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“Resorts used to be able to wait…those days are behind us” Dave Belin 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 Dave Belin of RRC. If there were someone whose data-ninja-ing skills I wish I could have, they might be Dave’s. I’ve always appreciate the clarity and objectivity of Dave’s insights, so with a week about growing skiing in the oven, I turned to him for a data-driven perspective on what it will take to grow.

Here’s what he said.

Gregg: What do you think is the biggest challenge for the ski industry in the next 10 years?
Dave: Tough question, with lots of dynamics and moving parts. Certainly the answer is different for each different ski area, and it’s somewhat difficult to pin down one single answer as the “biggest challenge.” What we hear from resorts in response to this type of question is generally related to two simple, yet very complex, answers: the weather and the economy. Those two probably end up at the top of the list in large part because they are relatively unknown factors that are outside the direct control of the ski areas themselves.

Beyond the weather and the economy, which are certainly very big potential obstacles, one of the biggest challenges I see is for ski areas to remain relevant beyond the existing core group of participants, to the very large group of people who only ski or snowboard less than 5 days a season. We estimate this group to represent over 60 percent of all participants nationally; the overall average number of days skied and/or snowboarded per person is only about 6 days per season. So much of the industry seems focused on the most passionate, the most committed, the hard core, the season pass holder. But what about the rest of your customer base?

Many hurdles exist for this less frequent group, including available time, distance to travel, expense, hassle, and competition from other leisure activities. If we can’t break through with this group and capture their attention and commitment, then we keep treading water in terms of the number of participants. Not everyone is going to become a season pass holder, and the less frequent snowboarders and skiers are the most at risk for dropping out, in part because they are typically penalized by paying the highest ticket prices per day. What products are there specifically for those people? How are ski areas engaging with that group? How are programs or communications tailored to this group? How can ski resorts keep them coming back? I don’t have the specific answers to all those questions, but it is certainly something I see as a big challenge.

Gregg: What do you think is the biggest opportunity for the ski industry in the next 10 years?
Dave: The biggest opportunity in the next 10 years is to be more inclusive of all potential customers. By “inclusive” I mean reaching out to non-traditional audiences, whether it is ethnic minorities, older participants, people of more modest incomes, people of size, or other groups who might not feel embraced by the culture of snowsports. There is a large pool of people who are a socio-economic match for snowsports but who don’t currently participate.

One metric we track through the NSAA National Demographic survey program is the ethnicity of participants in snowsports. Whites dominate snowsports, consistently comprising 88 percent of participants over the last 10 years. However, in the 10 to 34 year old age group, the percent non-white is 17 percent, including 6 percent Asian and 6 percent Hispanic. Those younger age groups are the key to expanding ethnic diversity of the slopes, and growing non-white participation is a huge opportunity.

Being more inclusive goes beyond people of color; it means a cultural shift to truly value all customers equally, not just those who are experts or who wear the “right” jacket or who have the latest equipment.

Gregg: What will need to happen for skiing to gain momentum and start growing significantly?
Dave: Ski areas need to present a logical progression for the next step for beginners to continue participating. For example, a new skier or snowboarder visits your resort and takes a lesson. Then they go home. What happens next? Ski areas need to be more organized about connecting with that person and inviting them back – done just assume that they will return. Make the path clear for what will happen on day two, day three, and beyond. Some snowsports areas do this already, but many do not. These interactions represent huge missed opportunities. If more ski areas focus on the issue of connecting with their new customers, we will see growth over the long term.

The same applies for the less frequent customer group described above. For the person who skis/snowboards three or four days a season at your resort: what is going to keep them coming back year after year? What compelling offers does your ski area provide for them? What is the progression from one season to the next for this segment? Ski resorts used to be able to sit around and wait for people to show up; those days are behind us. It’s critical to understand the motivations of various segments and how you can keep them engaged with skiing and snowboarding – this season and for many seasons to come.

Gregg: What can marketers do now to start getting that ball rolling?
Dave: Think hard about what your various customer segments want. If you don’t know, ask them. Then get a plan in place to engage with those groups. Like I mentioned above, for beginners it is about getting their information and inviting them back. Keep in touch with them! For your three or four day skiers/riders, design a product and maybe some programs specifically targeted at them. Most ski areas probably already have a good relationship with and understanding of their season pass holder group, but even that could likely be improved. Think about ways to connect with non-traditional customer groups, possibly by forming partnerships with other groups who already connect with these groups. Come up with some creative programs and products – the ball won’t get rolling if you keep doing the same thing you have always done.

About Gregg & SlopeFillers
I've had more first-time visitors lately, so adding a quick "about" section. I started SlopeFillers in 2010 with the simple goal of sharing great resort marketing strategies. Today I run marketing for resort ecommerce and CRM provider Inntopia, my home mountain is the lovely Nordic Valley, and my favorite marketing campaign remains the Ski Utah TV show that sold me on skiing as a kid in the 90s.

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