormant at all.”

This idea is important, he says, because it not only forces resorts to think in terms of marketing jointly, but addresses the environment as well. According to research done by Envision Utah, he says (cue Al Gore-like theme music here), visitors there drove an estimated five million vehicle miles simply sleeping at one resort and skiing at another. In other words, not even counting the energy consumed getting there and back, the industry can do a lot to reduce our carbon footprint by teaming up a little bit. “Imagine taking four million miles off the roads just by simply adding a few lifts,” he muses.

Mathews believes we’ll be closer to this—if not at it in some cases—in the next decade. There will be detractors, he says, such as the “tiny group afraid their little powder stashes might get skied on [by paying customers].” But he points to Europe, where the idea is widely successful. “Our country is the only place I hear any negatives about the idea,” he adds. “It isn’t so complicated. You stand at one resort and can see another. You should be able to get to each of them.”

In the end, popular demand may force it. We have, he notes, “shrunk” our resorts over the past decade. With better grooming, better snowmaking, faster lifts, and equipment that favors speed, the average skier/rider can crank out more runs over more terrain quicker than in the past. “People are fine with that, but we cannot ‘shrink’ them again,” he says. Ski circuses are the answer that will keep customers satisfied into the next decade, since we skiers like to feel we’re offered an expansive experience, he says.

Resorts need to market in tandem, agrees Guy Desrosiers, general manager of Mont-Sainte-Anne/Stoneham in Québec. A decade ago, he voiced a hopeful dream: “We have to finally accept that we are in competition with other recreational sectors and not with ourselves.” We still need some work on that, he admits.

How far have we come? “Not far enough would be the reality,” he says. “We still see a large amount of our investments in market-share stealing instead of promoting a way of life. We are not creating newcomers.” He points to price wars between resorts in his region, and to the industry’s failure to focus on the beauty of skiing and instead on improvements like lifts. While great lifts make life better, he admits, it’s more important to turn people on to the entire experience.

“I don’t have fun on the lift, I have fun on the snow,” he says. “I have fun seeing the view, feeling the snow under me, talking with friends, laughing, sometimes falling, and if at the end of that day I have a good dinner with friends, now that’s a successful day. We absolutely need good lifts, but I ask you this: how many millions of dollars do we really need to promote them?”

“We are facing more competition for free time than ever before,” says Snowshoe, W.V., general manager Bill Rock. “There’s youth hockey, youth soccer all year round, and other sports kids take up that take the parents’ time, too. Someone, some day is going to figure out how to teach skiing in a whole new way—and I hope they are working for me when they do it.”

Learning now, he says, is simply too overwhelming and too time-consuming for newbies. And, our culture isn’t as patient as in the past. “Our culture is all about instant gratification,” says Rock. “Everyone wants to be an expert right away. What we need is a process to make (newbies) feel like they are doing it and doing it at least somewhat well right away.” He cites the popular game Guitar Hero as an example. Rather than take months and even years of lessons to know how to play a guitar, society now is happy holding a simulator that helps them pretend to really play. While skiing should not be simulated, he emphasizes, a society used to that sense of instant gratification needs to get really going on snow more quickly.

Jeff Boliba, global resort director for Burton Snowboards, could not agree more. Because snowboarding is a mere infant sport compared to skiing, teaching gurus have had to think hard about such issues in recent years. Thus, the rapid progression from no kids equipment at all to some cut-down equipment that was smaller to today’s way-more-kid-friendly gear for learning.

“Learning-specific products are critical to our success as an industry,” he declares. “We can get them out there, but if we don’t give them a great experience . . . they are going to just go on a cruise next time.”

Boliba predicts that resorts will begin to carve out more prime slope real estate for learning areas. While learning areas have traditionally been tucked away on some otherwise-not-needed slope, they will, he says, come front and center to a place where newbies feel great about where they are.

Chip Perfect, president of Perfect North Slopes and treasurer of the National Ski Areas Association, believes that to capture the next generation, we are going to have to make it more comfortable and, as Rock says, more immediately fun. “The kids in this generation are certainly used to instant gratification,” he notes.

Mathews believes this will be the case, too, saying more resorts will do what Beaver Creek has done with its Buckaroo program: give kids well-groomed snow, great (read: easy and comfortable) lifts, and good rental equipment. “The ski school will not be a big profit center, but a true survival center,” Mathews says.

