With the huge Baby Boom generation, which helped fuel skiing’s growth, aging and hanging up their equipment, finding new skiers and riders to replace them continues to be Job Number One for winter resorts.
Everyone agrees that lessons are critical to any outreach strategy in this area. To that end, in 2008, industry associations and resorts partnered to launch the Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month (LSSM) initiative to shine the spotlight on lessons. Since then, the January promotion has helped introduce more than 500,000 newbies to the sport.
Despite that success, the industry’s retention rate has increased only slightly, to around 17 percent. In an effort to aid innovation on the learn-to front, here are a few best practices, compiled from successful programs inspired by LSSM and Bring a Friend (BAF) in recent years.
Mountain to the People
When Mt. Hood Meadows staff used to go to the Portland, Ore., ski show, “engaging potential skiers” meant staff standing around and handing out trail maps and brochures. Eventually they started selling lift tickets, season passes, and frequent skier cards as well.
But with people now able to get everything they need to know about (and purchase from) the ski area online, VP of sales and communications Dave Tragethon says the resort needed to find a new way to engage and motivate people—not to mention a way to engage never-evers.
“There’s a real need to provide an engaging experience face-to-face,” says Tragethon.
Mt. Hood’s solution is the Meadows MTP—Mountain to the People—Tour, a road tour that hits Oregon’s many summer festivals: food events, air shows, crayfish festivals, science and industry shows, art and craft shows, and more. It’s now in its third season.
Filled with instructors and specialized equipment like balance boards and Burton Riglet boards, the Meadows vehicle rolls into summer festivals, cranks up the music, runs ski and snowboard videos, and starts showing kids (and adults) how to ride.
“We’re seeing up to 1,000 kids at some of these events, and introducing them to their first ski and snowboard experience,” Tragethon says. “We’re giving kids that first fun experience without cold, weather, wind, clothing, or bundling up. They’re showing up in shorts and sandals and learning how to use the equipment. We show kids how much fun it is, so when the snow is flying and the mountain is open, they’ll tell mom and dad, ‘I’ve got to get up there.’”
Kids 6 and under who try the equipment receive a free season pass. Kids 7 to 14 get a free lift ticket.
And MTP is engaging folks. At a one-day beach bash earlier this summer, Mt. Hood’s four instructors gave 46 youngsters their first Riglet experience. “That’s 46 kids we reached out to, talked to all their parents, and had 1,000 people standing around watching and maybe going to our website when they got home,” Tragethon says. “It allows us engagement. We’re connecting with people a lot better than standing around and handing out our brochure.”
The show doesn’t end with summer vacation, either. Meadows also takes the MTP tour to schools—more than a dozen last year, and more scheduled this year.
Blue Mountain, Pa., has figured out how to get kids into the sport: lots of carpets, their own lodge and terrain, and 14-year-old instructors.
Last season, Blue, 90 minutes outside of New York City and Philadelphia, doubled its kids’ learning terrain and added another four carpet lifts and a balloon lodge at the end of the main lodge. Called Frontier Alley, adults are not allowed.
“You have to be 12 and under to be there,” says Barb Green, one of two family owners of the resort. “It’s where all our kids programs take place.”
Blue has three learn-to programs for 12-and-unders. The Pioneer program, a four-lesson, four-week program (expandable to eight weeks) is aimed at local kids. The program costs $25 for a lesson and lift ticket. Rentals can be added for a discounted price. The Explorer program is a one-time, two-hour lesson and lift ticket for $80 ($85 on weekends and holidays). Rentals can be added for $25. And third is the 9 a.m.-to-3 p.m. Trailblazer program, which Blue offers every day for a cost of $125 on weekends and $110 weekdays.
The Saturday Trailblazer program, which last season had a capacity of about 1,500, usually sold out by Thursday.
“What I think has made our kids’ programs really unique is that we have a separate area for them,” Green says. “It helps kids feel a little safer, and parents feel better, because they won’t get mowed over. It’s less crowded than on the rest of the mountain.”
Blue, which does about 400,000 skier days a season, also runs a popular five-week after-school program.
Before last season’s expansion, Blue barely advertised its kids’ programs, because the resort was “terrain constrained,” says Green. “Now, we’re staff constrained. We were turning people away last season because the kids’ programs were sold out.”
Green is already recruiting for next season, hoping to bump Blue’s teen-aged instructors up from 200 to 300.
“We find 14- and 15-year-olds make the best instructors,” Green says. “They have a lot more energy, and the kids adore them.”
That number, though, might be hard to reach with the state’s new child labor laws, which mandate a 30-minute break every three hours for those under 18—eating with kids during a six-hour lesson doesn’t count as a break. If Blue is able to accomplish its hiring goals, Green anticipates kids’ learning programs will grow another 20 to 25 percent this coming season.
