Change—it’s the only constant in life. So said Greek philosopher Heraclitus in the year 500 BC. And although there is zero evidence that Heraclitus ever swung chairs or worked in a base lodge, his truism remains pertinent to snowsports, which have been adapting, evolving, changing, and expanding since central Asian hunters first put planks on snow 10,000 years ago.
That said, has there ever been a season with more sudden change than the winter of 2020-21? In a year where all resort departments were impacted, snowsports schools were not insulated against the need to adapt. In the face of constantly shifting local, state, and federal guidance and the varying comfort levels of an anxious public, snowsports schools were forced to examine class sizes, meeting places, indoor kids’ spaces, lift procedures, reservations, and more.
“We had to re-imagine how we operate,” says Kim Shulver, snowsports school director at King Pine, N.H.
It was a wholesale self-reflection, with getting open and staying open taking precedence over the typical goals around efficient staff usage, sales innovations, and guest experience. Nationwide, schools approached things differently, depending on their niches, clientele, and location. Results varied from, “Glad we don’t have to do that again” to, “Wow, that worked better than what we used to do.”
A year later, it’s worth reviewing some of the approaches of different snowsports schools and their results, so we caught up with six snowsports directors to collect insights.
TEARING DOWN SACRED COWS
“For us, a lot of sacred cows came down,” says Gates Lloyd, snowsports school director at Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin. However, Lloyd plans to stick with many of the changes that were implemented. “It turned out, many of the new approaches were great for instructors and guests,” he says.
Meeting kids’ needs. For example, after decades of catering to parent needs (drop ‘em off early so parents can go ski and ride!), A-Basin shifted to a focus on kids—even asking parents of the youngest students (ages 3-5) to remain available and in close proximity. A-Basin also eliminated full-day kids’ lessons, instead opting for morning and afternoon sessions. “Whoever thought full-day was a good model for kids?” muses Lloyd.
A-Basin also went to only on-snow drop-offs for kids. With it came a three-pronged learning partnership that emphasizes student, parent, and instructor. “Kids observe their parents connecting and interacting with their instructor, and they pick up on verbal and unspoken cues,” says Lloyd. “They feel safe.”
Parents adapted, Lloyd says. “We learned that it’s about relationship building—customer complaints all but disappeared with the on-snow drop-off.”
A NEW TYPE OF GROUP
Indiana’s Perfect North Slopes, a ski area with 400 vertical feet and an urban, newbie clientele, also had to upend some of its snowsport lesson norms.
Small fee, big impact. Historically, Perfect North has offered a free one-hour lesson with purchase of a ticket. With the onset of Covid, though, the ski area saw the need to control group sizes. As such, general manager Jonathan Davis and his team decided to charge for the lesson component.
Along with the intended outcome (group size control), Perfect North Slopes experienced unintended results. For one, lesson participation remained stable. And though the ski area only charged $10 for the product, the tone of the lessons shifted. “Our pros reported greater focus within the lesson groups,” says Perfect North snowsports school director David McKinley. The simple act of handing over a ten-spot caused students to approach the lessons as something with value attached. Instructors said the attitude shift was noticeable.
Guests also returned for more lessons, and McKinley had to provide additional staff training to accommodate them. Perfect North Slopes pros were used to seeing mostly beginner levels; now that they were being charged a nominal fee, guests seemed to see lessons as worthwhile—and came back.
The Uber model. Because its market is mostly new participants, Perfect North Slopes tends toward non-technical terminology and programming. In keeping with that idea, last season, the resort implemented a “Rent an Instructor” program, in which instructors are booked for private or semi-private lessons. Davis likens the private lessons to Uber rides and semi-privates to Uber pools (their urban clientele definitely understands “Uber”). In an Uber pool-style lesson, for example, one head of a family or friend group books the “ride” for a flat rate, and the group figures out how to divvy up the bill.
Friends and family. Blue Mountain in eastern Pennsylvania has similarly experimented with packaging privates and semi-privates. With many parents asking to be in lessons with their kids, Blue created a lesson product called “Friends and Family.” Priced more affordably than privates, friend groups and families that want to learn together—regardless of age or discipline—register and get placed with other similar families or friend groups. For guests that want to be separated from other groups, Blue offers Friends and Family “Premium” lessons at a higher price point.
Blue initiated its Friends and Family offerings several years before the pandemic, so it was well-positioned to handle the unusual demands of winter 2020-21, especially since the offering had already been popular—in just the second year of the initiative, Blue sold twice as many Friends and Family lessons as it did beginner group lessons, says learning center director Joe Forte.
The Friends and Family lessons are heavily focused on people skills and teambuilding, Forte adds, and prioritize fun over skill acquisition. “We’re teaching families to be snowsports families and parents how to help their kids,” he says.
School groups reworked. Finding new ways to cater to families also drove product changes at King Pine, which typically has a robust local school program, but took a hit during the pandemic. Instead, King Pine implemented an eight-week, 2:1 ratio, one-hour lesson program for 4-6-year-olds that took place every day. “The outpouring of gratitude, comments, and thank-yous was amazing,” says snowsports school director Kim Shulver. Parents of kids who had counted on school programs were still able to get their kids on snow—and at school program rates.
