Wednesday, May 5, 1999

Growing the winter sports industry

The winter sports industry is more fragmented and divided than it needs to be, and this may be one of the reasons why we fail to attract more participation into our wonderful world of winter recreation. There are indeed many facets to the snow industry that don't always work in concert.

The most critical entities are the ski areas that make their lift equipment and other infrastructure available to our visiting guests; ski or mountain areas are joined under the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA).

Lodging operations are obvious participants, and the final pieces of the puzzle are the various suppliers of winter sports equipment and apparel, all grouped in what is called Snow Industries America (SIA).

While both NSAA and SIA tried to merge back in the late 80's and attempted to launch some common promotional programs, their respective leaderships could not surrender full control, and soon that temporary alliance was followed by a bitter divorce.

For the past ten years, all winter sport industry players have sensed a lack of growth as the number of skier days have hovered around the 50 million mark without showing any significant growth.

Stop-and-Go Programs

With a constantly growing supply of goods, infrastructure and services, it becomes quite obvious that we will soon suffer if we fail to attract more participants.

The "Ski it to Believe it" promotion of earlier this decade was a timid two-season attempt that was abandoned too soon because no measurable results could be seen out of the effort.

Last May, Les Otten, American Skiing Company's chief and owner of The Canyons, was urging all segments of the winter sports industry to raise a $57 million war chest for a three-year marketing campaign. This laudable effort was abandoned a few months later because of "bad snow conditions". These kinds of stop-and-go actions won't do much to pull skiing and snowboarding out of their stagnation.

Something consistent and sustained needs to be done, but none of the segments of the industry appear to have a clear idea as to what the right prescription should be. While we are very much dependent on snow, capricious snow conditions are not necessarily the sole reasons behind the lack of expansion of winter recreation.

In reality, skiing may be suffering more from a clear lack of promotion by its own industry and from a number of other hurdles ranging from its cost to its complexity and inherent risk. The logical question is what set of actions are more likely to spark a renewed interest for winter sports?

Nurturing Feeder Ski Areas

In looking closely, there are many avenues that could be thoroughly explored. One of them is a closer partnership between large destination resorts and small family ski areas scattered throughout the nation. These are the critical feeder markets for tomorrow's destination skiers and snowboarders. Through strong co-op programs, large ski areas could make available lifts, grooming, snowmaking and other equipment -- still in good operating condition -- to these smaller mountain areas. Likewise, mountain operations and private ski rental shops could donate older equipment to the same feeder markets in an effort to make this first snow experience as affordable as possible.

Other support programs at these same local areas could revolve around children and young families in an effort to make snow sports a weekend pastime that most people can afford. It is quite obvious that we must enroll kids' participation into the sport if we want to see sustained results in the future. Donated equipment, ski-swaps or lease programs could all be orchestrated to making winter sports extremely affordable to parents who normally would never consider letting their kids play in the snow...

Of course, feeder markets and programs aimed at developing local skiers will only work best in the snowbelt or in those metro areas with skilifts within reasonable driving distance, but how can we enlist Sunbelt states' participation?

Tapping into Low Occupancy Periods

Ski areas and lodging must do a much better job in maximizing low occupancy periods. Offering promotions during the early part of December or April should attract people to the slopes. Even if the snow isn't plentiful yet or has already passed its prime, new skiers or riders should still be able to learn the rudiments of the sport.

All segments of the industry could pitch in: rental operators could make gear available at minimal costs, ski areas could cut the cost of lift tickets to a bare minimum or, better yet, let these first-timers ride free. These same resorts would recoup some of their investment by selling more hamburgers, drinks, sun tan lotion or goggles while lodging companies could offer accommodations at or near cost. This should prime the pump and would inoculate first-time visitors with a life-long dose of "snow fever."

These are just a few ideas that have the potential to re-energize our industry if we have the fortitude and patience to let them grow and are willing to give them more than just a couple of years.

Saturday, January 16, 1999

Look! The Emperor has no clothes…

I have observed the recent Olympic scandal with a mixture of amusement and concern.

