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SAM Magazine—West Yellowstone, Mont., May 12, 2023—Cross Country Ski Areas Association (CCSAA) held its first in-person spring conference since 2019 on April 3-5, 2023, at West Yellowstone, Mont., where snowpack was on the order of four feet and drifted-in roofs were still on the edge of collapse.CCSAA Annual Conference 2023

Attendance was slightly below the 2019 conference; 61 people showed, representing 39 entities—a mix of U.S. and Canadian Nordic commercial areas plus ski clubs, suppliers, retailers, and media. Numbers would have been significantly higher save for cancellations due to continued operations (so much snow in the West) and travel problems (again snow).

While there was a core of long-time conference participants, there were also faces new to these meetings, and even some recent newcomers to the Nordic business. Western attendees were most numerous, although the Northeast had a strong presence. Add grooming and other suppliers and even a couple of consultants and it was a formula for a lively exchange of ideas, experience, and opinion.

The mood throughout was confident, and both presentations and background conversations reinforced assurance about the future of the sport and industry. There was a sense that Covid had run its course and was a powerful stimulus to push people outdoors—now the issue is retaining guests.

Optimistic Outlook

Andrew Ricciardelli of Franconia Inn noted that “I’ve only been in the business for two seasons, but I certainly see an increase in interest in Nordic skiing, both in my community and elsewhere. It was great to visit West Yellowstone where Nordic skiing is far more established than in Franconia... By actively enhancing our Nordic center, we can be ahead of the curve as more skiers show interest in our area.”

Marci Dye agreed, saying that “My main fear was that interest in cross country skiing was going to plateau and dwindle, after the Covid surge of outdoor users… Cross country skiing is a lifetime sport, covering tiny kids to elderly retired skiers, and Nordic Centers are how to keep everyone on skis and active in the winter.”

Evan Weiss, executive director of Bridger Ski Foundation, felt that “BSF is seeing continued growth in cross-country skiing, especially for fitness and alpine refugees.” At the same time, “Funding is our primary concern. We are always looking for ways to better promote and sell trail passes. We are looking at membership models [as opposed to season passes] as well to make people feel they’re part of what makes the Bozeman trails unique and accessible to all.”

One theme that emerged was the growing diversity in operational types; another was the examination of ways to expand revenue, including new sources. Operators noted that food and beverage, and retail, hold strong potential as profit centers. From conversations even more than presentations, there’s increased emphasis on customer service and being better businesspeople rather than the longstanding personal commitment to the sport of XC skiing. One intriguing trend is evolution from Nordic centers to outdoor centers with multiple activities.

Presentations and Networking

Participant evaluations of the meetings ranged from positive to buoyant. Matt Sabasteanski, recreation director at Pineland Farms Outdoor Center in Maine, appreciated the workshops/roundtables/talks and informal chats, on snow and off: “The information gleaned from the presentations is fantastic, but secondary to having time to focus on detailed discussions with folks that are doing the same thing I am every day.” 

Marci Dye of Sylvan Peak Mountain Shop and Red Lodge Nordic Center in Montana agreed: “Our town, and our area are very tiny and sometimes it feels like I'm in this ‘crazy world’ all by myself. It's so great to discuss, find folks with the same issues, maybe solve some problems and maybe not! But, the people connections, the conversations, and turning our industry into a small family for a few days, is the absolute major benefit.”

Presentations included an introduction to snowmaking by Mike Hussey of Rikert Outdoor Center, Vt; benefits of offering memberships (giving a sense of belonging) rather than season passes; using activities and events programing to better engage guests; and a panel discussion on what makes a successful retail program. On-snow activities included an introduction to biathlon.

Ian Harvey, Toko’s U.S. brand manager, offered insider insights affecting rental/retail, perhaps most importantly that the industry has temporarily moved from product scarcity to overstock. Sales of all types were extraordinarily strong in 2021-22, yet this past winter’s pre-season orders were down by 40 percent.

One of CCSAA’s major recent accomplishments has been to collaborate with Nicholas Hill Group to provide liability insurance when a long-time resource pulled out of the business. The program has generated several dozen new members. Founder Nathan Nicholas noted that they’re constantly tweaking the CCSAA policy to improve coverage.

One the media side, Benjamin Sadavoy, publisher of defunct Ski Trax, introduced his print publication Best Nordic Ski Great Escapes. He said, “Of course, climate change remains a concern, and venues need to adapt with solid trail maintenance, etc. We anticipate continued growth and interest in cross-country skiing in both the USA and Canada as the travel industry rebounds as well.”

Grooming Remains in Focus

As always, grooming and trails had a major presence. Vehicle (Prinoth, PistenBully) and implement (Yellowstone Track Systems) demos were available every morning and had a prominent place among presentations. Internal and external communications, contract grooming (a growing approach which hadn’t seen much recognition previously), equipment modifications, and summer trail prep all drew lively contributions.

Discussions went beyond the familiar “optimal time-of-day to groom” to emphasize environmental stewardship. Prinoth’s Don Summers noted that “The largest trend we are seeing right now is being carbon neutral and easy on the environment. We are seeing an uptick in the use and demand of our smaller grooming vehicle (HUSKY) as it provides a more fuel efficient package and a smaller footprint in the trail systems while still providing a good balance of horsepower and torque.” PistenBully is pursuing much the same themes.

One of the more intriguing presentations concerned Prinoth “bubble cats,” which combine simultaneous grooming with tourism at Breckenridge Nordic Center. Guided cat tours in heated, all-glass cabins followed cross country ski trails through wildlife habitat, with a hot chocolate stop at a destination hut. These tours cost $700 and can run four times/day, thus paying for grooming costs. Whether the concept can be adapted to smaller or less spectacular trail networks needs site-to-site study, but it follows a conference-wide theme of exploring and expanding revenue sources.

This report was authored by Jonathan Wiesel, Nordic Group International.