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September 2022

A Renewed Focus on Growth

Participation growth concerns were sidelined during the past two Covid-restricted seasons, but now it's time to refocus on developing the market.

Written by Rick Kahl | 0 comment

What ever happened to the goal of growing participation in skiing and snowboarding? Resorts spent the past two years managing through Covid, and did it so successfully the industry set a record for skier visits last season. That might suggest the industry need not worry too much about finding new customers. Or, with Covid restrictions largely behind us, is it time to refocus on developing the market again?

To explore these and related questions, SAM convened a Zoom discussion with Brad Wilson, GM, Bogus Basin, Idaho; Hugh Reynolds, CMO, Mountain Creek and Big SNOW, N.J.; Carolyn Stimpson, VP, Wachusett Mountain, Mass.; Nadia Guerriero, COO, Beaver Creek, Colo.; Matt Vohs, GM, Cascade Mountain, Wis.; and Nicholas Herrin, recently named senior VP of snowsports for Boyne Resorts and former CEO of the Professional Ski Instructors of America and American Association of Snowboard Instructors (PSIA-AASI). 

Time to Refocus

Wilson thinks it's time to get back in the growth game. “We’re running on this Covid high from all the lapsed skiers that decided to come back,” he said. “The big question is, are they going to continue or not? If they do, great, but that doesn’t mean we turn our back on beginners.

“I have a sneaking suspicion that we’re going to start to see the market softening a bit, and we’re going to need to make sure we have that new class of skiers coming in.”

Reynolds agreed. During Covid, “every day behaved like a weekend in terms of visitation and demand,” he said. “But starting last winter, that pattern is changing. Demand, particularly midweek, is certainly not as strong as it was.”

Record, schmecord. “Even if we set a visit record last year, the reality of our sport is that it’s only grown about one percent over the past decade,” said Guerriero. “We still have a lot of work to do.”

Back to the future. For the two Covid winters, Wachusett limited visits to the point that it was only able to serve its core customers. “This is going to absolutely be changed this year,” said Stimpson. “It’s our focus to make sure we get the beginners back on the hill. We’re going to continue focusing on the school group program and opening up our school groups. We are going to go all-in after the first timers,” she said.

“Part of any good sales and marketing campaign has to include some tactics to attract new guests and new participation to the sport,” said Reynolds. “It’s not sustainable just to focus on the guests that we have today.”

Ample opportunity. Reynolds outlined the scope of the opportunity. “NSAA data tells us 83 percent of first-time ski and snowboard participants don’t return for a second visit. So, all resorts, regardless of size, should be paying attention, first and foremost, to the experience that they’re offering to these customers.

“If we could do a better job of retaining some of the organic trial participation that we’re already seeing, we would see growth overall as an industry,” he continued. “We should also be focusing on inviting more trial in—but we have a long way to go just on better servicing the new participants that we’re already receiving.” 

Not Cookie Cutter

“What that looks like is going to be different for each resort, or at least each type of resort,” Reynolds added.

Beaver Creek is an example of that. With a significant destination audience, Beaver Creek has invested heavily in its facilities for beginners, broadly defined (see sidebar), from first timers to young families. Typically, Haymeadow Park at the base of the resort serves relative newcomers and kids. Beginners then migrate to the top-of-the-mountain Red Buffalo Park, “a very unique experience for beginners,” said Guerriero, with views to Vail and the Gore Range.

Last January, the resort added family-oriented McCoy Park, a pod of two lifts and 17 trails, 14 of which are green. “It’s this really secluded, protected area where beginners can go and have an experience like none other. It’s kind of a bowl feeling and there's not cross traffic,” she said.

This sort of all-mountain experience is crucial for guests at destination resorts—and all resorts, said Herrin. “We know the further they get out on the mountain, the more they have a true mountain experience,” he said, adding that this leads to longer stays and, presumably, more conversion.

Individualism at Boyne Resorts. For Herrin, with a range of resorts in the Boyne family, “The philosophy is, meet the guest at who they are and what facility they’re coming to,” he said. “The more we can figure out what is the right fit for your resort, whether you’re a day resort or a destination resort, that’s going to be key.” It’s all about finding “the right fit for the customer base of that region.” 

Balancing Profit And Customer Development

Mountain Creek’s individual answer is unique. To deal with continuing demand and shortages of staff, including instructors, and to also serve value-oriented newcomers, “we moved to a station-based approach to our beginner experience, and made introductory lessons free for all guests,” Reynolds said. “Beginners get access to our terrain based learning area; we have a dedicated crew of instructors that service that area. That frees up more instructors to service private lessons, which we seem to have an inexhaustible demand for.”

Sustainable demand. To maintain robust demand for tomorrow, it’s necessary to find ways to service today’s beginner. “If we're not filling the sales funnel with new participants, eventually that demand is going to diminish,” said Reynolds.

The goal, he said, “is about finding efficiencies in your operation and new ways to look at business opportunities, without completely ignoring the fact that we have to still focus on getting new participants to try our sports and to try and grow participation as a whole.”

Bargains at Bogus. Bogus Basin is seeking a balance of learn-to options. “Last season we eased back into a daily learn-to-ski, learn-to-ride product,” which is $69 for a 90-minute lesson, rentals, and a lift ticket, said Wilson.

Bogus pushes a different product, though—its multi-day Passport program—”because that’s where we see the conversion [more than 50 percent],” he explained. The program includes four days of instruction, a yearlong ski or snowboard lease, and a season pass upon completion of the program.

“Unfortunately, you don't get the volume there,” Wilson said, about 1,000 Passport participants vs. 6,000 in the Bogus school program. As a steppingstone, “we should be doing considerably more in at least getting people in that first-timer lesson,” he admitted.

