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November 2017

Artificial Surfaces: Endless Winter

Synthetic slopes are growing in number. Will operators reap the benefits of longer seasons or year-round operation?

Written by Peter Olliver | 0 comment
Buck Hill, Minn., has installed an ambitious dry slope project from Neveplast. Buck Hill, Minn., has installed an ambitious dry slope project from Neveplast.

The idea of year-round fun for a normally seasonal sport was memorialized in the classic Sixties surf flick, The Endless Summer. Now comes an endless-winter counterpart: year-round skiing and riding, on artificial snow surfaces, to withstand the warmth of summer and the vagaries of climate change.

Ski areas fully clothed in artificial material might still be a thing of the future. But slopes as large as 200,000 square feet (five acres) are definitely a thing of the present, offering a host of potential benefits for ski areas of all sizes.

In addition, artificial surfaces may be a catalyst in expanding interest in skiing and riding beyond the realm of traditional ski areas, with installations appearing in places well outside the skiing mainstream, such as Branson, Missouri. Think of it in an evangelical sense: Spreading the gospel of skiing to a wider audience gets more people interested in sliding on snow—a plus for resort operators everywhere, in the long run.

Resorts in Europe have been quicker than those in North America to adopt artificial snow surfaces, and hence the principal artificial-surface manufacturers are European-based. (mSnow, based in Michigan, makes artificial surfaces for tubing parks and jump in-runs, but it’s not suited for skiing or riding. Co-owner Luke Schrab declares that skiing on an mSnow surface “would not be fun.”) But interest in artificial surfaces is slowly gaining momentum on this continent.

Two ski areas that have recently installed artificial surfaces are Buck Hill, Minn., and Powder Ridge, Conn. But the bulk of the growth appears to be outside of the traditional ski-resort world. Snowflex, from the English company Briton Engineering, graces the hill at Liberty Mountain in Virginia, and currently has twelve projects in play in the U.S.—none at traditional ski areas.

nov17 artificial surfaces 01 Powder Ridge, Conn., is planning year-round operation on a surface from 365 Artificial Snow Systems.

Variable Conditions

Like natural snow, artificial surfaces come in different textural variations. For its installation, Buck Hill went with Italian-based Neveplast. Its principle skiing product is NP30, a dry plastic material injected with a silicone agent to improve sliding. The company offers a second product, NP70, primarily for lift loading and unloading areas, the main difference being a lower concentration of the sliding agent, according to Ryan Locher, managing director of Neveplast USA. There are also Neveplast surfaces for Nordic skiing and tubing. The surface appears somewhat like a waffle, if waffles featured circles rather than squares, with small plastic bristles projecting from the circles’ circumferences.

Snowflex, by contrast, is a multi-layer design made primarily of a UV-stabilized, thermoplastic polymer with a shock-absorbing layer and a misting system to promote sliding. It appears almost like a giant, wet blanket on the hill. Dieter Sturm, president of All-Season Extreme, the U.S. representative for Snowflex, likens the sliding quality of the surface to a halfway point between powder and solid ice on the natural-snow spectrum.

The Learning Curve

As might be expected with any product still in the relative infancy of its development, Locher concedes “there has been a learning curve” involved in installations at places like Buck Hill. After the initial installation, on a 1,200-foot run of black-diamond steepness (along with a terrain park), the heat produced by the friction between skis (and boards) and the artificial surface proved problematic. In fact, the heat build-up in metal ski edges was capable of damaging less expensive, extruded bases.

So Buck Hill went to Plan B. The installation was moved to a lower-intermediate slope and shortened to about 1,000 feet. Buck Hill allowed grass to grow through the holes in the material to act as a cooling agent, and some irrigation was added to reduce friction and for better sliding. The changes resulted in a noticeable improvement, according to Dave Solner, Buck Hill’s CEO.

This year, Powder Ridge installed a 500-foot-long dry plastic surface, made by 365 Artificial Snow Systems. The area plans to expand to a top-to-bottom, 2,800-foot run over the next two years.

nov17 artifiial surfaces 02A fine mist slickens the Snowflex slope at Liberty Mountain, Va., owned by Liberty University.

Powder Ridge CEO Sean Hayes cites the extra expense of Snowflex’s integrated irrigation system as a principal reason to go with dry plastic. Powder Ridge has addressed the heat and friction issue in a few ways. For one, the resort has installed a cooling water “trough,” as Hayes calls it, at the top of the slope for skiers to run their skis through before heading downhill. More troughs are planned. Second, to clean the surface of abrasive dust and dirt, the area runs its snow guns occasionally. And finally, skiers are advised to wax and re-wax skis regularly.

