Resorts can capitalize on a new market of guests seeking new experiences.
Last March, as resorts shut down amid the escalating pandemic, snowsports enthusiasts, keen to keep sliding, turned to the backcountry and an array of Nordic trail systems to get their fix.
“It was like an active museum out there last spring,” says Sally Jones, cross country ski area manager at Tahoe Donner, Calif. “People were pulling old gear out of the garage. They were hungry to get out, so we just saw a huge number of people on our trails.”
The same thing happened at Colorado’s Crested Butte Nordic, a non-profit trail network easily accessible from town. Amidst a stringent county lockdown, CB Nordic secured permission to remain open. The locals turned out, with 150 new passholders joining the 1,000+ existing adult season passholders, says executive director Christie Hicks. That’s not a bad number when your local population has less than 5,000 permanent residents.
Spring, summer foreshadow winter. As the snow melted and the lockdown remained in place, a more casual user group joined those committed outdoorists seeking solace and socially distant fun. Trailheads across the country this spring and summer were packed, so were bike parks, lakes, and golf courses.
“We’ve been open for both golf and lift-serviced mountain biking since the end of May,” says Benji Neff, director of mountain sports at Giants Ridge, Minn. “We’ve seen hands-down our best mountain biking year. Same thing with our golf courses.”
Operators, suppliers, and buyers all expect this increased interest in getting outdoors, particularly in self-propelled recreation like hiking, biking, and paddle boarding, to translate into a high demand for winter activities in 2020-21.
“Even in August, our sales, especially for snowshoes, were up more than 300 percent,” says REI category merchandise manager Nathan Grothe. “Our perspective as buyers is that the activities you can do in the best socially distanced environment, like cross country, snowshoeing, and backcountry, are going to be popular.”
EVERYBODY’S DOING IT
So, who might turn up this winter? The short answer: Everyone.
At Lake Placid, N.Y.’s Mt. Van Hoevenberg, which offers cross country skiing, and bobsled and skeleton experiences, GM Rebecca Dayton anticipates a very busy winter, heavy on first-timers. “There will probably be a return of some casual users, but I think we’ll see a lot of new users who are trying winter sports out for the first time,” says Dayton.
Same goes for Giants Ridge, where Neff foresees a surge of new participants as more people strive to escape the hustle and bustle of the cities. He imagines, as well, that returning downhill customers will look to extend their vacations, leading to increased discipline crossover from guests who want to mix up their trip with a day of fat biking, snowshoeing, or cross country.
Snow play, broadly defined. Resorts with designated spaces for snow-play activities, like sledding and tubing, are expecting those attractions to see high visitation this season as well. “We think our Yeti’s Snow Park is going to be really, really popular,” says John McColly, VP of sales and marketing at Mountain High, Calif. Yeti’s Snow Park offers three snow play areas (think: snowman building, snowball fights, snow angels, etc.) and a tubing hill. “We see ourselves being sold out on the weekends and holidays. And, maybe we’ll see folks who couldn’t get those weekend reservations come mid-week and fill some of those gaps.”
Hugh Reynolds, VP of marketing and sales for SNOW Operating, which owns Mountain Creek, N.J., is anticipating a similar influx. “Snow tubing is already a big volume business in this area, and we are hoping to see an increase this year.” And, he notes, it requires fewer COVID-adaptations than other areas of operation. (For more on snow tubing operations, see “Tubing, 2020-Style,” p. 50.)
Maxed-out core activities. Loon Mountain, N.H., snowsports director Rob Bevier predicts that core skiers and riders will turn out in high volumes this season as well. “Generally, unless you are thinking a month out,” says Bevier, “it’s going to be hard to get a day ticket this year.”
And as COVID has necessitated massive lifestyle changes around the country, some core downhillers may look to other avenues for adventure this winter. “I can tell you that with our local population, people are looking to Nordic as a way to avoid crowds,” says Hicks.
Another COVID spillover? That local resort town population may look a bit different this year. Resort towns have seen an explosion of new buyers and renters, as cities on lockdown experienced mass exoduses in the spring. Second-home owners also decamped to the mountains and look to be staying put through the winter. What’s more, it seems likely that online schooling and flexible work-from-home schedules may bring added extended-stay vacationers to ski towns.