Off-peak push. First-timers can be incentivized to book lessons during off-peak times through pricing. During weekends and holidays, “We’re bursting at the seams,” said Reynolds. Offering lower prices midweek or during less busy times of day—and encouraging advance purchase—is a way to fill voids and provide value to the guest. 

At Wachusett, school groups leave at 7 p.m. during the week, so the resort offers a 7 p.m. lesson. “We have capacity then, so we’re going to give a really inexpensive lesson opportunity for beginners at seven o’clock,” said Stimpson. 

School Groups Return

Speaking of school groups, bringing them back is a focus for many local areas.

Mass appeal. During Covid, “school groups went away,” said Stimpson. However, “We got back to within 11 percent of our 10,000 school-group kids last year. And we will refocus on getting the rest of them back, because there's nothing more important in my world than to get those kids back on the slopes, for their mental wellbeing as well as for the industry itself.”

“We had a similar situation with our after-school ski program,” said Wilson. “It went away during Covid, but we had a rebound last year, and we expect to be up to pre-pandemic levels with that program as well.”

Covid lessons. But the school and group programs could look different based on lessons learned during Covid. Cascade Mountain, Wis., saw an increase in beginner conversion—as well as revenue and lessons—after it abandoned group programs during Covid and focused on private lessons, said Vohs. The price of private lessons, along with smaller crowds, “made that lesson that much more valuable to our guests.” And that raised conversion rates. Cascade will continue to emphasize private lessons, particularly on weekends.

Now, “we’re focusing our efforts on how to get that school traffic back,” he said, and how to improve the group experience and conversion rates. “We need to reinvent how we do that program, and not just have mass groups of any size coming in Monday through Thursday, like we used to,” he noted.

While Cascade doesn't have all the answers yet, said Vohs, “we know that we need to move forward with the pre-purchase of tickets and lessons and pre-registration for lessons and using all the tools that we’ve learned how to use over the last two years. That’s the best way we can make sure our staffing is appropriate to keep that value high for the guests.” 

Good Staff Is Hard to Find

Staffing has been a limiting factor for resorts, even before the pandemic hit. So, resorts continue to seek new ways to find and retain staff, including instructors.

Better wages and benefits are one piece of the puzzle. Guerriero pointed out that Vail Resorts is spending $175 million on such things as salaries, training, housing, and mental health to boost its support for staff.

Doing more with less. “One of the macro trends that’s going to continue is, resorts have to find ways to do more with less staff, or at least the same number of staff,” said Reynolds. “It continues to be hard to find people, although with the current economic climate, that’s changing slightly.” 

As with VR, Mountain Creek is investing in its people. “We worked really hard at finding ways to be more efficient in how we operate, so we need less people overall. Then, we take the savings from that reduction and we invest it back into the team. That allows us to attract and maintain a higher level of team member.”

All instructors can teach beginners, not just those at the bottom of the pecking order, added Herrin, former PSIA-AASI chief. Certified instructors believing they are above teaching beginners “is a huge culture issue” that has been a problem for 40 years, he said, though it has lessened some recently.

The culture should be, “All instructors teach beginners,” he asserted. “If you’re an instructor, if you’re an educator, you teach all levels.” There is value in training, Herrin added: “Having access and equity in terms of education is critical ... and that’s what it’s going to take to be successful during the ebbs and flows of the season.” 

Delivering the Message

Along with a return of beginner programs, resorts are amping up their marketing toward beginners.

Be proactive. “We are going to use our beginners to communicate to the beginners,” said Stimpson. “There’s nothing better than word of mouth. We’re using promotions with the first timers to bring their friends.” When a first timer finishes a lesson, they get a voucher: “We’ll email them a voucher that says, ‘Hey, bring somebody that you think will have as much fun as you did.’”

“One of the things that we focus on is not waiting for never-evers to come to us,” said Wilson. “We go to the schools, I’m sure like Carolyn does, and encourage them to come up. Reaching out in the market and bringing them up is significant.”

Tell the story. “Historically, a lot of local ski area marketing has focused on products and pricing, and it's been very, very tactical,” said Reynolds. “I’ve tried to focus more on the experience and make it more about why somebody would want to spend their recreational time and dollars at a ski area” as opposed to other options.

Reynolds backs this up with funding. “At Mountain Creek, 25 percent of our revenue comes from first-time lift, lesson, and rental packages,” he said. “So, I always make sure that at least 25 percent of our advertising is focusing on that segment. 

“At Big SNOW, 55 percent of our revenue comes from beginners. So, a majority of our advertising shows people in rental outerwear and on rental skis and snowboards, because that’s the guest that we’re trying to attract, and we want them to be able to see themselves in that scenario.”

Similarly, at Wachusett, Stimpson makes a point to shoot video and take photos of guests having fun in lessons to “show the person sitting on the couch someone who looks like them, and that they can actually learn to ski.”

Return of a national program. After NSAA ended the national Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month program and launched Discover Snow, Covid curtailed development of the latter. Several areas indicated they would like to see a national program return.

“It would be great if our organizations work together to get out the messaging, to have that branding piece,” said Stimpson. “That’s just people being outdoors and enjoying things. It’s good for the health and mental wellbeing of people. Just show ‘em outside, having fun, all different sizes, flavors, you know, people of all types just out there enjoying outdoor recreation.”

Wilson agreed. “We're gonna need to make sure we have that new class of skiers coming in. So a national program would be awesome. NSAA did a fantastic job over Covid; I think if we can put our collective minds together and come up with a great national program, it’d be really good.”

Yes, it’s time to refocus on learn-to programs. Covid temporarily interrupted these efforts, but it also illuminated ways to revive and improve them. There’s no lack of ideas for growth. Now it's time to show the will to pursue them.