Like many state and regional associations, Ski the Northwest Rockies promotes the learn-to programs at its four member areas—Idaho’s Silver Mountain and Lookout Pass, and Mt. Spokane and 49 Degrees North in Washington.
But what Ski the Northwest Rockies does better than most is create relationships—specifically with elementary health and fitness teachers.
“We provide them with information, posters, and other items about skiing to decorate bulletin boards, give them a free pass to all four areas the first year, and a discounted ($100) pass after that,” says Matty Moore, director of communication at Vision Marketing, which administers the association. “In exchange, we ask them to keep talking about skiing and snowboarding, do presentations, bring in equipment so kids can learn what to wear, and talk about the fifth grade passport program.”
In the past, the program has been offered in two school districts, which have a total of about 50 elementary schools, each with one or two health and fitness teachers. This season, Moore says the association will expand the program to three more districts and another 100 schools.
Although the association has no way of measuring how many students are introduced to snowsports through the program, Moore feels the group is doing its part to help feed the pipeline. “If we don’t catch kids before they get introduced to soccer or basketball,” Moore says, “we won’t get them.”
Ambassador of the Year
The influence teachers can have on the choices their pupils make was evident in last year’s LSSM “Ambassador of the Year” selection. The winner, Cynthia Rust, is a high school science teacher from Post Falls, Idaho, who started a ski and ride club at her school five years ago.
“I’ve been snowboarding for about eight years. The reason I formed the club is because I find the sport is such a release. It’s so much fun and a great way to keep physically healthy,” she says. “I felt the kids could benefit, and I wanted to make sure as many as possible had the chance. Almost 50 percent of our kids are on free or reduced lunch. They do not have access to the sport. The big thing for me was to make the sport financially possible for these kids.”
Working with Mt. Spokane and other areas, Rust secured group discounts on lessons, tickets, and rentals for the students, used school buses for transportation, and did lots of local fundraising. The club has grown from 20 students to more than 85. Members take four or five ski trips a year.
“It’s truly amazing to watch the kids learn, improve, and become ‘lifers’ addicted to the sport,” Rust says.
There are a variety of other ski areas doing interesting things to draw new participants. Here are a few examples.»
Last season, Toggenburg, N.Y., a small ski area south of Syracuse, expanded the state ski association’s one-week “Bring a Friend” January promotion to the whole season, with positive results.
“We had a few hundred people participate,” says Cindy Sisto, marketing director. “For us, that represents a big increase, because we’re so small. The rate of people coming back seems greater when they have a friend. It makes sense. Instead of just walking in and taking a lesson, they felt they were participating in something bigger, especially if the friend had a lot of enthusiasm.”
Sisto says the area will again offer the program all season long, beginning in January—and maybe earlier, depending on the weather.
Titus Mountain in Malone, N.Y., has offered a lot of learn-to programs. Two years ago, ski area managers decided to take aim at an often overlooked demographic: women aged 25 and older who have never skied before. It was so successful that Titus dropped the age to 18 last season, and lifted the “never-ever” restriction.
The three-hour night-skiing program includes lifts, lessons, and rentals once a week for six weeks. The women spend the first hour in a lesson, the second hour practicing and asking questions, and the third hour socializing in the lodge with a free drink and snacks.
Titus had 11 never-evers sign up the first year, with all finishing and seven returning for the program the next season (three with a season pass). Another five women joined the seven returnees for a total of 12 participants last season, six of whom had a season pass.
“At the end of the day, our goal is to keep converting these participants into season passholders,” says Brittany Taylor, Titus director of marketing. “It’s going to be our third year, and we have some new ideas and are building a much more convenient website and personalized email database.”
Across the country, Mt. Hood Meadows tinkered with its $99, three-day learn-to package last season, by changing the third day option. Instead of giving beginners access to the whole mountain on the third day, Meadows kept them on the South Side with its five lifts and beginner terrain.
The change allows people to progress in three days, Tragethon says. “When we were offering the entire mountain on the third day, it was not realistic. (Users) did not need a full-mountain pass, but the terrain on the South Side is very achievable on the third day.”
Meadows also unveiled a new South Side season pass for $299 ($349 for those under 13) that included three lessons and unlimited rentals. The higher price for kids stemmed from the specialized nature of the instruction and smaller class sizes.
Tragethon says the South Side pass was a great product launch. Between kids and adults, the resort sold about 1,000. And with spring pass sales down because of the poor snow year, the new South Side pass became even more valuable.
And despite low snow levels, Mt. Hood did a record number of lessons in January. “Even with a 30-inch base, well below normal, the learn-to product was the same as if we had a 300-inch base,” Tragethon says. “And, it was warm and sunny!”