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“Technology is the industry’s greatest friend at this point” Troy Hawks 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 Troy Hawks. For 9 years, Troy was the man behind much of NSAA’s resort-facing efforts including the NSAA Journal. In 2011, he gave me a press pass so I could attend my first NSAA National Convention. Today, his NSAA days are behind him and but his perspective is sharper than ever.

Here’s what he said.

Gregg: What do you think is the biggest challenge for the ski industry in the next 10 years?
Troy:I suppose what looks and feels most like an 800 pound gorilla is climate change, but there is a limit to what the ski industry can do on this front. Many ski areas have stepped up and shown real leadership on this front, but in the end it’s an international issue. The scientists and experts continue to express optimism that the issue can be mitigated, so I guess for now that’s good enough for me.

With that, I think another challenge presents itself as a somewhat complex mathematical equation, perhaps one that resembles like the chalk board work in the movie “A Beautiful Mind.” It seems like at least a certain segment of this industry was built based on what Baby Boomers can afford. But the experts tell us that those economics are changing for GenXers, and not in a positive way, and I haven’t heard any reports that suggest that this situation is going to turn itself around within the next 10 years. I suppose one solution to this, is to take the narrow view, and focus only on gaining market share among those families that can actually afford to be sustainably involved in our sport.

But if we’re talking about truly growing the sport overall, I think there is much math to be done to figure out how we make the sport more accessible to young families while still being able to pay quality staff and the utility bill. True, there are some amazing lesson deals for beginners out there, and again, there are ski areas that are really stepping up and illustrating true leadership on this front. You don’t have to look too hard to find ski areas that are willing to lose money on the front end, with their eyes set on realizing a return on that investment in the long term. But, with skis that retail for upwards of $1000, boots that cost $600, flights, rental cars, lodging, lift tickets, lessons, day care, and $12 hamburgers, I think you have to be curious as to how many young families – now, and 10 years from now – can actually stay actively and regularly engaged with the sport.

Gregg: What do you think is the biggest opportunity for the ski industry in the next 10 years?
Troy:I do think there are several opportunities and three that I’m curious about lately are multi-season activities, technology, and diversity. RRC’s Nate Fristoe told us at the last NSAA Convention that there are nearly 60 million people that are “compatible” with snowsports, but right now only 10 million participate. Through their recent investments, I think many resorts are showing us that multi-season activities present an opportunity for us to introduce ourselves to those 50 million people we are not capturing with the winter product. Generally, these folks lead active outdoor lifestyles, they just don’t ski or snowboard. But just look at how much more affordable it is to visit a ski area in the summer!

Of course again, making this work also requires some calculation in finding a formula to not only cover operational expenses, but also generate revenue, while selling $20 summer activity passes. I guess it’s a matter of generating more volume. But overall, I think resorts are saying that if you show people and excellent experience in the summer – and maybe for the following two summers – at some point their curiosity will build and they will cross over to the winter product. I think multi-season activities present a huge opportunity to reach the non-endemic crowd the industry been chasing for years. Just look at the numbers that ski areas are reporting with these mud challenge races. I think the full return on those events is still out there to be fully reaped.

I also think technology is the industry’s greatest friend at this point (and to be clear, in this arena I am a total neophyte, so this is the student, speaking to the professor). But regardless, I think of my father who owned and operated a cheese and dairy store for 30 years in central Wisconsin. He knew all of his customers by their first name. True, I grew up in a very small town, but many of our customers were driving through from Minneapolis and Chicago. They came back to the store time and time again, partly because of the quality cheese, sausage and ice cream, but also in large part because of my dad. He was always there to say hello to them by name. Today, technology, be it direct mail or email, social media, or what have you, pretty much enables us to say hello to 50 million people by name. Social media has proved itself in building hype for our sport, and we now have tremendous capabilities to maintain and build lasting relations to skiers and snowboarders through the use of technology.

Lastly, I haven’t seen much discussion on diversity lately, but it’s been well reported on just how the last election was won. Surely there must be some applicable lessons here. And while there is talk about emerging markets in China, I think we may be overlooking an emerging market here in our own backyard, at least for some regions. And it seems like the issue of creating a more diverse base is much more complicated than simply boiling it down to a matter of economics. A quick look at the U.S. Census and it appears that about 30 percent of Hispanic households make $60,000 or more a year. And here in Denver, one trip out to Ruby Hill Park on a snowy afternoon dispels the notion that cultures other than those traditionally associated with snowsports don’t also enjoy sliding on snow. I think there remains some level of disconnect here, but the numbers alone tell us that we probably shouldn’t take our eyes off of this issue. Relationships take years to develop and mature, so I would think that it’s worth being out in front of this issue, at least for some ski areas.

Gregg: What will need to happen for skiing to gain momentum and start growing significantly?
Troy:There are some great things already happening at some ski areas out there. Ski areas are providing a great lesson experience, and are staying engaged with those guests two, three, and even four seasons or more after those guests took their initial beginner lesson. Growth is organic, the best solutions will be conceptualized and implemented on the ground at ski areas. And the industry is fortunate to have a number of ski area leaders that recognize the big picture and are willing to share their successes and best practices. It’s important that these get the center stage attention that they deserve.

But, I think most recognize that to truly grow the sport in a significant way, all players in the industry need to roll up their sleeves (perhaps while also checking their egos at the door) and focus on identifying the actionable items. Industry research has done a tremendous job of outlining the issue at hand, but that’s only part of the equation. I really think that efforts like Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month, and the Bring a Friend Challenge have only just begun to scratch the surface of their full potential. Those efforts have received valuable buy-in not just from ski areas and ski associations, but also from the equipment manufacturers and specialty retail shops. There is plenty of opportunity to further refine these initiatives, but having said that, keeping these efforts unified and cohesive can be a real challenge, particularly as they grow.

So I think a lot of good things are already in place to grow the sport. One of the greatest assets of the industry is the people in it, and there are some truly talented people in the ranks, and the passion for the sport among them is alive and strong. But, I also talk with more people that identify a certain constipation that exists in the overall process. Are we allowing new ideas, new concepts, new methods, to be fully voiced? Are we allowing enough new eyeballs a seat at the table? You often here this quote in the industry: This sport is all about getting some snow down your pants from time to time, and if you’re not willing to do that, you will never progress. I tend to place much value on actually getting out on the hill more than just once or twice a season. It reminds us all that it’s o.k. to fall, as long as we learn and improve. So in some ways, we may need to include more fiber in the discussion (and if that doesn’t work, an enema) in order to flush out the pipes, open up the conversation, and be willing to experiment and implement new ideas and programs.

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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