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September 2017

Pondering NSAA's Past—And Future

SAM asked several top executives from across the country, "What are the top priorities for the new president?"

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Ed. Note:

In the days before NSAA announced that Ski Vermont head Parker Riehle would become the new president of NSAA, SAM asked several top executives from across the country, “What are the top priorities for the new president?” The responses are diverse, but fall into five general categories. Take it for what it’s worth, Parker; here’s what we heard.

As NSAA president Michael Berry ends his 25-year leadership of NSAA, we should all recognize his major accomplishment: establishing a vibrant, effective organization from the ashes of the failed attempt to unify the resort and consumer-goods sides of the industry known, briefly, as USIA. NSAA has become the leading industry association in many ways, and Berry is largely responsible for the organization’s success. (For his perspective, see “The Long View”.)

There’s still work to do, of course. NSAA’s Growth Model has shown the need for improved learn-to programs and more forceful efforts to recruit newcomers to skiing and riding, but it hasn’t moved the needle much. Can Berry’s successor find the means to make progress on this front?

There are a host of other action items as well. We polled several resort leaders to hear their priorities, and we got an earful:

1. Support resorts of all sizes (but especially smaller ones)

• “As a medium-sized independent area, I worry that the interests of all ski areas are not served by the association. With all of the consolidation in our industry, the influence that two or three organizations have on all of us is enormous.”

• “Given this round of industry consolidation, be a resource for smaller resorts and ski areas as they navigate a shifting business paradigm.”

• “Understand the needs of the membership—so, ski or ride as much as possible.”

• “Michael Berry and his crew did/do a great job. Make sure to continue those traditions with excellent seminars and super strong lobbying.”

• “Reaffirm the value of an industry association to its members in government affairs, education, trade shows, and communication.”

• “Keep the industry focused on working together in an era of multiple acquisitions.”

• “Focus on bridging the divide between the large multi-resort conglomerates and the independent areas. Cooperation has been a hallmark of the industry for a long time, and the recent mergers have the potential to segregate our industry to the detriment of our other goals, i.e., increasing participation, retention, combating global warming, etc.”

• “With mega resort consolidation, I think of (Telluride CEO) Bill Jensen's idea of market segmentation: the 45 “Uber” and “Alpha” resorts may end up in the hands of only a few companies. Only the biggest players will be able to compete in this sphere. We as an industry cannot afford to see 150 of Jensen’s “Sunset” ski areas die and disappear. What is the new business model that can rescue/save the largest portion of this group, and how can NSAA facilitate the effort?”

• “How do we get the small local feeder areas to survive? Let's face it, we all learned how to ski not at Killington, but at the local little hill. The NELSAP [lost ski area list] list is long, and that should scare the hell out of people. How do we stop this decline? Literally the million dollar question.”

• “Corporatization of the industry. Is oligopoly on the horizon for not just the resorts, but also the suppliers?”

• “Attention to suppliers and their needs within the organization would be most welcome. We have never been asked for input.”

2. Grow participation

• “The on-going efforts to convert first timers is the best way to keep our industry healthy.”

• “Growth still remains a top priority—I believe in the unifying principle of transformation, you either grow or you die. The Growth Model has run its course and unfortunately did not move the needle. What's next?”

• “Continued focus on the Model for Growth.”

• “Growth of the sport and a model to attract new participants.”

• “Diversity, which lags despite our best efforts to grow this diverse skier population. By the way, minority groups are great customers, as they want to be skiers/American and don’t mind spending.”

• “Accessibility and welcoming. The industry must become more inclusive. Ski areas are insular, you have to be an insider to get it. Age, gender, and race are obvious opportunities. In our old boys industry, that never really changes, we pay lip service only. VERY old school. “

• “The demographic is changing. Schools are smaller, and the populations in them have different ideas. We are making progress but still have room to go. We need deep roots in the local communities; with that, I think our conversion rate will fix itself.”

• “Price of skiing. Getting silly and unreachable.”

• “Retention and attraction of customers to snow sports. This is always the top concern that should be number one on everyone’s list.”

3. Address Environment and Government

• “Michael’s successor should be much more active on the national political front. She should be lobbying aggressively on behalf of a carbon tax and carbon pollution regulation. We should also be pressing hard on not only immigration reform, but USCIS policy/practices that make foreign visitation more transparent and seamless—these are our customers trying to enter the country.”

• “Climate change: there is nowhere to hide. It is here, and will get worse. What are the industry’s non-negotiable positions on how we adapt moving forward?”

• “We need to be very vocal and proactive on climate change, even if this means telling investors we are a potential casualty of inaction.”

• “Government affairs regarding regulations and public lands.”

• “General governmental relations, primarily in regards to DOL, environment, economy, and legislation issues.”

• “Environmental concerns.”

• “Climate change.”

• “USFS relations, communication, and policy.”

4. Focus on business, operations, and technology

• “Sustainability. I define it as ‘being in business forever,’ not the narrow version of environmental activism. Changes in the market, world dynamics, political landscape, energy sources, employee issues (housing, wages)—all matter.”

• “New technology. How can we use it for communication, data generation, marketing, operations, and so on? What as an organization can we do to promote the use of these innovations to better our industry?”

• “Help independent resorts gain access to technology that will allow them to attract the next generation of visitors is a key challenge to address.”

• “Summer ops should be a big focus, along with how to make money off-season.”

• “Ensuring that all aerial lifts are safe is vital, as is making this goal financially reachable for all resorts.”

• “Probably the single biggest issue is solving the ski lift replacement crisis. Seems like many of our lifts are on the same track as the Boomers! Getting the lifts isn’t the problem, it’s getting them financed or paid for. The industry needs a locked-down funding partner (loan/lease), Wall Street or institutional, for this sole purpose.”

• “I see the industry’s short-term view of investment as a problem. We know we have aging lifts that have not gotten the capital they deserve, but snowmaking is in the same boat. It will become more and more critical as snowmaking windows become shorter, and it is absolutely addressable, but it takes planning and capital commitment. Europe has already made both investments, but they have a longer-term view of ROI than is taught to our MBA’s. I’m hoping KSL /Crown will offer a refreshing view.”

• “Change the name to Mountain Resort Association. The focus on winter is still primary, of course, but in the future the balance of winter and summer will be much closer industry-wide.”

5. Facilitate generational change

• “Aging industry, from the inside and out.”

• “The industry’s ‘greatest generation’ is still largely at work, but the days of their leadership are numbered. I don’t see a generation willing to take their place in the landing craft.”

• “I think we have a problem of good, talented people leaving this industry for a number of good reasons (poor wages, lack of benefits, lack of housing, no realistic career path, latent sexism, etc.) that we need to get a much firmer handle on. We do a great job of identifying this at national and regional events, we talk about it at break-out sessions, and nod our heads in agreement at the notion that we’re driving talented people away. And then we do next to nothing about it. We need someone to take ownership and charge of a national retention program within this business to stop the bleeding. We’re doing it at the individual resort level in some cases, and it’s the necessary first step, but we need cover at a national level as well. If we don’t get this fixed, a degrading environment, insane taxes, developmental restrictions, and nose-diving skier visits have no chance at realistic solutions. Conversely, if we can get the right people engaged, anything is possible.”

• “The aging of our industry, from infrastructure to top management.”