The Mountain Times

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Ski industry adopts conversion challenge: Killington and Pico lead with innovative programs

The challenges are many: the recent economic downturn; climate change and erratic winters; an ever-more sedentary society; societal shifts with two-worker families which causes time poverty; school activities that limit the ability of families to travel in winter; more alternative leisure activities; and an aging baby-boomer population.

These are all significant for the ski industry, but it is the unfavorable demographic trend that threatens to derail the great strides made in growing skier visits to a national record of 60.54 million in 2010-11.   

It was the burgeoning baby-boomer generation that drove the history of the sport, causing the "ski boom" in the 1950s and 1960s, when a proliferation of new ski areas made it easy for people to find a nearby hill to learn the sport.

Innovative developments in instruction - Shortee skis, Natur Teknik, and GLM (pioneered at Killington) - furthered skier visits as all ages and even the "non-athletic" learned to ski and found that they loved it.

Their interest later translated to the condo boom and a transition of ski areas to "ski resorts" in the 1980s and 1990s as well as multi-generational family vacations in the 2000s.

The resulting economic impact to Vermont has been significant, notes Parker Riehle, president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association (VSAA). For the 2010-11 season Vermont had almost 4.4 million skier visits, with an estimated economic impact of $750 million in direct spending. "Two thirds of that spending occurs off-mountain in surrounding villages and towns. The indirect spending is also significant," he noted. The latter is estimated at $700 million in an average year and includes all the expenditures made by the businesses that rely on the skier/rider traffic. That equates to a $1.5 billion contribution to the Vermont economy along with the creation of about 12,000 jobs.

 Put in perspective, "Vermont's skier-visit ranking continues to position the state as number three in the country, behind only Colorado (12 million skier visits) and California (7 million skier visits)," Riehle noted.

But now one baby boomer turns age 63 every seven seconds, according to Dr. Joseph F. Coughlin, director of MIT's AgeLab and a member of the White House Conference on Aging. As members of the 77-million-strong group of swinging silvers, this cohort is beginning to "age out" of snow sports, jeopardizing the ski industry's future warns National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) President Michael Berry.

At its 2009 National Convention, Berry stated that one of NSAA's primary missions is to help its members "understand the implications of the significant demographic shifts on the horizon. As baby boomers continue to age, they will begin dropping out of the sport at an alarming rate. Without an industry-wide effort focused on attracting newer, younger participants and converting them into loyal skiers and riders, ski areas could face dramatic declines in visitation in the not-so distant future," he said.

According to NSAA, national statistics show that 85 percent of those who try the sport don't return, and their research indicates that if conversion rates don't improve, overall visitation figures could decrease by 2.5 percent per year to around 40 million visits for the 2020-21 season. (That low number was last seen nationally in the 1981 season, a year when Vermont did 3.1 million visits.)   

By "improving the conversion rate from 15 percent to 25 percent, the industry can accomplish the overall turnaround that is badly needed," Berry adds. To that end, NSAA has adopted a Growth Model that features sharing best practices "aimed at converting new generations into lifelong participants."

"Vermont ski areas have been answering the call of NSAA's conversion challenge for several years and continue to add programs and amenities every year in order to capture the newbies and keep them skiing," Riehle commented. These initiatives range from the streamlined rental programs to the annual Learn-to-Ski & Snowboard packages, he said, adding "over 1,000 newbies" took advantage of the January lessons this year.

"Ski schools play a pivotal role in the conversion process. It is imperative that the first-timer's experience be a positive one that will encourage a lifelong passion for the sport," Riehle added.


Local Initiatives See Results

Rob Megnin, marketing director for Killington Resort and Pico Mountain, notes, "Our new programs are absolutely necessary because if we don't bring new skiers and snowboarders into the sport, we'll see fewer and fewer participants in coming years. Our livelihood, our community's livelihood, and the state's depend on the economic impact the sports generate for Vermont... The greatest challenge is how to make snow sports grow."  

Killington consistently sets an above average conversion rate of 35 percent (one of the highest in the industry). Megnin attributed that accomplishment to Killington's historic focus on teaching methods. They go back to the 1960s when the area pioneered GLM in concert with SKI Magazine, then developed the Accelerated Method (1970s) followed by training stations (1980s) and a specially contoured learning trail. Now the Max 3 and 5 programs (for group lessons that run the spectrum from first-timers to experienced skiers and snowboarders) provide the personal attention that contributes to a better experience and the higher return rate, he said.

But Megnin added, "We still need to do a better job of introducing people to snow sports so that they become core enthusiasts. This is necessitated not only by the upcoming aging out of the baby-boom generation but also by recent events like 9/11 and the economic downturn, which changed the way people consume recreation. The continuing challenge is to understand: our customers; trends like the importance of family and people being more value conscious; and the way the internet has changed the game.

"We're looking at all that and are employing the new technology such as the PURL program which helps us to move new skiers and riders down a continuum of participation. This is all designed to help people get to their third visit and bolster our retention and conversion rate in the process," Megnin added.


Killington, Pico Learn-to-Ski/Ride Programs

"For the first-time skier or rider, the sport is an equipment-intensive sport that sets a first timer on a downhill, slippery surface in cold weather. For those reasons, it's difficult enough to get folks to try it for the first time, much less get them to come back if their first experience is not positive. So the rental equipment fitting process, customer service, and on-snow instruction are all key to a good experience that will inspire beginners to try the sport again," Snow Sports School Director Dave Beckwith explained.

To make the first day on the slopes as effortless and hassle free as possible, Killington utilizes a process that begins with first-timers meeting with their instructors indoors and being assisted in putting on boots before heading out to a bus that takes them to specially designed learning terrain.

 "The turning point comes in just a few lessons, and when that happens and everything clicks, people discover the most exhilarating connection with nature and the great outdoors that keeps them hooked for life. And that is where the sport remains so resilient and industry leaders remain so hopeful for the future of the sport," Beckwith noted.

 "The unique thing is that all our Killington lessons are Max 3 or 5 (no more than three or five students to an instructor)," he added, noting the faster learning that results from more personal attention.

In addition to private and Max 5 group lessons for adults, there are Max 3 and 5 lessons for children to nurture the next generation of downhillers. Killington has been ahead of the industry in this regard, offering a First Tracks Slide and Play program for ages 2-4 for many years now. This feature is a one-hour add-on option to the Friendly Penguin Day Care program with on-snow activities designed to introduce children to skiing or snowboarding. Ministars (ages 4-7), Superstars (7-12) and SnowZone (13-18) round out offerings for the next generation.

Additionally, Pico Mountain offers a learn-to ski/ride package of beginner lift, lesson, and equipment for ages 7 and older for $99 for three days (lessons do not need to be on consecutive days).  A $149 unlimited season pass with a free 1-hour private lesson and a free rental is an optional add-on for anyone completing the program. These are just a few ways in which Pico is making learning affordable and fun.

March is a good time to introduce someone to snow sports. It's warmer so fewer layers are needed and hands and feet aren't subjected to January's colder temps. Days are lighter longer and there's generally more sunshine. The snow is usually at its best with snowmaking having built up base depths and storms traditionally dumping 4 or more feet of flakes.

TIP: If you bring a first-timer age 18 or older who purchases a learn-to package, you'll receive a free lift ticket valid that same day. Call 800-923-9444 for more information or to make advance reservations (required).

Check out Killington and Pico websites for more information on learn-to programs.

Next week we'll follow a class of first timers to see how coaches at Killington make that first introduction an easy and fun experience.

Tagged: killington, conversion