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November 2014

The Business of Parks

While it's easy to focus on the fun factor and on-snow experience, terrain parks have to fit into a resort's overall business plan.

Written by Rick Kahl | 0 comment

Terrain parks have become a major feature and business driver for many resorts. And as such, they need to be an integral part of a resort’s overall business plan. That means management needs to know as much about the park as it does about the rest of the terrain. Making sure they do is the responsibility of the terrain park managers.

And that all starts with good planning. An overall business plan first addresses the company’s goals, and then, how the park fits into that. The plan determines how the park design/feature mix changes or evolves, and that determines how/where money should be spent.

Inevitably, park managers have to translate park operations into business terms. They have to describe, and to the greatest extent possible, quantify the financial benefits and costs of parks so that the financial wizards can make wise decisions. -To come up with a business plan, you have to show what the cost is, what the return is. Terrain park managers have to learn to speak the language, know how to put things in terms that the management team can understand,” says Ken Gaitor, ski operations director for Snowshoe, W.V., and longtime Cutter’s Camp instructor.

Developing a terrain park business plan starts with the management group: the GM, mountain manager, ski patrol, and marketing. “Get them involved, and talk about goals,” says Clayton Shoemaker, park manager for Bear Mountain and Snow Summit, Calif., and an instructor at SAM’s Cutter’s Camp West. “They may not ignore the park, but may not understand the full importance of it, either. It’s the terrain park manager’s job to make them understand.”

It’s essential they understand, too. “The coordination between all the departments involved is probably the most important part of the equation,” says Gaitor. “Those planning meetings are important for having a shared vision across business units.” Often, the operations departments all report to the same manager, which makes coordination relatively easy. Marketing, which typically has a different reporting structure, may be another story.

It’s important, too, for the terrain park manager and crew to understand how they figure into the resort’s overall business plan. “A terrain park business plan should be created knowing what the managers want from the terrain park and what the company can do for you,” says Shoemaker. “You have to know what’s realistic for your resort. Then you can meet it.”
Your plan, he adds, “creates a guideline to follow for the whole season, and the park crew knows what the overall plan is for the park. It’s a great compass and guide, keeps everyone on task, gives them goals each year.” The plan helps ensure the park has the right features and ability levels for the audience.

Shoemaker adds that safety and risk management issues, too, are part of the plan. That means working with the patrol director to make all aspects of the parks as safe as possible.
Shoemaker suggests park managers keep a few key goals in mind as they craft business plans:

• How are you helping to grow the sport and sell tickets?

• How do you keep people coming back, and getting psyched?

• How are you keeping people safe?


The overall aims at Bear Mountain/Snow Summit guide Shoemaker’s park planning. “When I write my plan, it’s aimed at beginners, retention, and growth,” he says. “The back-seated items are the photo shoots and contests, the glamor stuff aimed at the young people.”

The plan is also developed to suit the dreams and desires of the clientele. “We see lots of interest in the park, a wider range of riders,” Shoemaker says. “Last year, we brought a lot more people into the park through terrain-based learning. So we try to build different levels, with ladders so that people can move from one level to the next.

“For example, we have added a skill builder park. It’s sort of between a terrain park and a teaching area in ability level. The features are not as small as for a Riglet park or terrain-based learning, but not quite up to the scale of the full-blown parks, either.

“We’re trying to make sure we’re catering to everyone in the park. We only have so many resources to spend. The plan makes sure that the market is being served. It reminds our staff what they need to be concerned about.”

At Snowshoe, the terrain park plan also reflects the resort’s overall vision. “We’re not the first or the last mountain people go to,” says Gaitor. “We might pick them up on their fifth time out, then hold them for years. Eventually, the hard core will move on to the West or up to New England.

“We have to look at it so that people have fun the first time they are here. That first time is key to us, so were looking for those good entry-level features, with small increments up the ladder.

“But we also need to keep them from feeling stale in the park. So we have one premier park, for high-end riders, with lots of steps leading to that.”

And that brings up another key point: parks have to progress in step with the guests. “When I started here, I thought there was more potential in the park area,” Gaitor says. “The riding level was not very high. But we have to provide those steps to build that rider base; you build your own clientele. We’ll always have a large offering of small stuff, but the bigger features will expand—as our customers’ ability expands.”


Assembling a resort’s business plan can be a difficult process. Resources are scarce, and allocating them involves tough choices. Park managers can help make the choices easier by measuring the impact of the parks, to the extent that’s possible.

What measurements matter? “On-mountain surveys, head counts, Net Promoter Scores, all that is valid info,” Gaitor says. Terrain park guests often talk among themselves, and are not so great at talking to the resort, he notes, so find ways to get your non-vocal majority heard.

Still, “how the parks contribute to overall growth is hard to define,” Gaitor acknowledges. “But aside from our beginner trail, the small/medium park is the second-busiest place on the mountain. So we continue to try to develop more of that size and level of park.

“The hard part to understand, from a market share standpoint, is that not everyone goes into the park. But it influences even those who don’t go in the park. Their friends/kids might use it, or they may be looking toward that. That influence on visits is very hard to measure.”

But it has to be estimated, at least, because that helps the resort set priorities for grooming and snowmaking. It’s important for park managers to explain what all that investment in snow and grooming buys.

For example, it would seem logical for larger, higher-level parks to require more snow and grooming. But, says Gaitor, higher traffic means small parks need more maintenance than it might seem at first glance. “They are getting so much use, you may need to rebuild them every night. In a small park, the line can become a trench, and that has to be groomed more often.

“And smaller parks are harder to work with. With a smaller feature, a small inconsistency is a bigger deal than in a big park. You have to take that into account.”

Again, while it’s obvious that larger features require a lot of snow, smaller parks also need a substantial base so frequent grooming doesn’t take the snow base down to dirt. With Snowshoe’s southerly location and freeze-thaw cycles, the area targets six to eight feet of snow in both large and small parks. “It’s similar snow usage,” Gaitor says.


Of course, all that costs money. That’s what makes the terrain park business plan so useful: everyone in management has to understand the value the park creates, and therefore the value of investing in the park—both in operations and in features.

The overall park budget addresses several elements:

• park design and construction

• daily and nightly operations

• staffing needs

• equipment resources, such as snowmaking, groomers, park tools, signage, and fencing

• risk management

• summer maintenance and feature manufacture

• capital projects

Data helps set the budget, giving managers confidence that they are allocating resources effectively. “Show how many people are using the park, compare how much it costs to maintain a trail vs. the park,” says Gaitor. “Are the resources being spent where people are active? That’s the sort of numberspeak you have to learn.”

While numbers help, it’s impossible to specifically quantify the value of the park. So, how do you make decisions? “It all goes back to the overall resort goals,” Gaitor says. “What does the park need in order to meet the goal, in terms of the number and type of parks and features?” The answers help set the budget.

Once the budget is set, figure out how to make the most of it. “Work backward from what you want to have,” suggests Gaitor. “Can you repurpose old features? We compare budgets to previous years; if we can’t increase it, we have to reallocate resources or reuse them.”

Budgets are always tight, and you can’t always get what you want. But if you can show, in dollars and cents, how investments in the park will impact the bottom line, you can get what you need.