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September 2013

In the Bag

Air bags are providing year-round entertainment at resorts. Are they right for you?

Written by Moira McCarthy | 0 comment

First they were a competition tool: a new and better way to land while learning new tricks. Then they were a novelty: a cool special event resorts would bring in and promote for a weekend or so. But air bags—the big, giant landing pads that allow everyone to fly high and throw big tricks like the bad boys and girls—are becoming more and more popular with guests themselves.

More often, that giant bag is present at a resort, like a colorful dot on the bottom of the exclamation point on the words (new) participation, (exciting) programs and (added) profit.

“Man has always wanted to fly. It’s the landing that’s been the challenge,” says Rick Hodge, U.S. distributor for Big Air Bag. “Johnny from Jersey wants to go big, too, and now he can.”

Air bags were first developed around 2005 in Europe as a training tool for elite athletes who were, before the advent of air bags, landing in foam pits, which was not always a perfect solution (getting out can be like trying to crawl through a fish net, and bacteria can be an issue for upkeep). Around about 2008, the idea was hatched that an air bag could be used for everyday riders and skiers, particularly those who want to learn to throw tricks in the park but are not ready for it yet. Windham, N.Y., installed the first in the U.S., and right away, Hodge (who worked for Windham then) says, they knew it was going to be a success.

Bags are now, for the most part, created and sold by the “big three” here in the U.S.: Big Air Bag, Bag Jump, and US Airbag.

“It turned almost right away into an enjoyment for the consumer,” Hodge says. “It’s an amusement ride, in a sense. You don’t have to be a world-class athlete to do it. People love that.” To the point that Windham’s Big Air Bag has had over 100,000 hits since being installed in 2008.

This year, with the Winter Olympics coming, Bag Jumps (and air bags generally) are selling quickly. “This is a boom time,” says Elliott Levitt of Bag Jump. “With snowboarding, freeskiing and halfpipe all in the Olympics this winter as real sanctioned events, more and more resorts are coming on line with this. And more and more people are going to be interested.”

As resorts opt to purchase, lease, or host an air bag visit, different uses are popping up (summer and fall season, anyone?), and it’s becoming more vital that resorts are careful about installation, oversight and all aspects of safety.

While the bags are popular for terrain park lovers who want to build their way up to a trick in the park with a safe landing as they learn, so, too, are they popular with those who simply seek a thrill.

Resorts have profited on that, charging per-jump fees, multiple-jump fees and even, in some cases, selling season jumping passes. This, resort folks say, has opened up an entirely new stream of welcome revenue. And with the average air bag costing about $22,000, its not long before you cover your cost and reap the profit.

“There are not many summer activities that you can get into in the $15,000 to $30,000 ballpark,” says Levitt. “This is one. Bag jumps are actually a great category for summer. It’s easy to get into, and can even be the start of a resort’s summer programming plan. Food and beverage can build around it.”

Air bags are a winter hit as well. David Morin of Granite Gorge Ski Area, N.H., says the area introduced the bag as a way to attract more younger skiers and riders wanting to learn tricks, and got a surprise: everyone wanted to jump.

“We do a lot of freestyle here, and we wanted to allow for progression,” he says. “We knew that would appeal to the freestyle kids. But the funny thing was, we saw a lot of older people trying jumps, too, and people who had never jumped before. There was a lot of interest.”

Granite Gorge was also able to add to profits from the bag by inviting other freestyle programs, such as the one from nearby Mount Sunapee, to come and train at their hill.
That, of course, led to more use of their cafeteria and other amenities, and more exposure for their hill.

“It is its own separate entity, really,” Morin says. “When it comes to a ski area, it’s just so well-rounded as an offering. There are so many ways you use it. If you are going to think outside of the box, you’re going to find some great ways to profit from it.”

At Shawnee Peak, Maine, employees experimenting on the air bag during off-hours staff meetings led to just that kind of paydirt: Tubing into their Big Air Bag has become not just a commodity, but an integral part of the resort as a whole.

“We were monkeying around with the bag after closing one night, thinking about what we can do with it, when one of our employees suggested trying tubing onto it,” says Rachael Wilkinson, director of marketing at Shawnee. “Right away, it just seemed like so much fun.”

So the resort staff worked on learning how to build just the right grooves (the size of the tubes themselves), just the right ramp for air, and then they went with it. They offered their guests the chance to tube onto the bag, and wondered how well the concept would, um, take off.

It soared. “Tubing is our most popular air bag use by far,” Wilkinson says. “It’s been very successful financially. In fact, the bag has paid for itself in the first year.”

