Thursday, October 1, 1987

Prescription For A Stronger Winter Sport Industry

Why this Prescription?

Most has been said about what works, and what does not in our "Ski Industry". As you will read on, the term "Ski Industry" is, in my view, a misnomer. A proper term should be wider, more encompassing, like "Winter Sports Industry".

The purpose of this document is to take a long, hard look at the way we promote, and sometimes fail to sell effectively the overall winter experience. The basic idea, though, is to come up with thoughts provoking ideas that will unveil simple, easy to implement and cost-effective opportunities.

The Issue at Hand

After experiencing some tremendous growth between the late 60's and the mid 70's, our Industry is today in a critical transition phase characterized by a lack of growth and an increased vulnerability to inclement weather and capricious economy. If do not eliminate some of its inefficiencies, we might be headed not for just stagnation, but possibly for a continuous down-slide in the years ahead. Without a question, our business today is badly in search for its second wind.

Heated competition has made things much more critical, reducing the possible margin of error, encouraging short term "fixes", and protracting a sound long term development policy. In other words, the acute pressures created by competition, currency exchange and plateauing market are probably turning our attention away from the real issue at hand: how can we give ski or winter sports activities a "shot in the arm", how can we foster growth in the business again?

Unless we, as a group of people having a stake in the future of winter sports activities, do something soon to address the present situation, we may see its strength gradually diminish and livelihood as well as the enjoyment we derive from it will slowly go away.

Who are we anyway? Well, certainly not as united as we could. For one thing, in a relatively small industry, we're awfully fragmented. In fact, we are too many isolated bodies trying to do each on our own what could be a lot more efficient if we were to present a united front, and work within the same general framework.

Let's take a look at the major players: SIA first, which has certainly earned the palm in running an exemplary trade show, and which, over the years, has made a genuine attempt to find "better ways of reaching that skier", NSAA of course represents the places without which nothing can take place, the ski areas, ASF seem to parallel the USSA and to me, don't seem to walk in total harmony, PSIA and NSPS are both looking after problems and opportunities pertaining to their respective professions. There are many more "mini-bodies" involved, from special programs such as Nastar, to independent racing tours whether they be alpine, freestyle, snowboarding, pro or amateur. There are also reps associations doing what they can to give a better sense of direction to our business.

Now, picture for a minute the cacophony, if not, the waste of energy that all these well meaning bodies do on their own, and contrast it with the symphony we could hear the day they play together...

Reaching the Market

Reaching skiers has always been a tough challenge to many a marketing manager. Where are the consumers? Do they pick-up and read ski magazines? Can we afford TV? Is radio cost-effective in this market? and it goes on, and on, and on.

One thing we've certainly failed to accomplish effectively beyond the ski publications "universe", was to successfully reaching the general media's attention.

Rock stars, tennis, golf, yachting, automobile racing, have done a much better job at marketing their trade than we have so far. Look at the newspapers: USA Today devotes virtually no space to skiing or winter related events!

There is no question we must sell the whole winter experience to the general mass-media, before selling it to the consumers. The good news also, is that selling the media can be extremely simple, cost-effective and be achieved within a focused program.

Let's take an example; go to Europe in the Winter and pick up a copy of Stern or Paris-Match. What do you see? The princes and princesses of Europe having fun in Gstaad or St. Moritz, this actor in Kitzbuehel or that anchorwoman vacationing in Courchevel. Conversely, on this side of the ocean, open People, Us or Life magazines and what do you see about winter sports? most probably nothing. This is sad, especially when we could tap into the likes of Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson or Chris Evert who are part of that overall winter sport experience...

The bottom line as an industry, is unless we do something exciting and different with the power-to-be within the general media, we'll never get there. Winter activities are exciting, glamorous and always are a ray of sunshine in the gloomiest season of all, winter. Selling that winter sport is an exciting alternative to winter blues shouldn't be that difficult! Besides, haven't skiing or winter sport activities some glamour left?

