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Growing Skiing
“Skiing…is a logistical nightmare.” Donnie Clapp on Growing Skiing

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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.

If we want to break skiing out of the extreme sports bubble, we need to get back to The Columbia Inn in Pine Tree, Vermont and Snow, Snow, Snow.

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.

  • jj

    Great topic this week. Mr. Clapp’s comments ring with truth and are very thought provoking. How do we “extreme leaning” people really go about sharing skiing with our mainstream, middle class friends, neighbors, family members? How do we introduce non-skiers or share the sport with very casual skiers for their optimum enjoyment?
    We take them at the least crowded times, find them the best deals and the best snow conditions. We show them all the short cuts from good parking spots to the best on-mountain places to eat, or we grill them a burger beside our car in the parking lot. We take them to the best après ski activities the local area has to offer that match their interests. We make it easy, cheap, and fun for them. And if we’re really good at this we get them that White Christmas type memory making experience that will bring them back for more.
    Can ski area marketers and the new technology provide that kind of personalized advocate for the neophyte huddled masses? Mr. Clapp deserves applause (pun intended) if he can get this message across.

    • Do we really do all that, though? Seems if we did we wouldn’t be having this discussion about growing skiing. Turning a newb into a core skier is a tough process. I’ve taken a bunch of people skiing over and over, but hardly any still are active in the sport. I think Donnie’s points hit some of the reasons why.

    • Thanks, J.J. I once wrote a blog post with ten different clever puns, hoping that at least one would resonate with the audience. Unfortunately, no pun in ten did.

  • AK

    “..dragging behind us as we half-heartedly paddle our boats toward meaningful recreation.” – Quoted for truth.

    • I love Donnie’s writing style. Sentences like that are exactly why. Already seeing the truth of that statement.

    • Thanks, Alex. The people who are outdoor enthusiasts AND have enough apathy about what their kids actually enjoy to strap them to their backs for a 20-mile cross country skiing sojourn are the definition of extreme. And make me feel inadequate on a daily basis ;-).

  • Ron Schneidermann

    Excellent post! While I think there are some really cool long-term opportunities to use tech (specifically mobile) to improve the on-mountain experience, I think that’s secondary compared to fixing the issue around positioning. In the boom years of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, resort communication capabilities and consumer gear pretty much sucked by today’s standards but people were still flocking to the slopes and having an awesome time. We have a pretty high built-in tolerance for putting up with shit if we think the overall experience is worth it.

    I think that one of the worst culprits, if not the worst, in the decline in participation has been due to the perceived inaccessibility and excessive extremism, and making people feel unwelcome/unable. Donnie absolutely nails it here in this post.

    It’s great that we are starting to have an honest dialogue about this stuff (Gregg – your post on Gapers should go down as the catalyst for this movement). Thank you guys. And count us in your corner.

    • Great points, Ron. I think it will definitely take tech to beat the competition we get from tech (web, gaming, etc.), but I agree, the brand that skiing has in the non-skiing public is going to be a huge hurdle. I love watching the xgames as a skier, but cringe as a marketer thinking that triple corks and pipe runs are what some people think of as skiing.

      • Ron Schneidermann

        You’ve probably seen the unplug movement that’s starting to get bigger and more organized (it even made the most recent cover of Fast Company), and as tech gets more pervasive, this is only going to grow. Not sure that in ski we need to necessarily use tech to combat tech right now. Skiing is such a nice refuge from our wired lives. I think we have a great opportunity to incorporate the joy that comes from the simplicity of playing outside with the people we love into our messaging.

        • Totally agree. For many skiers, skiing is a refuge from our wired lives (though the people I see checking EpicMix stats on the chair/bus might suggest my assumption isn’t totally correct).

          And while I admire the unplug movement, I worry the coverage is more about headlines that sell than a sustainable change in our culture. I hope it is, but am not super optimistic.

        • Shredthegnarpow

          Again, touching on an earlier article from Gregg. Marketing Whistler vs Vail. Canada says bring your gear and camera, America tells you to just bring your black Amex, we’ll do the rest. Sad. When are the mountains going to attract people for what they are? Mountains.

    • Thanks, Ron. And Gregg’s Gapers post definitely gets a lot of credit for giving people the impetus and in some ways the permission to think along these lines.

      On the technology front, I think it’s very instructive what Google’s done in the past year or so with Google Now and the upcoming Moto X: they’ve found ways in which our intent is obvious but the answers were too far away, and they’ve found ways to shorten that distance. That, I think is the opportunity for the ski industry: find the answers that have been hard to find and decrease the distance for the average skier.

    • Shredthegnarpow

      Ahh yes, the Gaper argument, well stated, once we get the 18-20 year olds to get rid of the bro-bra attitude we may finally be able to break the barrier that snow-riding doesn’t have to be extreme. Make me sick when I see young worker yelling “gaper” off the lift. Hey asshole, that guy is eating at your place tonight, give him a break.

      • Totally agree. If there is one word I could remove from skiing, that would be it.

  • interesting, what u said…and global warming…errrrr climate change…errrr the politics of “green”. Happy to report that Aspen got snow in the high country today

    • Looks like Breck did as well. More fluke than start of something, but I’ll take it.

  • Chris Tucker

    IMHO if one doesnt learn to ski or board when they are young chances are good it will not be a life long sport. How the industry goes about that needs to be concerted.

    • Good point, Chris. What age range would you consider to be “young” in this case?

    • Ed S

      Totally agree, But it is important to remember you are never to old to learn. Just like “real” skiing isn’t all huge airs and 1080s, you don’t have to be a kid to get into snow sports, and I think reminding people of this fact is also very important. I guess the big question is how do we convince those who are a bit older to give it shot? Here’s a little story for ya…

      Last season I was enjoying some cold beverages at the local watering hole where I met Doug, a man in his 60’s, a widower, who was visiting the resort with his new girlfriend who was a life long skier. After taking turns buying rounds each other they told me he would be taking his very first ski lesson the next morning. I asked him if I could tag along and shoot some video of his first experience on skis. He agreed. I’ll let the videos tell the story of his experience, if you are interested… The moral of the story… You’re never to old to learn, and love something new. The vids where a big success on social media. Despite the lack of knee deep powder and corks, it was the story and the “realness” that connected with people and made the videos work.
      Plus Doug is just awesome.



  • Jamie Schectman

    Some great comments from Mr Clapp. I totally agree, when I attended the NSAA national convention I was really surprised at how they focused on the rebound from the previous year instead of the fact that participation is flat and/or declining. Pre boomers and baby boomers are exiting the sport much faster than 20-40 year olds picking it up.

    • Thanks, Jamie. I’ve never been to the national convention, but it seems clear that NSAA has embraced the idea that if consumers think skiing is still popular, they’ll want to join the party. I’d like to see some real research into whether pumping total skier visits is good for anything but ski resort marketers’ egos.

      My hunch is that the people we need to sell skiing to could care less how the industry is doing, but might appreciate a more authentic voice.

    • Didn’t realize you went. Very cool. But I wouldn’t let too much of your industry view ride on that NSAA Convention. Growing skiing and keeping people in the sport is a common topic at many events. The May conference is more of a party and isn’t as much about serious business as others. And after a season like 11/12, I think their excitement about a rebound is justified.

      • Jamie Schectman

        Yes, they let our grassroots organization into the NSAA.

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  • Powder Hound

    Couldnt have said it better myself. From logistics to modern ski porn being ridiculous the industry is shooting themselves in the foot. Hopefully we’ll learn from this and become better

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