Part of the appeal, she believes, is the accessibility; as in: really, anyone can do this. “It really does take a lot to throw yourself off an eight-foot kicker on skis or a board,” she says. “Tubing is just more accessible. It takes less guts to do it, but you still get all the glory.”

“Extreme Tubing,” as they call it, has now become a Shawnee staple, an activity that draws guests to the mountain who would not otherwise come. The resort sells air bag-only tickets at 4 hits for $12, or $15 for unlimited hits, and tickets sell strongly each night the area is open. They also sold sponsorship on their bag to AMP, increasing revenue in a simple way. Now, during extreme tubing time, their base area and restaurants are alive with those who tube and those who watch it all. “It’s a program that’s here to stay,” she says.

Levitt calls this kind of activity, as well as things like drops into bags in the summer, a “low skill, high thrill” activity. More and more, he says, resorts are offering this sort of adventure multi-season.

How to make it work? Start out simply, says Hodge, and grow from there. That’s what Windham did.

“They basically took the air bag out of mothballs in the back of the lodge, set up a back porch jump area, and had people jumping into the bag at $3 a jump or $5 for two. They had people lined up waiting for an hour and a half to do it,” he says. Windham now has a wooden plank system with varied heights to jump from for the summer jumping. And it continues to be a draw.

Attitash Mountain, N.H., is building a similar setup, as are other resorts. Some, like Kissing Bridge, N.Y., use it to amp people up for their winter season. Last fall the area set it up during its Octoberfest and sold jumps into it, promoting the area’s winter air bag program at the same time. Kissing Ridge also had its bag customized to look like a can of Red Bull, for a sponsorship price.

Recently, resorts have been looking at summer usage and even things like biking into a bag.

And such uses have a wide appeal: “free falls” into a bag set up by bag leasing company US Air Bag at a trade show in Las Vegas this past spring attracted a surprising age range. “Kids, parents, grandparents, even an 81-year-old man jumped into it,” says Rufus Casey, CEO of US Air Bag. “We expect, in time, resorts to be even more excited about the use of these in the summer than the winter.”

Of course, there are cases of resorts deciding the expanded use is just not for them. Boreal, an early air-bag adopter, started out with a plan to increase revenue by selling jumps to the public. But according to former Boreal president and CEO Jody Churich, now SVP and COO of parent company Powdr Corp’s Woodward freestyle program, the area changed its mind quickly and limited their use.

“It is now very heavily positioned as a progression tool, and less of a revenue model,” she says. “Having these assets in this way is so important to the future of our sport. We are using them to help build skiers and riders and competitors. To us, that’s a great use.”

Churich says Boreal realized that for a smaller hill, the staffing, oversight and maintenance involved were just too much. And with Woodward’s focus on building great competitors, it works well for that purpose. “It’s not just a huck fest,” she says. “It’s about learning how to use it properly.”

Still, many uses are coming on line as resorts get creative.

Casey’s company, which sells licenses for bags, focuses on something more than profit first. By creating a program that builds, installs and gets the bag up and running, they hope to create a system that will be similar for guests who try them at any resort, and helps resorts keep things safe.

“With this model, our intention is to shift the (resort) focus from revenue to safety first,” he says. Because, like any newer resort program, safety must be watched carefully.

Mark Petrozzi, owner of AlpenRisk Safety LLC, has studied air bags at resorts and has suggestions on how to keep them safe. First and foremost, he says, just as with terrain parks, resorts have to “belly up to the fact that people are going to use [the bags] to get air,” and that in itself entails risk. But there is much they can do, he says, such as:

• testing and retesting. He suggests having all type of bodies—small, large, young and old—test the bag in a controlled setting to be sure everything is properly set up to handle a wide range of body types. Make sure, he says, the landing area is in the “sweet spot” so folks land on the soft center of the bag.

• signage: Have signs at the entrance and exit so people are told, point blank, that they are about to do something a bit different from anything they may have experienced before.

• Have all users sign a release. Not only does it give you some protection, he says, it’s a chance to educate the guest once more on usage and safety, so long as you can get them to read the form.

• Build your ramp and set up the bag according to the bag company’s instructions. Sometimes, he says, insurance companies are willing to come in and check over everything for you as well. Use these assets to make sure it is safe.

• Secure it at the end of the day, to prevent unauthorized and unsupervised use. Fencing, he says, is a good idea.

Wilkinson says that at Shawnee, they are careful to the nth degree on safety with their new revenue center. “Big Air Bag’s specs are great, and we follow them to a T,” she says. “This is not something you can just put up and walk away from. You really have to be vigilant. And sometimes, even when there is a crowd there, if the climate is not right, you have to just shut it down and walk away. Safety always comes first.”

Air bags are here, and are going to be in use more often. Year round, guests—and revenue—will be going bigger than ever.