Need for Synergistic Action in a flat market

It becomes now clear that the above prescription can only be applied if we get all the fragmented parts of our Industry together. Without inventing anything new, we just create synergy by getting together smart and resourceful people who are part of these various associations.

Do we need a supreme body to make all those isolated group work together? I don't think so. What we need, is one single marketing arm for the entire business that would preclude the many single ones currently in existence. In other words, there is one single marketing body that would promote winter sports in America, more like fishing for instance.

This means SIA could continue to run its trade show, NSAA concern itself with ski area operations, PSIA regulate and unify ski instruction. Beyond that, a Winter Sports Association of sorts would see to it that the whole winter experience is properly promoted.

Learning from the Europeans

During almost 11 years spent in this country, I have learned a lot more from Americans than I have through my schooling and experience back in Europe. This is not to say however, there is nothing we can learn from Europeans either (the sad thing in this country, is that we let Europeans and Japanese learn from us, steal and perfect America's great ideas, but never seem to reciprocate...).

One of the promotional vehicles that always ranked high on my list has been France's way of getting kids on skis. From a population standpoint, and distances aside, France is not unlike the United States in that the major metro areas are sometimes fairly remote from winter resorts. A case in point is Paris, which is generally around 5 hours away from any good alpine ski area.

For about 20 years, urban school districts in France have sent kids to the snow, almost every year, in what they call "Classroom in the Snow" or Classes des Neiges. For about one month, school age kids spend half a day skiing, half a day learning. Depending on where they go, Jura mountains or Alps, low or high elevation, skiing can be cross-country or alpine. What is certain, is that kids have a great time, are properly initiated into the sport by certified instructors during the week, generally do not ski on week-ends, thus freeing the slopes and the ski school for the usual weekly rush.

What is more, and doesn't take a genius to figure out, kids get addicted to the Winter Sport experience. You can bet that when they get the time and the money, they'll come back, and that's what this program is all about.

Tort Law Reform

Another good reason for getting our Industry's fragmented parts together is to form a louder voice in lobbying for reform in liability law. I don't want to dwell on an issue that can be debated by more competent people than me, but just want to say that we can hope to win this one if we present a more united, powerful front.

Sports and Contemporary Media

Winter activities should be easy to promote through the sports they stand for, right? The answer is, I am not certain.

If ski jumping and ice skating are easy to grasp, I doubt the same can be said about alpine, World Cup type skiing. The truth of the matter is that for the non-skier, watching a slalom or a G.S. race is downright boring. Downhill could be okay as long as many spectacular falls happen to take place. At any rate, there is no way, for most people, to see a noticeable difference between one athlete to the next.

My point is that the FIS-concocted formula for World Cup ski racing is old, passe, and doesn't lend itself to modern days television. The only thing that ever could work for downhill or alpine skiing is Bob Beatty's dual slalom format. Along the same lines, free style competition (last year's World Championship in Tignes was quite entertaining), most possibly snowboard competition, cross-country racing, jumping and that's about it.

Any race organizer has to be able to sell continuous action, excitement, climatic crescendo if he or she want the event to be picked up by TV and find good sponsors for any length of time. On that subject, the Swiss-based FIS has some serious rethinking to do...

"Continental" Sports and Athletes

In order to arouse excitement and develop a fan base, a successful athlete must reside in the country where most of the sport promotion takes place. This is true for Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors, or even Martina Navratilova in tennis.

Ask anyone in the street who Mario Andretti is, or Bobby Rahal, or F.J. Foydt; chances are they'll say they're Indy car racers, right? Now, ask the same people who Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet or Alain Prost are, they probably won't know they're all Formula One racers.

The point is that people only worship, or pay attention to their local heroes. They need to see them inside People magazine (here we go again), on TV talk shows, in the newspapers, etc. If they don't, these athletes mean nothing to them and have no following. What do Marc Girardelli and Erika Hess mean to the American public?

