Originally published Aug 2013
This week and next I’m resurfacing five of the best posts to ever grace SlopeFillers’ pages. At the time I wanted perspectives and ideas on growing skiing, so I found an industry data guy, a pro skier, a former resort marketing rockstar, and a former industry association leader to answer 3-4 questions and paint a picture of what it will take to get skiing to grow.
Today is Donnie Clapp. Donnie fell in love with skiing during at internship at Big Mountain Resort and then was promoted to Public Relations Manager in 2007. Untrained and utterly unqualified, he somehow soothed skeptical locals after the 60-year-old independent ski area changed its name to Whitefish Mountain Resort, built a social media program from scratch, and implemented one of the first 7-days-a-week resort video campaigns in the industry. In 2011, he left the skiing world to work for MercuryCSC, a converged media marketing firm in Bozeman.
As with the rest of this week’s crew, I offered Donnie the same 4 questions with the option of answering them or using them as a starting point. He chose the latter, and this is what he said. Read closely, this is gold.
In 2011/2012, there were essentially the exact same number of skier and snowboarder visits in the US as in 1979. In the same period, the population of the US grew approximately 40%, which means that there are effectively 29% less people today experiencing the thrill of going downhill on snow as there were two years before detachable quads were invented.
This is not encouraging, especially because unlike some other industries in decline, skiing is not wanting for real innovation. Consider six-packs, eight-packs, incredibly impressive and utterly unnecessary trams, almost miraculously better skis (a.k.a. snowboards?), goggles that don’t actually fog, boots that don’t actually hurt, automated or highly efficient laser and RFID scanners, daily resort video updates (sorry/you’re welcome), personalized snow forecasts that sometimes come true, yelp reviews of burgers at mid-mountain, and socially-enabled all-mountain map and check-in smartphone apps.
In spite of a drastically more enjoyable and continually improving experience, the sport is not spreading. In fact (and confusingly for those of us who love it), skiing is dying.
I don’t think this trend can be explained by any single cause or problem. It’s a complex system that’s going to be tough to solve for. But I do see two broad areas where the industry should concentrate its efforts (not to point fingers, but this will require the NSAA doing more than just spinning horrible skier visits in 2011/2012 into “record-breaking increases” in 2012-2013).
Skiing is hard on the first day in the same way riding a bike is hard on the first day, and luckily that initial hurdle is quickly cleared when we can convince newcomers to take lessons (the subject of another post). But skiing is hard in a more undermining way pretty much every single day people get on a lift their whole lives—it’s a logistical nightmare.
Those of us who have chosen skiing as one of our short-list passions might balk at this. Get yourself up to the mountain and the rest is easy, we say. Just put ’em on your shoulder, silly. Get a roof box. Get a locker. Just relax. Stop making excuses.
But for the average person in skiing’s target market, easy is not a word that would ever be used to describe the skiing experience. Why? Because the average person in skiing’s target market is middle-aged, out-of-shape, and most importantly, has kids.
For those of you who haven’t joined the club yet, kids are like living anchors, dragging behind us as we half-heartedly paddle our boats toward meaningful recreation. Want to go for a hike? Your choices are something way shorter than you’d prefer, fifty extra squirming and whining pounds on your back, or (and this is most common) “Screw it, let’s just wait until they’re older.”
Now ask yourself what specialized equipment a satisfying hike requires (hint: none). Easily the most accessible outdoor pursuit in the world, hiking is such a logistical nightmare with a couple of kids that all but the most dedicated among us abandon it as a realistic option.
Skiing is like outfitting a private mission to Mars in comparison.
We all know the pain points: Do I rent or buy? Do I rent on-mountain or in town? Is there somewhere I can store all this crap? How do I get from my super-awesome but front-deskless AirBnB rental to the base lodge? Wait, can I park at the base lodge? Great, the skis don’t leave room for the car seats. Okay, how far is the shuttle route? Now wow do I get these 24 pieces of awkward equipment from the shuttle drop-off point to the lift without misplacing a child? Oh, hell, we forgot to make a detour to the ticket window. Wait here, kids. God I hate skiing; here, have $300.
If we want to attract and retain new skiers, we have to make this process easier. The only comprehensive solution up to this point has been the Deer Valley route: just pay handsomely to have a horde of butlers do the heavy lifting for you. The conundrum is that this solution doesn’t fit the target market we’re talking about, because they’re not frivolous spenders but also because this scenario makes them feel slimy, like an upstairs character on Downton Abbey.
