Growing and diversifying the sport are the industry’s number one and two priorities amid an increasing sense of urgency.
“People are leaving the sport faster than we’d like, and not enough new people are coming in,” says Raelene Davis, marketing director at Ski Utah and one of the drivers behind the January Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month (LSSM).
So what’s a resort to do? Here’s a look at some of the most successful and innovative learn-to programs. Common themes: personal attention, and programs tailored to the needs and interests of the target markets.
From 3 Days to 3 Years
At Snowbasin, Utah, this year’s winner of NSAA’s Conversion Cup, 71 percent of never-evers in its Learn and Earn program purchased a season pass for their second year after completing the resort’s first-year three-lesson program, which is part of a three-year progression. That’s an impressive conversion rate.
Year one of the program includes three group lessons, seasonal rentals, and a season pass for $469 for 2018-19. In 2016, 100 percent of participants completed all three lessons, and even more astounding, skied an average of 9.5 days.
“This demonstrates positive conversion, because most Learn & Earn guests are hitting the snow more than just the three lessons they took,” says communications coordinator Megan Collins. “The pass is the key.”
Another key, Collins says, is a lot of pre-season handholding. Snowbasin starts selling the Learn and Earn product at the end of the prior season, and then holds off-season orientation sessions for participants to come up to the mountain to meet instructors, tour the resort, fit their boots, learn how to dress, where to park, and how to ride the gondola.
In year two, participants get their own equipment to keep, three all-day group lessons, and a season pass for $599. Third-year participants get a Premier pass with full perks and a private lesson for $599. In the 2017-18 season, Snowbasin had a total of 2,214 participants spread across all three years. Seventy-five percent were adults, and 76 percent skiers. Collins says the resort plans to track participants after they graduate.
Several areas have found ways to entice beginners to stick with winter sports.
Killington, Vt., has a four-lesson program, and adds a carrot at the end—new skis or snowboard—which has resulted in a better than 90 percent completion rate. Cost for the lessons and gear: $399.
“A carrot at the end works,” says Rob Megnin, director of sales and marketing.
As at Snowbasin, handholding is key. “We spend a lot of time and energy with our first-time guests,” Megnin says. Beginners meet and talk to their instructors, get boots fitted, and begin to develop their balancing skills right away.
“It’s very personal,” he says. “One-on-one. It helps create a feeling of trust. It’s really amazing, you can see the fear in their eyes. The personal aspect of it helps them get relaxed and have a good time, and feel more confident on the hill—which leads to a better outcome.”
The program has also attracted a large number of Asian and Pacific Rim cultures, especially to snowboard.
Wachusett, Mass., does about 14,000 beginner lessons a year, and its pricing encourages retention. A one-day lesson package is $99, then two additional days are an additional $100, and three more one-day lift tickets and rentals are $79.50 each. The resort’s Bring a Friend for Fun (BFF) program gives the “host” skier a half-price ticket and the friend a half-price lesson package. Wachusett’s 17,000 passholders also get a half-price beginner package for a friend.
In the offseason, Wachusett goes to local schools and colleges and events, where it gives out vouchers for parents to get kids into ski school programs.
At Massanutten, Va., the area’s License to Slide program, aimed at locals, makes it easy and affordable. It is based on a punch card that includes six lift ticket/rental packages and four lessons for about $200.
Mt. Ashland, Ore., a nonprofit community area, has a lot of after-school learn to ski and ride programs for $25 a visit, and its My Turn learn-to program offers a three-lesson learn-to package for $129. My Turn graduates 12 and under get a free pass, and 13 and up receive a seven-visit voucher.
For the last two years, Ashland has partnered with local Hispanic groups to run a Winter Wellness day in late March. “It’s a free program introducing this population to winter sports,” says Michael Stringer, director of marketing. Ashland provides transportation (last winter, four buses) lunch, skiing and snowboarding lessons, equipment and translation. “It’s pretty neat the way the program has come together,” Stringer says. “We’ve talked about doing multiple days.”
How Does “Free” Sound?
Ragged Mountain, N.H., has seen encouraging results for its Bebe Wood Free Learn to Ski & Ride Program; it draws many Asian-Americans from greater Boston. The program includes three days of free lessons, rentals, and lift tickets. Graduates of all three lessons can then purchase their equipment for $299, and buy a pass for the remainder of the season for $69.
“We don’t want people to end the program, and say, ‘Yeah, I tried skiing.’ We want them to end the program and say, ‘I’m a skier,’” says marketing and group sales manager Ben Hall.
In its first two seasons, the program has introduced about 2,000 to the sport, 56 percent of whom graduated from all three lessons and purchased a pass. More than half of the first-year grads went on to purchase a sophomore pass for $199. The program also has a Bring a Friend component to it: Any passholder who refers a friend to the Bebe Wood program gets $25 off next season’s pass if that friend graduates from all three lessons.
Hall says Ragged could grow the program (capped at 50 guests on weekends and 25 on weekdays), but like Snowbasin and Killington, providing a good experience is crucial. “We can dedicate only so many instructors each day,” Hall says. “If we add more spots, it might hurt the experience, and result in no gain.”
Is It Working?
A common complaint among resorts is the difficulty of tracking newcomers. Do they return to the resort where they first tried the sport, go elsewhere, or drop out? No one really knows.
“It’s hard for us to follow. I think a measure of retention still needs to be figured out,” says Killington’s Megnin. Since the resort does about 5,000 beginner introductions a year, tracking would provide very valuable metrics.
It’s a common theme. Massanutten teaches about 13,700 lessons a year, but guest services manager Ian McAlexander says, “We don’t have good metrics on how many return. We know we’re doing the work. Now we need to track the level of return.”
Moving the Needle
“I believe we are making progress in growing the sport,” Davis says. “Our numbers are showing new people entering the sport. But we have a long way to go to move the needle.
“As an industry, we need to do a better job at retention. We offer great programs, but little follow-up after that—and that’s where our efforts need to be. We’re getting people to take that first lesson. Now we need to follow up and convert.”
LEARN-TO CHEAT SHEETS
Looking for ideas for your learn-to efforts? There are plenty of existing programs to study. Check out the Conversion Cup and LSSM Marketing award winners at nsaa.org. Or, go to skiandsnowboardmonth.org and click on “deals.” If you are an LSSM partner—and you should be, either through your state or regional association or on your own—access the Partner Toolkit. That includes tons of useful materials, from LSSM graphics and art to the Beginner Conversion Study. For help with LSSM programs and the Partner Toolkit, contact LSSM executive director Mary Jo Tarallo at email@example.com, (202) 431-6950.