Bottom line is that athletes must live where they spend most time competing. To use racing as a valid promotional vehicle we need "continental", if not national athletes. We also need a tour or tours that spend most, if not all their time competing on the continent; this makes sense for sponsors, TV network, etc.

Winter Sport vs. Skiing Experience

All along, I have tried to substitute the word "Winter Sport" for "Skiing". I believe this is important. Even though many of us may only engage into selling skiing equipment, we're all part of that winter experience.

Let me explain; in winter we're competing again the Caribbean or the Hawaiian sun, and these are formidable alternatives to the whole winter snow experience. Not everyone may want to ski. Some may just want to stroll into Vail and do some shopping. They may just want to go ice skating, or at the other end of the spectrum, if they are just bored with skiing, they might want to get into snowboarding. Whatever happened to "apres-ski"? Sometimes, I wonder if under the pretense of being smart business people, we have not bored our ski customer to death with our new plastics, fabrics or composite resins?

One case in point: Why do the Winter Olympic seem so magic with the public? The reason, I believe, is that people are given to see a cornucopia of winter events that are both varied and entertaining. So much is going on that no one can get bored or stay too long on one single event...

The point there, is that the word skiing is a limiting indeed, and should be forgotten in favor of winter sports, because this is the essence of the experience; a week under the clear blue skies of Aspen or Park City makes a whole year of hard work worth it. I don't believe it's the shear mileage on skis that does that. It's the experience of waking up in the morning and seeing a wonderful winter landscape at your window, the experience of walking after dinner in a bitter cold night with - overhead - a sky full of stars... I know what I'm talking about, I live in a ski town!

Promoting the Winter Sport Experience effectively

After all this diatribe, it's now time to come up with some constructive ideas. Before we get into this prescription though, let's assume for a moment that all forces, factions and bodies involved in the business come together and decide to work out some effective ways to deal with the current situation.

The next order of things is to take a new, fresh look at racing and see in it a real promotional vehicle. Picture this for a minute: A North American circuit that would start say, in Killington, follow into Stowe/Sugarbush, go to the Laurentians, move over to Summit County, Colo., go the Utah Wasatch front, move back to Vail/Beaver Creek, go into Sun Valley or Jackson, work its way to Banff or Vancouver then go down to Mammoth/June and end in Lake Tahoe for a spring finale.

We are talking about 10 areas, that's all. This mean that the tour could start around Thanksgiving back East, move early January in the West, where it would take place every 2 weeks to last until March. The way this would work though, is that each area would host a circus-like mini Olympic event for an entire week.

Alpine skiing (dual format), Freestyle, Snowboarding, Ski Jumping, X-C Races, Ice Skating would all be represented. A field of professional athletes would travel that tour, yet in every town, through qualification procedures, any non-professional could measure him or herself against the best, thus merging "citizen" into "pro" racing. The qualification runs would take place in the early part of the week, with the finals of all events staggered - in short segments - over the week-end so they can be easily processed by the TV network buying the rights for the tour.

Morning TV shows would be hosted for the week at the resort(s) providing excellent coverage of the winter experience we'd want to sell the public. This would become a winter classic more like the Super Bowl.

Everybody would win; the equipment manufacturers would only have to invest money in relation to the representation they'd want for their product in North America, the area operators would get super exposure, PSIA could interject their latest techniques, and sell people on taking lessons, a then united Ski Federation could sell people on becoming active members...

If they'd want (and believe me, they would), the "Euro's" could do the same by restoring the "Classics" such as Chamonix, Wengen, St. Anton, Garmisch, Cortina, etc. and run the same type of tour with their own athletes.

Every one or two years, at the Olympics or the World Championships, the Old Continent would meet North America...

To me, this prescription makes a lot of sense because it is simple (we aren't talking about SDI); all the elements already exist, it's a matter of putting them in the right order. Let's become a strong winter Industry, let's do something for our future!