The way forward is through technology. So far, most of the thought and effort being put into leveraging modern technology in the ski industry is aimed at helping one of two already entrenched groups: die-hard skiers and the resorts themselves.
But each of these pain points for the average American first-time skiing family, the group we desperately need to convince to keep coming back, now has many possible solutions. Instead of just selling its own lodging inventory, a resort’s “plan your trip” web tool could take inputs like the address of that AirBnB rental, ages of kids, ability levels, and what equipment each person already has and needs. It could then suggest a detailed step-by-step itinerary for each day of the trip with stops for equipment purchase and rental (with specific suggestions from similar skiers), transportation options, GPS coordinates of the entrance to the right parking lot, ski storage reservations, and so on. The possibilities are endless. If the tool is genuinely useful, there will be no struggle to get people to use it, and thus no shortage of revenue-generating opportunities to go along with increased new-skier-to-lifelong-die-hard conversion.
Resorts’ mobile apps could be more than just marketing platforms. They could automatically set wake-up alarms if there’s powder in the report, notify users when they need to leave their current location to make the next shuttle/bus (a la Google Now), offer detours to less-used lifts and lodges, and offer video tutorials on strapping boots together and carrying skis effectively. And the checklists and itineraries from the online planning tool could be carried through.
In short, the real potential of mobile technology and big data for the ski industry is not getting locals and die-hards stoked about powder or encouraging social sharing, it is making the incredibly difficult proposition of taking a family skiing a little less difficult.
Creating these solutions won’t be easy, but doing worthwhile things never is.
The second big opportunity the ski industry has is to pluck the idea, the meme of skiing from the clutches of extremists and offer it back to mainstream culture.
Extremism is a funny thing, because it makes it difficult for the merely extreme-leaning to see themselves accurately. Your parents see the Westboro Baptist Church on TV and think, “Those people are crazy,” as they tune back in to Rush Limbaugh. Similarly, you and I watch the pros in ski porn and the X-Games, and their abilities seem so far removed from what we’re capable of that we think of ourselves as mere amateurs—the huddled masses. But the real huddled masses, the people who are the future of skiing, have never, ever, ever seen a ski porn. In fact, most of them would blush if you used the term in front of them.
The first step is admitting you have a problem, and you (and I) do: we’re extreme-leaning in the skiing world.
Once we come to accept this about ourselves we’ll see that the X-Games and even the winter Olympics—the average American’s primary exposure to skiing—are counter-productive. They make us and our few million extreme-leaning cohorts want to experience our slightly-less-extreme version of skiing someday soon, but for the rest of the country they are a televised spectacle that bears almost no resemblance to real life and makes skiing seem big and dangerous and unapproachable.
Skiing’s extreme side has been glorified for so long that it’s become the only side that anyone sees.
I don’t pretend to have worked out the exact mechanics of fixing such a large-scale cultural problem, but I do know this:
Skiing is not just a string of adrenaline rushes and brushes with death, it is a transformative experience.
It’s not just some alternative to riding a motorcycle that happens to involve snow. It is, despite its cost of entry and logistical problems and potential for distractions, an excellent way to strip away the shackles of everyday life and get pretty darn close to nature and that euphoric state Maslow called, appropriately, the Peak Experience.
It’s not just a way to turn inward and examine one’s soul, it’s also an almost miraculously good humanity connector, giving people from vastly different backgrounds something emotional and real to talk about for hours on end.
Done correctly, skiing is the highlight of almost any family’s year, a beacon in a foggy sea of childhood memories and an alluring perennial offer to clear one’s cobwebs and truly experience the present.
When Bing Crosby made White Christmas, he didn’t actually show skiing and yet skiing’s transformative potential was clear. I won’t pretend that White Christmas would be anything but a flop these days, but I think skiing is a remarkably common aspiration that is woefully absent from popular culture in its purest form.
As ski industry and especially resort marketers, I think we need to take some responsibility for this. I think we need to provide popular culture with the seeds of skiing’s non-extreme side and see what grows out of it. And I think we need to do a better job of reminding the non-extreme parts of our audience that our cliff jumping photos and snorkel-required videos are fun, but they’re not representative of the depth of the experience we represent.
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