By early February, Big Snow American Dream had garnered more than two billion media impressions since it opened Dec. 5. For good reason: North America’s first year-round indoor ski dome is newsworthy. It’s a unique attraction attached to a three-million-square-foot retail and entertainment complex—aka, a mall—in New Jersey. Its grand opening featured Olympic gold medalists Lindsey Vonn, Kelly Clark, Red Girard, and Donna Weinbrecht, who rode the only “first chair” Big Snow will ever have, adding to the media frenzy.
For the mountain resort industry, though, this new facility is newsworthy for other reasons. “According to NSAA numbers, there are one million trial visits—people coming to mountain resorts to try skiing and snowboarding for the first time—a year in the U.S.,” says Joe Hession, CEO of SNOW Operating, which operates Big Snow. “Our goal is to add 20-25 percent to that number here at Big Snow in our first year of operation.”
That’s a dramatic contribution. So far, Hession reports that half of the visitors to Big Snow are first-timers. That ratio is expected to remain constant, and with projected total visitation of about 500,000 in the first year, the math works out.
I took my family to Big Snow in January, about a month after that golden first chair went up and tens of thousands of people had already walked through the doors. Here’s what we learned.
A very small handful of ski areas nationwide have what can be considered diverse clientele. Big Snow is one. On the day we visited, most guests were Asian, African American, and Latino. This is the norm, according to SNOW Operating VP of sales and marketing Hugh Reynolds.
“On weekends and times of peak volume, Caucasian guests have been the minority, which is totally awesome,” says Reynolds. “We are reaching a segment of guests en masse that we’ve not been able to attract at these levels before. Not even at Mountain Creek, which pulls from the same New York City market and is only an hour away [from Big Snow].” Guest ethnicity mirrors that of New York City, a mere 10 miles away, where non-whites account for roughly 57 percent of the population.
By design, Big Snow’s staff is also representative of the visitor mix. “We knew having a multi-cultural staff was going to be important to the operation,” says Reynolds. “The ability to speak multiple languages was definitely a plus for those candidates who made us aware during their interview process.”
The assistant guest experience manager is conversational in five languages. Other staff members are fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Hebrew, Polish, Italian, and Greek, among others.
Guest diversity at Big Snow isn’t limited to ethnicity, though. Reynolds says the diverse physical makeup of guests has been a pleasant surprise, and they’ve ordered more plus-size rental clothing as a result.
Most of the news about Big Snow focuses on what’s inside the ski dome, because of its novelty. Novel to our industry, though, is the efficient process guests experience prior to setting foot on snow. This part is important for a variety of reasons, especially for first-timers who walk through the door in flipflops.
Of course, the operators had the luxury of designing this experience almost from scratch, and specifically for this venue. It is difficult to compare it with a mountain resort. Many unique factors are involved—some transferable, some not.
A maximum of 500 guests can be in the ski dome at any given time. Two- or four-hour time slots are sold in 15-minute increments, and there’s a cap of 50 arrivals per increment. The time you book begins the “arrival experience,” not the time you must be on snow. Let’s walk through that experience.
SnowCloud. Your interaction with SnowCloud—the enterprise software developed by Snow Operating—begins the moment you walk through the door. Everything runs on this software. I purchased on site, using one of the tablets mounted to a staffed kiosk in the entryway, where I entered all the necessary info for the whole family. That includes shoe and clothing size, skier type, etc., since we were getting rental clothes and equipment. We each got an RFID wristband—similar to what you get at a festival—loaded with our individual info. Before entering the queue, a staff member scanned each wristband and greeted us by name.
The queue. A short-ish maze of stanchions weaves through a room with walls covered in murals. One mural introduces Big, the yeti mascot for Big Snow. Others include stats and facts about skiing and snowboarding in the U.S.
“The factoids in the queuing area are designed to make guests feel more connected to the greater industry, not just the activity they’re participating in that day,” says Reynolds.
While you’re waiting in line, which doesn’t happen for longer than a few minutes even on the busiest days, the murals are a nice distraction, and something mountain resorts could adopt in areas where lines form.
The gondolas. After navigating the queue, guests are systematically released into one of three big gondola cabins. Inside the gondolas, a short video hosted by Halley O’Brien plays, in which she tells the story of Big the yeti, and explains what the next steps are so guests know what to expect. Each gondola can hold as many as 20 people, and groups rotate through every five minutes.
“If you suspend disbelief, the gondola cabins take you from the lobby to the Big Snow base lodge,” Reynolds says.
The gondolas serve an even more important purpose than orientation, though. They are a “control valve,” says Reynolds, to make sure no steps in the arrival experience get overloaded. “This step is designed to help us meter the demand and the flow of guests,” he says. If the line at the bootfitting bridge backs up, for example, staff can respond by putting fewer people in each gondola cabin until the boot line shortens.
Rental gear. Through the door at one end of the gondola is the rental clothing counter. Our wristbands get scanned, telling the staff what size snow pants and parkas we need, and we’re handed neatly folded gear. There are a handful of changing stalls just past the counter, and bathrooms as well, so guests can evacuate before layering up. It’s all quite linear.