Collectively, that means all winter recreation areas should expect a higher volume of people—unable to go to the movies and perhaps unwilling to hop on a plane to Disney World—who are looking for something safe to do that’s right in their new backyard.
That’s a positive shift in outlook given that one of the major concerns early on for summer operations was, will people show up?
CAPTURING THE MARKET
The first thing to recognize is that there are two distinct markets here: core skiers and riders; and new users hoping to escape the indoors and test winter out for the first time.
This year, the additional barriers to participation, like reservation systems and volume limitations, will favor the core over casual users. So when we talk about “capturing the market,” we’re really looking at the walk-up customer—the same customer that’s turning up at trailheads and watering-holes for the first time this summer.
In reality, the new-to-winter crowd will likely be looking for snow play and alternative activities at your resort over skiing and riding. “There are going to be a lot of parking lot snowmen, tunnels, and ramps this winter,” speculates Jones. “Families may be pulling in with their picnic and having a fun day in your parking lot.”
And with the need to track visits and manage capacity, it is especially important this year to give those people a place to go. Mountain High’s Yeti’s Snow Park is a good example. It was born seasons ago with just that in mind, says McColly. (For an in-depth look at Yeti’s Snow Park, see “Pay to (Snow) Play,” SAM May 2020.)
Mountain High created the park after managers observed that families from all over Southern California would come to the mountain just to see the snow and end up sledding and playing in any open space they could find. So the resort set up snow-play areas to accommodate them, and charged for the privilege.
“There was nothing for those snow-play customers before, and we’ve given them a safe and manicured place to do that,” says McColly. Now, the Yeti area is an additional revenue stream and, helpfully in the age of COVID, it has its own attendance cap.
For some resorts, though, snow-play-type options, while attractive for casual visitors, will contribute to the same visitor totals—which will be capped at many resorts this year—as downhill activities, but with smaller per-head yields. So, how do resorts find the sweet spot between the newer snow-play guests and core skiers and riders? The solution may require some creative thinking.
Social distancing the crowds. At Loon, this means tweaking the hours for certain activities. “Our tubing operation isn’t going to open at 10 a.m., like it usually does,” says Bevier. “We think parking spaces will start to open up after one o’clock, so maybe our tubing or our SNO-GO packages start in the afternoon.”
Speaking of, SNO-GOs and other downhill snow bikes are another opportunity to engage non-skiing guests without cutting into the bottom line. And they may have some unique advantages given COVID restrictions. Using a SNO-GO requires guests to spend little time in the rental shop. Loon keeps its bikes out on the hill, and guests only need to go inside for snowboard boots and a safety belt. And “the learning curve is a matter of minutes,” says Mountain Creek’s Reynolds. So, guests move out of congested beginner learning areas quickly.
“It’s a good entry point to get people hooked on the feeling of what sliding on snow is all about,” adds Reynolds. And, with the expected high demand from core skiers and riders for weekend reservations, Bevier theorizes that, “maybe your SNO-GO gets very active midweek when there are more day tickets available.”
Off-peak activities will be key to providing an engaging outlet for casual and new winter customers without cutting into your revenue. “Give people a reason to come visit in those off hours,” advises Gregg Blanchard of Inntopia and Slopefillers, who recommends resorts look at evening offerings like outdoor live music around the fire pits and after-hours sledding, insurance allowing.
Customer conversion. Blanchard cautions against trying to monetize every offering. “The activities people are doing right now are not expensive things. They are just looking to get outside.” The opportunity is in capturing casual visitors now and moving them into your funnel so they come back, he says.
He suggests that the most enticing offerings will be things resorts can put together cheaply and visitors can enjoy for free, noting that the most popular attraction near his home base in the Park City area is an ice castle in Midway, Utah. A man runs water over some pipes, lets it freeze, and adds lights. The attraction is simple but immensely popular.
“The lines are crazy,” says Blanchard. “For families, it’s like, if you don’t get a photo in front of the ice castle, you aren’t doing winter right.”
Once you get people to your resort, consider also whether you have free ways to get them sliding—on snow bikes, on sleds, on any tool that doesn’t require fancy or fitted gear. “If you can give them something to do that gives them that sensation of sliding on snow, that moves them closer to taking that big step toward becoming a skier or snowboarder,” says Blanchard.
