The ski industry has made strong statements recently about addressing the lack of diversity and inclusion in our sport. That’s refreshing. Prior to this moment, however, the industry has had the opportunity (largely missed) to engage with and support dozens of established programs that for years have sought to help introduce the joy of skiing to diverse and underserved communities. Why has it been an uphill battle to get ski areas on board with these programs?
Program leaders have heard the same pushbacks for years. We asked a handful of these leaders, as well as resort leaders who support such programs, to address some of the common pushbacks and how to overcome them.
Culture Over Committees
Of skiing’s diversity issue, an intern at Winter4Kids asked, “Is this about creating committees or a welcoming culture?”
In other words: Are we just going to talk about this, or actually do something?
“It is a multi-generation project,” says Schone Malliet, president and CEO of the Winter4Kids National Winter Activities Center (NWAC) in New Jersey. Malliet is the only Black CEO of a ski area in North America. The Winter4Kids NWAC dedicates its entire operation to sharing winter recreation with underserved youth.
According to Malliet and other leaders, there are a handful of steps that ski areas can take to create a culture of inclusion and immersion:
1. Support programs that connect underserved BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color) communities to the mountains. (We listed several such programs in News & Views, SAM July 2020.)
2. Build and/or support a pipeline of continued access to the mountains via clubs, employment, and incentives.
3. Track investments and results and continue to communicate with the participants to understand their participation level, access, and hurdles.
4. Create a welcome and understanding culture for these communities that supports immersion into the winter sports community.
5. Commit to a lengthy road ahead. Equal participation and representation aren’t going to happen overnight.
Here, we’re going to focus on step one: supporting programs that target underserved youth, primarily from communities with diverse populations. Yes, many resorts have pushbacks to this idea, and even some legit hurdles. We assembled a panel of leaders to not only address them, but offer solutions on how to move past them.
- Schone Malliet, President and CEO, Winter4Kids;
- Constance Beverley, CEO, Share Winter Foundation;
- Bryan Van Dorpe, Executive Director, Youth Enrichment Services (YES);
- Maggie Loring, Mountain School Director, Snowbird, Utah;
- Nicky DeFord, Director of Community Investment, Vail Resorts.
We don’t have room. We sell out our lessons at full price.
“This is obviously not valid 100 percent of the time, unless you have a teeny program,” says Maggie Loring, mountain school director at Snowbird, Utah. At most resorts, lessons are often booked solid during peak times, so resorts need to identify where they can expand or fill off-peak times. “I challenge people to find times when they would otherwise send staff home, the ski school isn’t running full speed yet, or you simply have new staff that need experience,” she adds.
Constance Beverley, CEO of Share Winter, a grantmaking organization that helps fund winter sports programs for underserved youth, agrees. “The key is identifying when you have slow days and time slots where you aren’t optimizing revenue,” she says. “Or look at the early season, when lessons are slow and you’re still training. Moreover, through programs like the PSIA junior instructor program, returning youth can train and help instruct their peers and community members.”
Some years, these programs save your bacon, Loring says. “This is often guaranteed revenue. It’s usually paid up front, and programs pay for multiple weeks—which is a good model as it allows for better pricing.”
We can’t displace revenue without guaranteed return.
“There has to be a return on investment for this to work and be sustainable,” agrees Malliet, though he suggests taking a long-term view. Even in the short run, “an increase in the conversion rate, tied to a local affinity plan, would generate additional revenue,” he says. “Creating a future pool of talent [employees] can also offset costs.”
There are other ways to place a value on the potential returns. For example, if the conversion rate of a program is higher than the industry average of 19 percent, it’s likely a win.
For the more financially inclined, Malliet helped create a worksheet (below) for estimating the cost per student, which then helps calculate the potential returns. Data show that multiple visits and lessons increase the conversion rate, hence the structure of the worksheet. Transportation and clothing can be additional costs, but these, along with meals, can be offset by grants and community support. If not, add them to the worksheet.
Malliet’s program includes six visits a season, with lessons, equipment and clothing, a hot meal, and lift ticket. He estimates this costs $130 to $250 per student. Fifty percent of these participants return the next year. Sixty-two percent of those become lifetime members of the snowsports community—a 31 percent conversion rate.
If the lifetime value is roughly $20,000 for each successful conversion—a conservative estimate, based on industry data—and it costs $775 for each conversion (using $250 per participant as the basic cost, and 31 percent as the conversion rate), then Malliet’s program returns about 25 times its cost over the convert’s lifetime. A resort’s short-term return depends on the products used to retain newcomers.
Grants and other funding can offset costs and make the returns more attractive. Plus, the programs benefit participants in more ways than just learning to ski or ride, which broadens the funding opportunities.
“When you talk about improved healthy lifestyles, enriched attitudes about self-esteem, nutrition, and cross-cultural interaction, better school attendance, and increased college acceptance,” says Malliet, “funding for participants can be acquired from other sources, such as institutional, individual/family, and local corporate grants.”
Programs need not be free. “This is a valuable product that costs money to produce well,” says Loring. “If you charge a reasonable amount and provide a product that the kids love, then you will absolutely see returns. However, falling into the trap of ‘it’s a local program that doesn’t matter as much because it’s not so much revenue,’ then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you truly value the kids and the program, there will absolutely be returns. In more ways than one.”
