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.