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March 2019

SAM Summit Series 2019—Part 2: Thinking About Growth

A select group of resort leaders answer difficult questions about how to attract, accommodate, and retain next-generation customers.

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In year two of the SAM Summit Series—a collaborative leadership development project in which industry up-and-comers learn from respected resort bigwigs—our 10 mentees take a more active role in the program, increasing their opportunities (and ours) to learn the ropes from renowned industry leaders.

During the conference calls, including this one that tackles the sticky subject of growth, mentors share their thoughts and answer mentees’ questions. We present excerpts here; the entire transcript is at

In addition to the calls, each mentee is paired with a mentor, and they’ve been connecting at least once a month for one-on-one phone calls. And to further this education, Dr. Natalie Ooi of Colorado State University’s graduate Ski Area Management Program provides mentees with additional deep-dive projects following every group call.

Thank you to all our mentors, and to Dr. Ooi, as well as the Summit Series sponsors MountainGuard and Leitner-Poma. And thank you, as always, to Paul Thallner of High Peaks Group, for his expert facilitation of each call.

Paul thallner: Every leader of every organization is constantly thinking about growth. It’s sort of the burden and the expectation of all leaders for organizations, and one that occupies a lot of brain space. Let’s get some questions from the mentees.

RICK HERLIHY: Do you view the shift to mountain consolidation as a growth driver for the industry as a whole? An example might be resorts having access to capital that they may not otherwise have had, so for a resort that’s getting that growth capital it’s very beneficial. But I’m interested in your perspective regarding the industry as a whole.

KIM MAYHEW: Solitude became an Alterra Mountain Company property in August. Your question is very thoughtful—I appreciate it because you’re exactly right. I hope that the consolidation will be a growth driver, both for the resorts to grow and to utilize that capital opportunity from the consolidation to better their brands and what they have to offer the guest.

Focusing on what the guest needs and what they’re telling you, it’s really important. It’s nice having the money to be able to execute some of those things. I’m seeing that as a real plus of consolidation.

The second part of your question is about growth in terms of skier visits or driving skier visits. I think it will. I think we’re still in a place where we’re competing for the same guest. But I think that the experience of being able to go to other properties within the consolidation may help spur some growth.

BEN DOORNBOS: I’m going to take this question from a slightly different perspective. We’re in the upper Midwest, and we’re not part of a consolidation, and I really don’t think anybody’s interested in [buying] us, either, because we’re not near a metro area that can be a theater to a bigger area out east or out west.

So, the question is an interesting one. For small areas like us that are owned by families, I actually think that the consolidation thing is a little bit of an opportunity for us, too, because it differentiates us from the bigger resorts. So for those folks that are still at small mom and pop ski areas, I think that there’s always been a little bit of, you know, a little bit of an underdog thing going on, and I think this highlights that even more.

And, certainly, our season pass growth for the past few years has been very good. I think that there is a model that works for the small ski areas that aren’t going to be part of the consolidation process.

I do think that small ski areas can actually benefit from this thing as well.

HUNTER STEINKAMP: Do you feel as though at times the [high] pricing [of day tickets, ski school, etc.] offsets and ultimately lowers demand enough to decrease participation in the sport and actually hurt the overall bottom line of the resort?

RUSS COLOTON: I would say that most of us have fairly affordable introductory programs into the sport. I think one of the challenges that we have is that we have discounted these programs to make it affordable and to have a larger reach into the market, but at some point we have to take these people and transition them into the retail market. And I think that’s where it becomes very difficult from the guest standpoint.

There are multi-day products, there are learn-to introductory products—the industry as a whole has some real affordable products out there where people, if they really have the interest, can get into the sport fairly affordably.

BEN: It’s a great time to be a skier who loves the sport and knows where they want to ski. So, if you’re a guy in the upper Midwest and you are going to spend all your time at Nub’s Nob and you buy that season pass ahead of time, you’re getting an incredible value.

But to Hunter’s point, I think the thing we need to worry about is, we’re talking to our core audience. We’re offering them a great product at a really fair price. But the folks that want to show up on a Saturday with zero planning, they are not getting a good price, and I think that there is some loss right there. As an industry, that’s where we need to think about the family that wants to just show up on a Saturday.

The folks that really don’t know the ski industry at all and just want to show up on a Saturday, there is a big price barrier for them.

I think that it’s important for all of us to look at that and say, OK, we’ve got a never-ever showing up here and they don’t know anything—how are we going to get them on the hill at a fair rate so we have a chance to convert them into season passholders down the road?

MEGHAN WILCOCK: We’re good at reaching peers, and engaging with established guests through our marketing practices. Do you have suggestions for marketing to non-skiers?

RUSS: We’ve had pretty good success at finding partners who have the ability to reach never-evers through different channels than we do. And frankly, they may have the resources that we may not have to get into small niche markets. But whether it’s different tour operators, whether it’s different associations, just the use of different partners out there, gives you the ability to reach markets that frankly sometimes we don’t even know exist.

We had a social tour operator that specialized in the Millennial market, for example. The skiing experience was just one part of the overall experience. It was really neat how they packaged it so that the bus tour itself was even part of the day.

And so a lot of people would come up, and probably 98 percent of them were first-time skiers or riders. They would spend two to four hours on the slope and then they were in having lunch or listening to the band in the bar or something. It was all experience-based, but this was a group that we never would have been able to reach, and we would never have been able to package it in such a way that the ski experience was just one aspect of the trip as a whole.

KIM: One of the things I have challenged my team with is to find those non-snowsport participant segments of our population here in central Utah, to kind of whet their palate a little bit about snowsports.

One thing we’ve done is hook up with a Spanish-speaking radio outfit. We have a fairly large Spanish-speaking population here in the Salt Lake Valley, and to tap into that market and see the Hispanic population coming up here and enjoying snowsports has been really nice.

We also partner with Ski Utah, which is an organization that helps to promote the skiing and snowboarding industry in our state. Solitude alone provides 1,000 fourth graders with free lesson packages. And that’s just our resort, that doesn’t include what Brighton does, what Alta does, or what Snowbird does as part of this Ski Utah program.

We have seen conversion from that population, and it is a diverse population. We provide discounted rental equipment and lessons [all the way up through sixth grade], and if you can get kids to ski more than three times, generally by the fourth time you’ve got them hooked. And then you provide incentives for them to continue. It’s a great opportunity.

PAUL: In your experience, either at a resort or the industry as a whole, what have you seen that we do well in terms of conversion and retention, and what is something that we could do better?

RUSS: I think what we do well is we express our passion. We’re all passionate about what we do, and I think that we translate that very well to the guest. What we don’t do well is, sometimes, we lose that passion in our processes.

BEN: I think what we do well as a ski area is what we’ve always done, which is snowmaking, grooming, and the service side of our business. I think most ski areas have that pretty dialed in.
I think the thing that we could do better is look for new opportunities at our ski hills. Things like creative terrain builds or expanding our ski offerings to include things like cross-country, uphill routes, and things like that. I think that as an industry, sometimes we move slower than we can, and should.

KIM: I think what we do well in the ski industry and here at Solitude is provide exceptional guest mountain experiences that are memorable.

I think what we could do better as an industry is compare and share best practices to be more innovative with untapped markets.

Listen to the entire chat on podSAM. Subscribe where you get podcasts.