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September 2015

Totally Tubular

Tubing has become an essential part of the revenue stream for many resorts; managing the business well takes care, attention, and a good set of rules.

Written by Moira McCarthy | 0 comment

When Timothy Bruce, risk control consultant at Safehold Special Risk (a Wells Fargo company), visited 52 different resorts three years ago, he noticed a trend: more and more were finding salvation via tubing. In fact, if it weren’t for tubing, he estimates, 60 percent of those ski areas could be bankrupt today.

It’s no surprise, then, that more resorts are adding or amping up tubing operations. On the surface, the investment seems small. You need some real estate, tubes, a little maintenance and basic staffing. And customers? “All they need is a butt,” Bruce points out.

But in reality, it’s a bit more involved than that. Why? Safety and liability. Unlike skiing and riding, where the participants own part of the process—they decide whether or not to take lessons, whether to go faster or slower, and which gear to use—in tubing, the resort owns 100 percent of the process. Also, most states have ski statutes that spell out a list of skier/rider responsibilities; only two states have laws that release resorts from some tuber liability (New Hampshire and Colorado).

“You really cannot think of it as, ‘It’s just tubing, it’s no big deal,’” Bruce says. “I am all about engineering the human behavior, and in tubing, that is what it is all about.”

From Top to Bottom
While safe and smart tubing setups can be broken down into sections (top, bottom, lift, lanes, runout), some “how-tos” overlay the entire setup.

The first is staffing. Resorts tend to think of tubing as a spot to tuck a newbie employee or a manager learning the ropes. In fact, the tubing park is where your top brass should be.

Ken Starr, general manager of Wild Mountain, Minn., where the tubing operation is up and running well, says, “Tubing cannot be an afterthought, something where you think, ‘Maybe we can put our (weakest) manager down there,’ says Starr. “Ideally, you should put your best manager there.”

“Your strongest manager should be your tubing manager,” Bruce agrees. “[In the rental shop], the manufacturers are supporting you, and giving you guidelines, and telling you what you need to do. Tubing is one of the most challenging spots to manage.”

That goes for the rest of the staff, too. Guests need constant attention and direction (don’t cross the lanes; make sure to leave the runout area in the correct manner; please wait your turn) and moment-to-moment management can be a challenge for some employees.

In short, everyone working in the tubing area must be on top of their game. “Be sure to train them, script them and support them,” Bruce says.

From the Top
Managing the guest experience starts well before guests sit in a tube and push off. Smart resorts know to educate their clients immediately, using signage and verbal scripting. By sharing the rules and expectations with guests, resorts help set the tone from the start.

Bruce cites the example of Shawnee Mountain, Pa., where tubers sign up for set two-hour time blocks. At the start of each block (for instance, 10 a.m.-12 p.m. or 12-2 p.m.), guests are greeted as a group by an attendant with a welcome and scripted “do this, don’t do that” spiel that covers safety, rules, and how-tos in a personal, welcoming way.

That welcome is backed by signage, but the resort, by managing the tubers in this manner, knows definitively that every participant has heard the resort’s rules and ways of doing things. “It’s easy to defend your approach when you do it that way,” Bruce says.

It’s also vital for top-of-hill staff to manage when each tuber takes off, to reduce the risk of folks slamming into one another in the runout area. The flow of tubers must be meticulously overseen.

Bruce strongly supports some basic, across-the-board rules. These might include one person per tube, no ski boots while tubing, and butts in the tube vs. tubers lying on their stomach. He also discourages “chaining,” i.e., allowing tubers to link up for a group ride. Guests tend to push back on that rule, but Bruce says it greatly cuts down on possible accidents.

One way to better manage participants, adds Bruce, is to use a carpet lift. “People are not walking, so they have less of a chance to think, “Oh, I can just jump back in this lane,” he says. “Also, the lift paces how quickly people arrive at the top again, helping to better manage the flow of tubers, making the arrival at top less stressful for employees, and easier and less crowded for tubers.”

On the Run
Of course, in the end, it’s about the thrill of the run, and no resort wants to take that away. But managing the lanes, the pitch, and all the rest helps make it all safe as well.

