Soda Springs Resort, the small mountain on California’s Donner Summit, celebrated its 80th anniversary this year. One reason for its continued vitality: Planet Kids, a unique snow-play program pioneered by the ski area more than a decade ago. The Planet Kids program helped Soda Springs to reinvent itself and start targeting an underserved demographic.
In 2004, Soda Springs was looking to reintroduce itself to the public. Management decided to focus on snow play and tap into families that were looking for a simple winter experience in the mountains. With an emphasis on affordability, accessibility, and fun, the program was born.
The area’s location helps make the program successful. Heading east on I-80 from the Bay Area, Soda Springs represents one of the first chances to pull off the highway and access snow. Planet Kids has used this accessibility to become a family destination.
“We introduced snow tubing first, and the popularity was quickly evident,” says Soda Springs general manager Amy Ohran. “Soda Springs’ proximity to the major population centers of Sacramento, San Francisco, and San Jose brings a lot of urban and multi-cultural families. The expansion into Planet Kids was developed as a result of high volumes of families with young children looking for an organized and affordable snow-based experience that they could participate in as a family.”
Year one started with just a couple hundred kids, some mini tubes, and a few small “snow volcanoes.” Ohran says that the ensuing expansion was very organic. The program and the facilities grew a bit each year, and at the end of the program’s third season, Planet Kids had hosted 9,000 participants. Planet Kids saw 16,000 participants aged 8 and under last season, excluding adults, and it now accounts for 30 percent of total visitation at Soda Springs.
The concept is refreshingly uncomplicated. It provides a nontraditional introduction to the mountain experience through snow play that engages kids 8 and under along with their parents. Planet Kids is best described as a playground that features tubing, ski and snowboard learning areas, carpet lifts, and other snow-based activities. Think snow angels and snowmen and kids running around and experiencing winter at their own pace.
Those purchasing the all-day program can choose their own adventure in a largely unstructured experience. For $34, one child along with a guardian or parent is admitted to the facility from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For an additional $10, another adult can join. The fee includes tube, ski, snowboard, and helmet rentals for the kids, and grants participants the use of two Magic Carpets, tubing lanes, tubing carousels, ski/snowboard learning areas, snow volcanoes to climb, and more.
Planet Kids is also an interactive family experience, where parents or guardians stay and supervise their children. The whole family can experience the snow together, an entirely different approach from dropping kids off at daycare or a lesson. And it’s not only for skiers and snowboarders; everyone is welcome.
BREEDING FUTURE GUESTS
Ohran says the ultimate goal of the program is for kids to progress from snow play to ski or snowboard lessons. “It’s very easy to introduce kids to skiing and riding through the Planet Kids program,” she says. “It’s safe, it’s fun, and it strives to eliminate the barriers between kids and a playful, snowy environment.”
And it does get kids started in skiing and riding. Ohran says that 60 percent of Planet Kids participants take advantage of the ski and board rentals offered through the program. Should a child want a lesson, half-hour, private instruction is available for an additional $34. According to Ohran, 10 percent of participants upgrade to a lesson, but that’s not the whole story. Other lesson plans and revenue sources outside of Planet Kids have seen an influx of guests, too. “Planet Kids introduces kids and their families to snow sports and skiing at a very young age relative to most traditional programs. Soda Springs’ lesson programs have been growing alongside Planet Kids, as has yield per visit through additional food and retail,” Ohran notes.
The program has progressed and developed organically, and with no big upfront investment in infrastructure, she adds. The Planet Kids center has been housed in several locations over the years, eventually settling in a welcoming meadow that has plenty of space for expansion. Since Soda Springs wants families to have their first snow experience through Planet Kids, the program is conscious of making this introduction low pressure, casual, and fun. To that end, Soda Springs has taken steps to make Planet Kids and the West Meadow Lodge, which was recently built specifically for the program, feel like a place just for kids.
The lodge, half a mile from the base lodge, caters to Planet Kids’ target market—young families with kids in the program—and was designed specifically to accommodate their needs. Here, families can rent equipment, get a snack, use the restroom, and warm up throughout the day away from other resort visitors. An 18-passenger sleigh pulled behind a Jeep outfitted with tracks takes all the participants from the base lodge to this playground—a crowd pleaser that Ohran says adds to the fun and playful experience.
As far as labor goes, Ohran says that Planet Kids is one of the most efficient and scalable programs at Soda Springs. On slower, mid-week days, it takes only one or two people to manage tickets, rentals, snacks, and coordination in the West Meadow Lodge facilities. When traffic ramps up on sunny weekends, staff can be added. With the one-on-one lessons, the number of instructors can easily be increased to meet the participant volume.
All of this has been a plus from a business standpoint. “Planet Kids is completely additional to the other resort activities,” Ohran says. Soda Springs has seen stable lesson activities during the growth of the Planet Kids program—other lesson programs have not suffered a loss due to internal competition.
And Planet Kids has weathered California’s drought surprisingly well, showing continued relative growth. “It does not take a lot of snow to sustain the area,” Ohran says. To be building business over the last few seasons in the Tahoe basin is significant.
Planet Kids has breathed new life into Soda Springs. In looking to provide a good option for young families, the resort has found its niche. This laid-back introduction and “choose your own adventure” approach has increased traffic and revenue, with little upfront investment. The success of Planet Kids suggests that it’s a practical model for introducing children to snow and, perhaps, creating lifelong participants.