Amusement, because I have never put too much credence in the Olympic Movement; mixing a monopoly on sports and lots of money under the name of "Movement" has always sounded suspicious too me. Somehow, I couldn't not see the Olympics as white as the flag that flies over the Games. What has amazed me the most was that people were even shocked at the "scandal". I see in that either too much naïveté or hard-core hypocrisy.

One of the reasons for my concern might be found in the fact that I was born a few miles across the lake and Lausanne, where the International Olympic (IOC) Headquarters are established in Switzerland. For years, I have observed with particular interest the rise to power of the new Pope of Sports, His Excellency the Marquis Juan-Antonio Samaranch, operating out of his Château de Vidy on the shores of Lake Geneva After being Spain's Secretary of Sports under Franco, and then President of the Catalogna Region until 1975 when the dictator died, Samaranch's ascension into the pinnacle of sports has been rather remarkable. From the time he became the IOC president in 1980, he was able to assure his re-elections with absolute predictability by "working" his constituency, the international Olympic Delegates.

As we have heard from the press, many of the 100-plus IOC Delegates are not beyond reproach. In fact, in a great number of countries they rose to their positions through "excellent relations" with local dictators or from the Party high spheres in former communist nations. Some of the Delegates' tainted origins perfectly set the stage for making their votes a commodity available for purchase. In my opinion, this sad state of affairs has been going on for a long time, and is something that must have been known and condoned by the IOC.

Samaranch skillfully worked these same Delegates to achieve and maintain his Imperial-like status over a twenty-year span. Do I need to add that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely"? What is rather interesting, and has not been discussed in the recent "scandal", is that the IOC is awash with money. By its own admission, it takes "less than 7%" of the sponsorship contributions related to any Olympic Games.

Figure it out: Based on Salt Lake's $1.45 billion budget, the IOC should receive $100 million. With one Olympic every two years and a price tag of $2 billion for the summer events, an average yearly income of $60 millions flows into the Château de Vidy. Those of our elected official who visited the place some 18 months ago will have to agree that after paying the staff and the operating costs, a heap of money has to be left over at the IOC headquarters… Of course, I am not counting the millions of dollars "donated" by Nagano for the Olympic museum in Switzerland and the countless rivulets of "freebies" that must be pouring into the IOC headquarters...

This is a lot of money circulating into what should be a non-for-profit organization. No wonder why Mr. Samaranch clings to his job with such a fervor! That is indeed far too much money if one considers that the "movement" offers very little accountability -- if at all -- to the world at large. No wonder then that a portion of its cash is used to harass people all over the world, including our own Wasatch Brewery, for alleged Olympic trademarks violations!

Now, I smile when the same Samaranch deplores the excessive commercialization of the Atlanta Games. This Holier-than-thou attitude will be much harder to sell in the future, when the good people of Utah have realized that Messrs. Joklik and Johnson were indeed the sacrificial lambs of this sad Olympic episode. In my view, they had very little reason to go; like all candidate cities, they played by the IOC "rules" and did what they had to do to secure the votes.

Unfortunately for them, a story-hungry press opened the can of worms and SLOC got hosed. The obvious problem I see in the current crisis is that Mr. Samaranch has failed to take any responsibility for his corrupt system. When the dust settles over this story, he is the one who should step down; not Joklik and Johnson. Unlike what was recently suggested by Mr. Marc Holder, Salt Lake City should remain the Olympic choice for 2002. The final selection was appropriate, our venues are fine. The only condition should be that the IOC steps up to the plate if we fail to attract all the money needed to run the games. Hopefully, there should be some dollars left in the IOC's coffers!

For the future, I simply hope that the U.S. and all the other responsible National Olympic Committees will start questioning this whole IOC concept, from its absolute power all the way to its secrecy, and start a deep-clean process. With so much money and influence at stake, they should, among other things, look at re-casting the IOC within a supra-national organization like the United Nations or some of its agencies, for greater accountability, sound democratic rule and full transparency.