Shulver says the triple chair that serves King Pine’s beginner terrain made the 2:1 ratio feasible. And the one-hour lesson made it possible to schedule different ability levels in a day. While Shulver assumes that school programs will be back on in 2021-22, 6-and-under lessons will continue to be one-hour with a maximum 2:1 ratio.
Another radical change implemented at King Pine was the addition of rolling, one-hour beginner lessons for 7-12-year-olds and adults. The pre-booked lessons departed from the ski and snowboard school every 20 minutes from 9 a.m. until 2:40 p.m. Instructors taught a one-hour lesson and then, because of the rolling start times, always got a 20-minute break before their next lesson. The staff—many of whom are experienced veterans—gave positive feedback once they adapted to the rolling starts, and King Pine is using rolling starts again in 2021-22.
King Pine isn’t the only resort taking this approach. It’s worked well at Arizona Snowbowl, which has offered rolling walk-up beginner lessons with the purchase of a full-priced ticket at the window rate for a few years now.
Variable pricing. Operating in a pandemic threw a wrench in the system, though, says resort services director Ryan Hartl. Last winter, Snowbowl moved entirely to online sales, which typically offers tickets below the window rate. “We decided to include the lesson with all adult lift tickets, regardless of what they paid,” says Hartl, noting that Snowbowl uses aggressive pricing to encourage midweek, non-holiday visits. “In some cases, they were getting their ticket and lesson for 19 dollars.”
Hartl says a large percentage of ticket purchasers take advantage of the lessons and return for subsequent visits, which justifies the resort’s investment. Snowbowl does charge for children’s group lessons, since it already offers free season passes to ages 12 and under, and the ski area plans to continue offering lessons with all lift ticket purchases, even discounted online purchases.
One program that Lloyd says has changed the landscape at A-Basin is a three-pack of half-day private lessons with the same instructor. Reservations staff book the time and meeting place with the guest and instructor. If the guest has a positive experience, the subsequent lessons are available at a discount, but must be scheduled with the instructor at the end of the first lesson—a game-changer in terms of employees taking control of their own scheduling. For the product to be successful, instructors need to be aware of their own availability and assignments, and they need to communicate with the reservations staff.
Snowsports school schedulers may initially cringe at the idea of handing over the scheduling reins to on-snow staff. However, the increased trust, responsibility, and autonomy resulted in more instructor engagement, says Gates. Instructors took responsibility for their own scheduling and booking and felt empowered. This affected the guest experience; guests expressed satisfaction and bought subsequent lessons.
Perfect North’s Davis foresees a time when instructors will be responsible for scheduling at his resort, too. “The day is coming when there will be a direct app to instructors,” he says.
A technology shift is already in motion to make Davis’s vision reality: software providers like Flaik have developed snowsports school-specific platforms to support management, instructors, and guests.
The snowsports school at Killington, Vt., has used Flaik since 2016. Killington golf and snowsports school director Dave Beckwith says the challenges of operating during the pandemic actually allowed Killington to realize how such a system can support wholesale changes. In 2020-21, Killington only offered half- and full-day privates, and due to Vermont’s travel restrictions, employed just 120 instructors instead of its usual 500.
As a result of the pared down operations, Killington was able to experiment with the Flaik platform in ways that would have been challenging while operating under normal circumstances. The team used technology to give instructors more autonomy and to more closely connect staff and guests.
“Our staff are able to access guest information through the software and directly connect with the guests, [which] made for arranging meeting locations and managing overall timing much more efficient and effective,” says Beckwith. “The guest greatly appreciated this connectivity to the staff and it immediately started to develop a bond between the participant and the coach. We were able to eliminate some of the anxiety involved with the experience.”
Roving instructors. At Blue Mountain, instructor autonomy is the basis of the resort’s SNAP initiative—the Sliders Needing Assistance Program. SNAP sends otherwise unassigned instructors to known trouble spots on the mountain for new skiers and riders. The instructors help people, offer tips, and even talk them down runs. At the bottom, they can offer a voucher for a free one-hour lesson.
Lloyd, Forte, and Davis recognize that top-level and ownership support of such initiatives is crucial. “It took last year for us to do it,” says Lloyd. “But our [profit and loss] reflects the difference. My boss knows it, and our COO knows it.”
“It’s hard to quantify the return on investment, but we are able to measure how many vouchers are redeemed for a beginner lesson,” says Blue Mountain CEO Barb Green, of Blue’s SNAP. The investment, she says, is in safety on the hill. “If a lesson or other services come as result of our roaming instructors program, we consider it a bonus.”
BREAKING OLD HABITS
Changing the way things have always been done can be daunting. But a silver lining of the pandemic was that the snowsports industry did exactly that. “It was a great exercise,” says Shulver, who has worked in various capacities at King Pine for 40 years. “We changed things we’ve been doing for years.”
Many people yearn for a return to normalcy. In the meantime, change will continue, and a best practice may be to study the things that were modified in response to the pandemic—some of them may be better than what was done in the past.