Heat build-up has not been a problem with Snowflex, says Sturm, in part due to its irrigation system. Then, too, its average installation of about 100,000 square feet is roughly half the size of the initial Buck Hill installation. In addition, lower-angle slopes are the norm, with the average pitch of a Snowflex installation being 18 to 22 percent, according to Sturm.

That said, Snowflex is a much more expensive product than Neveplast or 365, with a 100,000-square-foot installation costing roughly $5- to $6 million, according to Sturm. Locher puts the cost of NP30 at roughly $10 per square foot—about $1 million for a 100,000-square-foot surface.

Seeking Summer Skiers

Perhaps the bigger question for resort operators, rather than the question of which product to choose for a specific site, is: Is there a real and profitable future in non-winter skiing on artificial surfaces?

Sturm is an enthusiastic apostle. “This is a game changer for winter sports,” he says, “expanding the season and expanding the sport to non-snow environments. The traditional ski industry is ready to break loose with artificial slopes. There is nothing but positive value.”

That is certainly an opinion you might expect from someone who is the unabashed promoter for an artificial-snow product. But follow Sturm’s reasoning: “Why does skiing have to vaporize after the season is over?” he asks. He points to the success of a Snowflex installation at the unlikely warm-weather location of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, where annual revenues have increased in each of the ski center’s eight years of operation.

Liberty, of course, is hardly a ski area in the traditional sense, but can its success serve as a model for true winter resorts? Sturm points out a variety of non-winter sales and marketing opportunities: hosting school and college groups, providing off-season coaching and training opportunities for racers and instructors, staging competitions and festivals, and so on.

Ancillary benefits, says Sturm, include retaining year-round visibility as a ski resort and keeping key skiing personnel on a year-round basis. Rather than being put out to pasture on summer furlough, for example, the ski school director becomes a valuable non-winter employee.

Buck Hill’s Solner had many of those goals in mind when the area installed its artificial slope. However, he believes the jury is still out on public interest in summer skiing. The initial reaction to Buck Hill’s installation, he says, was “a little anticlimactic. People would see it while passing on the highway and not be sure what it is.”

In addition, says Solner, a hot summer day might discourage potential visitors from donning ski clothing and hitting the slopes. Gloves, long pants, and long-sleeve outwear are recommended as protection against abrasion in case of a fall—not exactly the kind of gear one finds in a beach bag. In short, Buck Hill did not see an initial rush of interest.

Solner concedes, however, that Buck Hill dedicated only a minimal initial marketing effort to spreading the word about its artificial-snow installation. He adds that although “there has been a wide range of responses, it has leaned much more heavily toward the positive.” In other words, with a little more energy put into pushing the product, Solner sees considerable opportunity, especially in the shoulder seasons.

In particular, he still sees a potential audience in youth groups in the spring and an even stronger potential for fall training for high-school race teams, especially at a ski area with a well-established legacy for racing. He also sees an opportunity to capitalize on the burst of enthusiasm that inevitably comes with the first, fall dusting of snow. There might not be enough natural snow to cover the slopes or enough cold to crank up the guns, but skiers and riders see snow and want in on the action. Artificial surfaces make that possible.

At Powder Ridge, Hayes, too, says, “The response has been very favorable.” But he concedes that Powder Ridge was “expecting the market to receive it slowly,” with “serious skiers” likely to be the most skeptical. “It takes a while to get used to,” he says, in part because, unlike natural snow, there is no build-up of material under the skis during edging. He actually believes that people who learn on artificial surfaces will develop a better skill set than those who learn on natural snow.

And that, he believes, is his audience. Powder Ridge is largely targeting a market of less experienced skiers in an exurban setting, with the resort lying within a 90-minute radius of 20 million people. Hayes sees an opportunity not only of attracting new skiers to learn in more pleasant, warm-weather conditions, but of improving new-skier retention rates, with first-timers not driven from the sport by the discomfort of learning in the bitter cold. An artificial-surface TBL learning center is in the works.

And that’s where the world of artificial snow-sliding stands in North America at the moment. These surfaces are making an endless winter a reality. But can that reality turn a profit? The current operations and those still on the drawing board are sure to provide an answer over the next few years.