Gear, especially ski boots, will become more comfortable. “I’ve given up on a ski boot that feels like a bedroom slipper. But maybe we can get one that feels like a tennis shoe?” quips Perfect.

Women will continue to get more gear designed for them. Boliba predicts that all rental shops will carry women’s rental gear—not just a spotty few. “It’s a hard sell right now and it shouldn’t be,” he says. “It is as fundamental as: if you are a shoe shop, you don’t just take men’s shoes and push women into them. We need to have the equipment women need available to them from the start.”

Speaking of which, many agree that the industry needs to do more of exactly what it said it was going to do a decade ago: focus on making women (more specifically, moms) happy. There’s been progress, but more is needed.

“Our challenge—and a key to our success—is going to be keeping the women on the hills,” says Desrosiers. “We need to find a way to ensure the participation of a pregnant woman, the new mom, the mom of more than one child. Because they are the ones who, if they enjoy it, introduce the children to the hills and keep the whole family on the hills.” That, he says, will mean even more accessible day care and kids’ learning centers than we have today.

Boliba points out that the newest generation of new parents includes some who are the first to have lived their entire lives as snowboarders. That’s no small change—and from it Boliba predicts the real possibility that in 10 years, boarders will outnumber skiers on the slopes.

“This is the first generation that has been alive as long as snowboarding has been alive,’ he says. “So in more cases, instead of the kids begging mom and dad to try boarding, the parents are going to be boarders in the first place and want to bring the kids into it. This could be a key part [of replacing aging Baby Boomers on the slopes]. One way or another, we have to get new people out there. This could be the future of our industry.”

From that point, Boliba makes another bold prediction: the U.S. will see more and more resort GMs and presidents who are true snowboarders. “The first one was promoted in Japan,” he says. “It’s going to happen here.”

Ten years ago, industry heads were flush with anticipation as to what the Internet could do for us all. Some predicted we’d pay to take “virtual runs” from our desks (shh! Don’t tell the boss you’re really skiing and not filling out those TPS reports). While that never really took off, the notion of purchasing lift tickets online is taking shape. But, in the future, even that could seem silly and old fashioned.

“The way we do ticketing is going to completely go away,” says Rock. “If you look at Europe, they are just so far ahead of us with technology. With the combination of smart phones, handhelds and GPS systems—look, you can get a boarding pass [for a plane flight] on your Blackberry now—a lift ticket is going to feel as antique as a rotary phone in a few years.”

Rock notes that some resorts in Europe are using Swatches onto which skiers and riders download runs or ski days and simply swipe them at card readers as they go. He points out that this not only will be more convenient (no more lift ticket window lines!) it will get skiers and riders up on the hill and deliver that instant gratification they so want. It also would mirror the broader culture, he says. “Everything is on-demand, self-service now. Stamps. Fed Ex. We are used to taking control of those things on our own with our technology. It will be the same for lift tickets.”

Technology will keep us on our toes as an industry, too, adds Perfect. As snowmaking and condition reports become easier to access and more up-to-the-moment, look for guests to stay on top of those things not just weekly or even daily, but run-by-run. “Picture clicking on your handheld on the lift and finding out they just finished making snow on the other side. You’ll head there,” says Perfect.

And to that, one has to wonder, who are these handheld-checking, softer-boot wearing, quick-to-the-happy-point folks? And how many of them are there? Perfect feels that in 10 years there will be less of us, not more. And that may be a good thing, he says.

“One thing we have to accept as we move forward is that we are not for everyone,” he declares. “We might just be an experience for a smaller percent of the population, but a smaller percentage that is even more committed to being able to do what we love to do.”

So, no breaking the 100 million skier-day mark? “I sort of feel like it was in the early days of snowboarding,” says Perfect. “People did it to be different. I think we will still draw those who choose to do this. But transportation issues will mean larger and more accessible resorts will thrive; others may not.”

And that brings up a major point: who will make these decisions?

“I hope that in 10 years we will be a more cohesive group of businesses,” Perfect says. “Twenty years ago, the business was dominated by independent, [cue John McCain-like music] mavericks. . .now we are becoming more professionally-run. Those kids who grew up in this industry are now sitting in the board rooms. They’ll be running us like a business and that’s going to make us better.”