Rental apparel is a necessity at Big Snow. Half of its guests, so far, arrive without winter clothing. Big Snow has two washers and two driers on site for its 1,500 jackets and pants, and Reynolds says that while doing laundry is not a glamorous job, it’s an essential one—and well worth the trouble. “We’ve developed a pretty good system to stay on top of it, but I’d be lying if I said that during the holiday period, laundry duty didn’t become a full-time job,” he recalls.
Boot bridge. There is space for eight guests to get their ski or snowboard boots fitted at once on the boot bridge, an elevated platform that puts your feet at a manageable level for the boot tech to fit you without bending over. The tech scans my wristband to get my boot size, and shortly after that I’m walking away in Head rental boots.
My wristband is scanned again at the bottom of the stairs exiting the boot bridge. This shoots a ticket to the ski techs in the back, telling staff my boot size, height, weight, and skier type. The staff member tells me my skis will be in rack 8 inside the ski dome.
Lockers. At Big Snow, the lockers are free to use. At ski areas that still charge for secure lockers, many guests will choose not to pay for a locker, instead opting to stow their stuff under benches or tables or wherever, leaving the space a cluttered mess.
“We were trying to think guest-first,” says Reynolds. “The more times you ask people to open their wallets for you, the less inclined they are to do so.” The 700 lockers are all controlled by the RFID bracelets. Guests find an open locker, put their stuff in, and use their bracelet to lock and unlock it. As a result, the space is tidy, and guests don’t feel nickel-and-dimed.
On-snow ski pickup. We stow our stuff in lockers and proceed to the entryway of the ski dome, where we’re scanned one last time, and the clock starts on our allotted two hours of skiing.
Walking into the ski dome is like walking outside—it’s cold. On the ground to the left of the entryway is a series of “racks” where we pick up our rental skis. The racks are rows of slots that hold skis vertically. Each row is numbered. I find #8, the tech scans my wristband and my skis, and we’re off.
This step in the rental process is very transferable to mountain resorts. Providing guests their skis on snow rather than in the rental shop eliminates the struggle most renters—especially newbies—have juggling skis and poles while clunking along in ski boots on their way out to the snow. As far as I know, only the les Sommets resorts in Quebec, which pioneered the “ski box” on-snow ski distribution station, and Mountain Creek do this.
Start to finish, the arrival experience takes only about 15 minutes, even on busy days when Big Snow is fully staffed. That includes ticketing, orientation, rental clothing, boot fitting, and ski pickup.
After going through a frictionless arrival process, half of Big Snow’s guests are in foreign territory. “We decided to focus on what makes the most sense for the guest, so introductory lessons through the Terrain Based Learning process are complimentary for everyone,” says Reynolds.
The Big Snow base area has a series of TBL features. There’s a sign at each with written instructions about the purpose of the feature and how to use it, and a QR code on each sign can be scanned with a phone to bring up a video of an instructor who walks users through how to use the feature. Live instructors are present in each area, too, to provide help as needed. Reynolds describes it as a self-guided experience, for which Big Snow provides “a road map and a pathway to follow,” he says.
The Path to the Mountains
“Our original thinking was we’d give people a great introductory experience and a sample of what it would be like if they visited an outdoor mountain resort, and then hopefully connect them with resorts that are close to them,” says Reynolds. To start, he says, Big Snow has partnered with Blue Mountain, Pa., Jiminy Peak, Mass., Bromley, Vt., Cranmore, N.H., and, of course, Mountain Creek, N.J. The partnership includes a listing on Big Snow’s website and post-visit follow-up offers via email.
Big Snow is in talks with a handful of other resorts about “sharing customers.” Ideally, this would involve ski areas connecting their guests with Big Snow in the non-winter months, and Big Snow connecting its customers to ski areas in winter so they can take that next step.
Charting this path is important. Hession thinks the actual conversion rate for Big Snow skiers and riders may be lower than it is at many resorts that excel at trial and conversion—some with conversion rates of around 30 percent. Since Big Snow makes it easy for just about anyone to try skiing or snowboarding, trial doesn’t require as much of a commitment on the guests’ part compared to visiting an outdoor ski area. The clientele might be less outdoorsy, too, so they might be less motivated to take next steps.
The goal, then, is to not only introduce newcomers to the sport, but to spend as much effort giving them a taste of the culture. “The funniest thing about growing skiing is that it has very little to do with skiing,” says Hession. “Growing skiing has a lot more to do with getting people comfortable with the culture of skiing.”
In other words, proficiency on-snow is secondary to helping people feel like they’re part of the ski and snowboard community and lifestyle. Showing up to a ski area on a busy Saturday is intimidating for first-timers because it’s all so new. An orientation at Big Snow can help ease this experience.
When the ski dome was built, roughly a decade ago, Hession says the designers incorrectly aimed to compete with mountain resorts. Hence the slope is a fairly steep 26-percent grade. Hession and Reynolds have no pretense that Big Snow is a mountain replacement. Rather, it is an unprecedented opportunity to expose the masses to skiing, snowboarding, and snow in a controlled environment.
Many elements of the operation should prove instructive for the industry. As Karen Heller wrote in her article about Big Snow in The Washington Post, “To attract a fresh, diverse crop of patrons, snow sports need to blow up the existing model, by being inexpensive, accessible, easy and—why the heck not?—available more months of the year. They need to be more Jersey.”
Big Snow nailed that.