This past season Jay Peak Resort, Vt., made a giant step forward in revitalizing the learning experience by introducing terrain-based teaching. We did so for a simple reason: it creates less fear and more fun for beginners. But change can be hard on some in the organization, and it’s important to get everyone on board.
People go to resorts to ski and snowboard and to have a good time doing so. The number one inhibitor of this is fear: beginners in or out of lessons are nervous. We say: “I want you to point your equipment slightly downhill, pressure the edge, then turn and stop.” They think (and sometimes say): “I’m going to go straight down the hill, not be able to turn or stop, and then hit that child (fence, building, snowgun…).”
By sculpting learning terrain that slows people down, helps them turn, and eases them to a stop, we can remove these potential consequences. Suddenly, students can focus on the task at hand rather than their fear of what could happen. This focusing leads to the feeling of success, which leads to fun, and in turn results in a fantastic experience. When you stop using a traditional learning slope, everything changes.
For our terrain-based program, we built two mini-halfpipes (across the fall line), banked turns, catchers’ mitts, and rollers. In addition, we filled our small terrain park with features the whole family could enjoy. We built a four-foot halfpipe, a large gentle spine, sets of rollers, and several small boxes.
Building all of this terrain has made a huge difference for the guests at Jay Peak, but it could not have been accomplished without buy-in from many key staff at the resort.
And it starts at the top. Altering teaching terrain takes a lot of work and a lot of resources. The senior management team at the resort knows that sculpting terrain to enhance the learning process is valuable to our guests and to our resort.
But this change takes commitment. For example, building the teaching terrain meant making more snow in the learning areas. That was a challenge, since Jay has a small snowmaking system and a fleet of just five snowcats. We devoted many early season days with good temperatures to our two teaching areas, taking snow away from the main trail system. Further, during the season, the added terrain took a cat away during the prime grooming hours; otherwise, we had to close the terrain down to groom it during the day. All this work would have never happened without the full support of Dave Heath, our director of grooming and snowmaking. Fortunately, he believes in, understands, and is excited about the changes we are bringing to teaching snow sports.
Terrain-based teaching also requires well-built and expertly maintained terrain. We had the initial build help of Snow Park Technologies, and we ensured continued quality by bringing Nate Burnor to our staff as the terrain park manager. On top of building and maintaining the three terrain parks, Nate also made sure the learning terrain was always in top condition.
Nate’s 17 years of experience in terrain parks at five different resorts proved invaluable. He was able to take ideas from my scribbled thoughts on scraps of paper to reality on snow in the course of a few hours. The fact that he had not created some of these features before never stopped him, and the results unfailingly blew away our expectations and delighted the guests. Having a park builder that is willing and able to build super small features outside of the park is vital to reinventing the beginner experience.
With management on board, a stellar snowmaking and grooming team in place, and a skilled terrain builder, the only remaining group to corral were the instructors.
THE HARD SELL: TEACHERS
I would be lying if I said it was easy to get all the instructors to buy in. Many have devoted decades to honing their craft, and have worked hard at perfecting their system of teaching. So it is understandable that some might be uncomfortable with trying something different and foreign.
This was the hardest sell, because when you have terrain that helps people turn and stop, you no longer have to teach the turning-based progression instructors are familiar with. Terrain-based teaching allows instead for a movement-based progression, where the instructor can focus on proper body movements. On a typical groomed slope, a person must learn to turn and to stop in order for them to feel in control. The unfortunate side effect of this type of teaching is defensive tactics, and new students learn to fear the fall line. But if the terrain is helping with the tasks of turning, slowing, and stopping, then the student can focus on attacking the fall line and can more freely enjoy the sensation of sliding on snow, without fear.
While this sounds simple and great on paper, seasoned instructors may feel that what is really being said is, “What you have been doing for years is wrong.”
Getting the ski and snowboard school on board involved convincing the staff that we were not negating the progression they had spent years learning—we were simply modifying it to suit the new teaching terrain. The bag of tricks that instructors have spent years gathering will all still work, the new terrain simply allows everyone to focus more on fun than speed control.
Top instructors know how to use terrain to help teach their students. They often have certain spots that they use to teach a person to turn left or right, or places where they know learning to stop is easier or more intuitive. Terrain-based learning creates more of these spots, and makes them more readily available.
Changing a resort’s learning terrain and teaching style can be difficult and time-consuming. But after doing this for two seasons at two different resorts, I can honestly say that once you get the staff teaching on this terrain, the difference is delightfully obvious. I have had some of the best instructors I know come up to me at the end of both seasons and say that this was the best season they’ve ever had teaching skiing or snowboarding.
NO PAIN, NO GAIN
As clichéd as it sounds, terrain-based teaching is game-changing. The most powerful thing I witness time and time again are the smiles on the faces of the people on the terrain. And through this fun they are learning how to ski and ride without even trying. It is a common occurrence for students to no longer just want to get on a chairlift. They stay and play on the learning terrain, and walk away happy and feeling like they accomplished something, and that translates to a repeat customer.
Did we experience nothing but success at Jay Peak this season? No. Not even close. There is so much more to figure out. You can’t just reshape your learning terrain and expect all the benefits. You need to reinvent the whole process, from lesson products to the progression. You need the whole team on board to tackle the challenge. But terrain-based teaching has launched our guest and employee experience in a whole new direction. It’s worth the effort.