We don’t have the staff or proper resources to support a charitable program.
“I challenge that,” says Loring. “There are always times where you have staff that would rather work than be sent home. That said, it requires a good partnership with the programs to find the right times. Once you identify them, it can help with staff training and keep folks bringing in revenue when there might not otherwise be any.”
Snowbird hosted 17 school and community groups during the 2019-20 season, which is no small feat. It required a dedicated manager to work out the logistics, like balancing programs that can pay more with those that need more financial support.
Vail Resorts hosts nearly 4,500 kids annually across multiple resorts, with free lift tickets, ski school, equipment rentals, and other services. “For the most part, we host groups when ski school is less busy—either during the week or at slower times during the season,” says Nicky DeFord, Vail Resorts director of community investment.
Some programs, such as YES (Youth Enrichment Services), address the staffing issue by bringing their own. “YES has never required instructors or designated space,” says YES executive director Bryan Van Dorpe. “We train and transport our own ski/snowboard volunteers as instructors, and we implement our own lessons, usually at the beginner slopes, or wherever it is most practical.”
Whether addressing staffing, space, or equipment shortages, resourcefulness and communication are key, says Beverley. “Perhaps rentals come from another source, like maintaining a ‘retired’ rental fleet for an extra year and using it only for community programs. Pop-up ‘lodges’ or storage can be created, like Belleayre Mountain’s (N.Y.) snow barn for Stoked Mentoring, or the trailer purchased by school districts in the Snow Motion program collaboration with Cochran’s Ski Area, Vt. And preparations can even happen utilizing in-school visits, like with Burton’s Riglet program.”
“If we don’t get creative around producing these programs, the future will look pretty bleak,” warns Loring.
We’ve attempted to work with schools, but there are so many communication and policy issues that it becomes a huge project.
Yes, it takes a lot of work to get these programs started. But there are resources that can help. “Partnering with organizations like Share Winter Foundation and Winter4Kids, which have qualitative and data-driven information, makes for a smoother introduction and adoption by schools and other youth-serving organizations,” says Malliet.
“The key is to identify a handful of schools you can work with, and develop systems and best practices that keep those strong partnerships running,” says Beverley. “Share Winter can help with that. From there, you have to set specific, clear guidelines, identify required staff commitments and enough representatives to serve as liaisons, and invest real time into the process.”
Snowbird has nixed several school programs because they became too cumbersome, and then added others. “There are no shortcuts—it takes commitment and work from both sides to make it work, no question,” Loring says.
We’ve tried these programs and they fail to produce return customers. I have a hard time selling these programs to upper management as they don’t see the long-term value.
“Many mountains say this, but honestly, never collected the data,” says Beverley. “Prior to our involvement, we spoke to mountains who gave out comp marketing tickets, but never got to know the kids or kept them in their marketing pipeline. This is unconscious bias. That’s why they fail. Success requires true partnership and a community of partners coming together to create and maintain a true pipeline to ongoing participation.”
To Van Dorpe, these pushbacks feel “short-sighted and outdated.” He adds: “Success based on ‘return customers’ can only be measured longitudinally, as the introduction of people of color to the skiing and snowboarding world may take multigenerational efforts and support to become acclimated and entrenched in this outdoor winter sports society.”
DeFord agrees. “Though we want to provide long-term access, youth access programs should not be primarily about creating repeat paying customers. The focus should be on how much these programs truly make a difference in the lives of kids and teens—and the difference it makes within the sport itself.”
Whether working with a local school, a ski-specific non-profit, or an underserved community, several themes emerge when addressing diversity with youth programming.
Put your money where your mouth is. If you make a statement about supporting Black and underserved communities, then make it a separate line item in your budget. While there are many resources out there to help support these programs, budgeting time and money for them is necessary for success. If you simply add this responsibility to ski school, say, and budget for the usual profit margin, you are bound to fail.
Get creative. Your marketing, ski school, and operating teams are full of creative, smart people who are passionate about helping with these programs. Budget time for them to research funding resources, delve into analytics, and identify where, when, and how you can implement these programs. Assign people to connect with local schools, programs, and underserved community leaders, too.
Don’t waste a good crisis. This season is going to be all about identifying areas of opportunity. This might mean trying something new that could have long-term success. Look for the open spaces that can be filled with these programs—down times, empty lodges, pre-holiday slumps, employment gaps, etc.
It’s all about community. Both the pandemic and the surging equality movement reinforce the importance of community. Connect with your local schools, charities, and underserved communities, and build the bridges needed to make change happen. Strong, supportive communities are the foundation of change and growth.
Connect with like minds. Pick up the phone and call a local or national youth winter-sports program. They’ll be happy to share advice and strategies with you. The resources and answers are often out there, so don’t be afraid to ask about them.
“It’s important that we break down barriers to entry and inspire the next generation of skiers and riders,” says DeFord. “Youth access programs are one important way to broaden engagement with the sport. When it comes to youth access, every resort should be a part of the conversation, no matter how much they’re able to contribute or provide.”