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SAM Magazine—Bozeman, Mont., April 21, 2022—The Cross Country Ski Areas Association (CCSAA) held its annual conference, April 5-6, 2022.CCSAA 440x340 The event was held virtually via Zoom for the second consecutive year due to Covid concerns. It had a nice balance of U.S. and Canadian participants, including suppliers and specialty retailers from 15 states and four provinces. In total there were about 60 participants, slightly more than in 2021 but far fewer than in-person meetings of years past. 

There were two keynote presentations, one to kick off each day of the conference, followed by breakout rooms discussions among participants and summary conclusions. 

“The annual conference had two spectacular sessions over two days as part of what CCSAA does for its members,” said CCSAA executive director Reese Brown. “To have the opportunity to learn from industry legends such as Kelly Davis and Craig Panarisi, in addition to the ability to spend time in breakout rooms, where you can comment, challenge, and find solutions with other owners and operators in both the U.S. and Canada, is literally priceless.”

Trends and Current Events 

The first day revolved around “Trends and Current Events Affecting the Cross Country Ski Industry,” presented by Kelly Davis, founder of market research firm Snow Sports Insights and CCSAA’s director of research. The XC consumer, operational, and retail data Davis is generating cover both the U.S. and Canada, are tailored to Nordic skiing, and are based on good response numbers to various surveys.

Among matters Davis discussed were the likely effects of the Ukraine war and two-plus years of Covid (including the latest lockdowns in Asia) on the manufacture and transport of XC equipment during a time of consumer growth in North America and elsewhere. 

Related topics explored in breakout rooms included: 

  • Supply chain challenges will make it hard to find equipment, so operators should complete their rental/retail orders soon—and should not sell current rental fleets.
  • Significantly more XC areas plan to introduce or expand snowmaking, with most operations spending $200,000 or more on infrastructure. 
  • Crowding at alpine resorts may continue to generate substantial XC crossover.
  • Due to national work arrangements (i.e., more people working from home), operators can anticipate that weekday business will continue to be almost as strong as weekend business.
  • Capturing the U.S. Latino population as well as seniors 65 years and up, demographics experiencing huge, continued growth according to recent national census data, will be vital to the success of the ski business. 

Growth and the Customer Experience

Day two kicked off with Stratton Mountain, Vt., vice president of resort operations Craig Panarisi’s presentation on “Maintaining Growth and Managing the Customer Experience.” Panarisi, who has a long history in both alpine and Nordic operations, suggested XC operators concentrate on an “experiential economy.” As an example, he pointed to the hugely popular franchise Topgolf, which has gamified driving ranges, turning them into places where people socialize, not just practice their swing. Similarly, many XC ski participants aren’t as interested in improving their technique as they are in just enjoying the winter experience. 

When it comes to developing an attractive winter experience, Panarisi suggested social elements might include activities like yurt dinners, moonlit XC tours, snowshoe excursions to watch fireworks displays, and even selfie stations. He also strongly recommended creating added value for passholders, such as membership appreciation perks. He noted that in the alpine world, increasing daily ticket prices, offering fewer discounted products, and limiting daily inventory has allowed operators to increase revenue and better service season passholders.

CCSAA executive director Reese Brown shared that he was working on an as yet unreleased pass product to support a cooperative partnership between XC and alpine areas, the actualization of which is the new Indy XC Pass, launched just days after the conference on April 12.

In subsequent breakout rooms, participants discussed a wide range of subjects and solutions, including:

  • How to incentivize people to come during less congested days and times and alleviate crowding.
  • How private lessons generate more revenue and offer a better skier and instructor experience. 
  • The opportunity in adding more snowshoeing and fat-biking trails to operations. 
  • Additional activities, such as orienteering routes, XC areas could offer. 
  • What added-value attractions XC areas could provide to season passholders. 
  • How to stay in touch with guests by way of websites, personal emails, and snow reporting. 
  • How to build closer relationships with nearby but unaffiliated alpine areas. 
  • Staffing issues, including employee housing, how to find good people, and how to compete with alpine pay scales, now starting in many regions at $20 per hour.

Conference Participation

CCSAA membership has expanded dramatically in the last year, up around 20 percent since April 2021, and a number of conference attendees were non-members or new members, including several smaller areas. 

As Nick Mahood, Nordic director at Vermont’s Woodstock Touring Center, noted, “I’ve always found that these meetings are incredibly helpful in moving our business forward. It’s a great opportunity to learn from our colleagues.” 

Nate Harvey, program director at Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center in New Hampshire, agreed, explaining that, “As a board member and ski area operator, I find the most return and my biggest call to action comes from the breakout sessions and small ‘side chats.’ It’s totally worth the time and money to attend these conferences just to bounce ideas off one another and run with all the goodies I can scoop up from other professionals.”

Videos of both 2022 conference sessions are available here, on the CCSAA industry website. 

CCSAA plans to host next year’s conference in-person in early April 2023, in West Yellowstone, Mont. 

Author’s note: It is puzzling that more of the hundreds of XC operations in North America—including diverse independent areas, 100+ alpine affiliates, 400+ Nordic clubs/non-profits with grooming, more than 250 golf courses, and a multitude of municipal and other government-supported venues, all of whom can be major beneficiaries of CCSAA’s services—don’t participate in CCSAA’s free almost-monthly Zoom meetings and the annual Conference. The Zoom version cost a mere $45.

As one conference participant said, “How can you run a XC ski area without being part of this organization?” 

Report by Jonathan Wiesel, Nordic Group International