Bill Pawson of Tube Pro, which has served more than 700 tubing facilities to date, understands the challenge. “The more thrilling the run, the faster they go, the more opportunity there is for revenue,” he says.

Pawson’s first piece of advice? Have an expert look over your setup before you finalize it, and keep an open mind about tweaking anything, from the type of tube you use to how your lanes are set up.

The key to giving customers what they want, while keeping it safe, he says, is to achieve “the maximum velocity as quickly as you can, and then a runoff to enjoy and decelerate. Get that adrenaline rush to them at the top, and then be sure there is room for them to coast out.”

This is no easy task. It often takes a combination of tube type, lane setup, and of course, ample runout. A perfect tubing set up, Pawson says, has about the same amount of run and runout. But resorts cannot always make that happen, due to space constraints.

So choice of tube can be crucial. Suppliers offer bottoms with different textures to help control speed and glide. By having a professional visit, or at least study the actual topography report of a space, a resort can help manage runout by choice of tube.

The idea of varied materials to impact speed is so widely embraced now that Idaho Sewing for Sports is making and marketing quick-change hard bottoms that allow resorts to change the glide potential depending on the conditions and weather.

“Every hill is different, from pitch and drop to weather and more,” says CEO Gunther Williams. “And every hill can change on any given day.” That’s why the company offers material for fast, regular and slow going, and helps resorts know how to decide which to use.

“Originally, tube cover was just heavy,” he says. “Now, there are options.”

Pawson has seen resorts try to use gullies to slow down tubers, and have it backfire. Too deep a gully can not only cause folks to slow down too soon and slide backwards, it can give hotshots the idea of doing just that to get more out of a run. Gullies should be planned out and tested with experts, he says.

Bruce points out the importance of creating lanes that cannot be entered mid-run, and keeping tubers in their lanes. “[Riders] must go in and out of the same lane, and not be able to switch,” says Bruce. In the early days, he adds, tubing parks were like terrain parks, with folks freeriding along and often crashing. “Today, resorts are realizing that one lane per one tuber is a must.”

Pawson says staff come into play here as well. “The flow of someone into a lane must be meticulous. While tubers may be champing at the bit to get in there, the staff should never send a tuber down without lanes being completely clear, which includes folks walking past at the bottom.”

About the Bottom
Deceleration is your friend in tubing, even if your guests don’t realize that. Controlling how a tuber slows down and stops is the most important element to a safe and successful tubing park.

“Resorts should own the deceleration process,” says Bruce. He notes the variables in tubing—a person’s weight, the weather, the humidity that day, and how it impacts the speed of the snow—pointing out that resorts need constant oversight of the runout area in addition to a good setup.

Wild Mountain took that notion so seriously that, after visiting a number of resorts with successful tubing ventures, resort managers threw away their original plan and started over from scratch, changing the location and direction of their planned tubing area.

“We visited a half a dozen or so resorts and asked them, ‘what do you wish you had done differently? What’s good? What’s bad?’” says Starr. “What we learned was, design is the most important thing you can do, and runout was the most important part of that design.”

Realizing that they did not have enough runout in their plan, Wild Mountain staff gave its tubing operation more. It was an expense, but with more than 100,000 tubers coming through per season, the ski area now has a setup it feels confident about.

When it comes to best practices, Bruce says that Camelback, Pa., is also doing something notable. There, the resort overlaps the morning and night tubing managers for a few hours each day. It adds to staffing costs, but allows managers to share what has gone on throughout the day, and what is coming up as far as crowds, weather, and the condition of snow surface. “No one leaves until the surface is good,” says Bruce.

One of the most common management tools is deceleration mats. There have been some improvements in this technology. Older mats (similar to the ones on the floor in food courts) often have holes in them. When the holes fill up with snow, the surface becomes slick again and the mats lose their ability to slow down tubers. Newer mats don’t have holes, which keeps them more effective.

John Jacobs, president of Reliable Racing, has found that Astroturf surfaces work well in deceleration spots. “It has to do with the length of the pile and the density of what we call the ‘fingers’” of the surface, he says. Reliable has even created a white turf, giving the tubing area a cleaner look.