Another way to capture the new or casual users is through activities like cross country skiing, fat biking, and snowshoeing, which are all expected to boom this winter. Case in point: Giants Ridge stocked up on snowshoe rentals in anticipation of increased interest in its Women’s Snowshoe event.
Nordic advantages. When it comes to catering to casual customers, Nordic activities aren’t necessarily curtailed by the same restrictions as downhill. “Cross-country centers will still be able to accept walk ups,” says Cross Country Ski Areas Association (CCSAA) executive director Reese Brown.
Cross country, snowshoeing, and fat biking are typically 2-4 hour activities, so there isn’t necessarily that early morning crush of visitors aiming to maximize their day on the hill. A snowshoer, fat biker, or novice Nordic skier can be outfitted expediently (and potentially outside). There’s also less of a lodge culture.
“The cross-country model isn’t built around putting as many people together as possible in tight spaces,” says Brown. “There are no lines, shuttles, etc.” Moreover, trail networks are often vast. “People can be spread out, and we can absorb a large number of people,” says Hicks.
XC partners. Resorts that don’t own or operate their own trail networks should look to their neighbors to fill the gap, suggests Jonathan Wiesel, president of Nordic Group International.
“There is a lot of possibility for resorts in collaborating with and promoting cross country skiing that is nearby,” says Wiesel. “If you have people utilizing lodging and food services at your resort, keeping them for another day or two to cross country ski nearby could be a dollar generator. You can also diversify the experience of long-term clientele, and possibly create new clientele.”
Directing visitors to off-site activities when you’ve hit capacity is a solid customer service move that can endear core clients and help move new and casual visitors into your funnel. (Just don’t forget to collect their contact info.)
Prepare for early XC opening. Operators who have their own Nordic trails should consider strategies to get them open early this year as a way of spreading out business and dealing with walk-ups.
While some Nordic centers are investing in snowmaking, like Mt. Van Hoevenberg, most rely on natural snowfall to open. If so, prepare your trail surfaces in the off-season, says Brown, and always think about location. The grass on your golf course requires less snow coverage for sliding than a rocky surface, and it won’t gouge anyone’s skis if there’s a bare spot or two.
If the natural snow isn’t there, be prepared. Users who might have gone into the backcountry or onto the snowshoe trails will likely turn to the man-made stuff at resorts for their self-propelled activities. And resorts should expect uphill travelers, whether they offer the rental gear or not. Sales of XC and backcountry gear have been off the charts.
“Even in the alpine sales we’ve seen so far, it’s been more heavily skewed toward backcountry or versatile products versus the fixed-cuff, four-buckle, resort-only ski boots,” says REI’s Grothe.
Updating uphill policies. It’d be wise, then, to have a plan in place to mitigate danger, manage volume, and capture interest.
Whitefish, Mont., is just one western resort that has unveiled a new uphill pass product and is making tickets mandatory for anyone looking to skin up. Even on the East Coast, where ski touring is less prevalent, areas like Mountain Creek are looking at implementing uphill policies.
Perhaps most radically, Bluebird Backcountry is opening full-time in Colorado this year. Occupying a new corner of the market, Bluebird is a resort without chairlifts, dedicated to creating a space for guests to “earn their turns” inbounds.
Inventory management. Another consideration for resorts is how they will manage their rental fleet. Many areas have a limited stock of snowshoes, fat bikes, and cross country skis, and adding to the fleet now may not be an option. “Back orders are deep,” notes Grothe. Besides, for many operators, budgets and orders were finalized last year.
CB Nordic is looking at a new strategy to stretch its fleet further: online reservations segmented into morning and afternoon blocks. “During the holidays and busy weekends, we always run out of gear, but we are hoping that, if this segmented time program works, we can turn over our skis multiple times during a day,” says Hicks.
In anticipation of a higher volume of visitors, the area is also considering ways to create additional capacity in its lessons, tours, and community clinics.
PLAN FOR SUCCESS
Remember, as with downhill, it’s important to set up new visitors for success. By planning ahead, getting creative, and adjusting when needed, winter resorts will be able to meet—and hopefully exceed—first-time guests’ expectations, and maybe even turn them into customers for life.