But its not enough, he says, to just put the turf down: “Snow is always going to impact any surface. It takes a lot more maintenance than just putting it out there for the day.” His company urges clients to check the surface throughout the day, and take action often, including shaking the mat (it’s easy to pick up, shake and put back down) to clear it.

Bruce also points out another surprising deceleration surface: old tennis nets laid out to slow down tubes. “I never thought it would work, but it does,” he says.

In the end, taking the steps to make sure tubing is safe pays off. Less exposure to liability helps the profit center. And knowing all is running well as folks flow down and the money flows in is a win for all.

“We are only as good as the weakest link in our industry,” says Pawson. “One accident impacts us all, not just financially, but in the reputation of our sport. We all help one another by thinking this all through.”

Summer Tubing
More and more resorts are discovering that clients love summer tubing as well. Luke Schrab, co-founder of mSnow, one of the leaders in summer tubing design and supply, says that while summer tubing was hot in Europe as long as a decade ago, it’s just coming of age in North America.

Summer tubing is, in some ways, easier to manage than winter tubing. For one, conditions change less drastically. Mist and rain and cooler days impact the lanes, but overall, there are fewer weather-related concerns. “You are not fighting the winter weather element,” says Ryan Locher, director of operations at Bryce Resort, Va., and the U.S. distributor for Neveplast, which markets summer tubing surfaces. “Your lanes don’t deteriorate, you don’t have to groom, and there is no 3 p.m. deterioration. It’s a lot safer than winter tubing.”

Locher has as much experience with summer tubing as anyone. Ten years ago, he developed the first summer tubing operation in the country. “I had seen pictures of it from Europe and I knew on our hill it would work well,” he says. “And it’s been great. It’s a great revenue stream for us, and it handles everyone from four-year-olds to grandparents.”

Bryce learned as it went along. One lesson: its original design, which included curves and turns, was not the best idea. “From a risk management point of view, we could operate any time on a straight path,” he says. “But with curves, rain would shut us down (due to the type of structure used at the time). So we changed.”

Bryce also realized that success, from customer satisfaction to risk management, has everything to do with cleanliness. “Once the surface gets dirty, it slows down,” Locher says. “Keeping your outdoor carpeting and walkway clean really does matter. Don’t shortcut on things like that. Dirt comes from underneath, so the underlying surface really does matter.”

But several things remain the same, such as the need to staff the program wisely. “You need quality staff who can manage well,” Locher says. “That is a must.” Many rules and operational guidelines are similar, too: attendants at both top and bottom; checking the height and weight of customers and making sure they get in the correct tube, especially with kids; sit in the tube with legs crossed and feet and hands elevated; no lying on one’s stomach.

There are a few special considerations to make it safe while still very, very fun. And of course, fun equals speed, and safe equals slowdown.

For speed, summer tubing requires lubrication, usually via a combination of water and wax. mSnow created TubeWax to reduce the need to hose down the track.

“We had to solve the lubrication issue without adding irrigation,” says Schrab. “Wet on cool days is not good, it attracts dirt.”

Good wax ties into safety, too. “On a slower day, tubers may not make it to the end, and they sometimes stand up and walk across lanes,” says Schrab. “That’s when accidents can happen.” TubeWax, used properly (“It’s about how often you apply it,” he says), solves that problem.

As with other suppliers, mSnow has systems to slow tubers at the end of the run. mSnow uses a specific kind of outdoor carpet to slow riders, without stopping them short. The company tested countless surfaces (even berber carpet!) before settling on what it calls “outdoor turf,” a surface created just for the purpose.

mSnow is working on some added items and programs for summer tubing, including a banked lane like a NASTAR track. It is exploring a new stopping system that would use blow-up bumpers that, similar to bumpers in bowling alleys that allow everyone to avoid gutter balls, would keep tubers in their lane and bring them to a stopping point.

Summer tubing is growing fast, and that makes perfect sense to Schrab. “Its ten times bigger than any playground slide, and so fun,” he says. “Why would a resort not want this?”