Time to Get this Party Started!

Enough of this off season! Last Spring was chock full o’ news with Vail Resorts and Aspen/KSL running amok with huge bags of cash buying up resorts. We’ll be keeping an eye on how that all shakes out.

dog fighting cat

Aspen Nips the Catz Tail! Trump Saves the Ski Industry!

We have some product reviews coming your way that you won’t want to miss.

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You will likely finish reading this installment confused by the many twists and turns and incomplete directions. GOOD…You darned well should be! The ski industry is slowly killing itself and the reasons are as complex as they silly.

Trust me though, I’ll get you straightened out on it all by the end of this season 🙂

What finally shook me out of my summer doldrums were two articles from the same author and source. Both articles referenced “experts” who talked about why the ski industry isn’t growing. I am always interested in that subject and I read them both, several times.

What struck me was not the specific opinions of the two experts but how two experts could be looking at the same industry and come up with conclusions that are perfect opposites. Could it be that the industry is failing to grow because there simply isn’t anyone who knows what is really going on?

The first article I saw was posted by ISPO.com and you can read it here. READ ME. 

Basically it claims that skiing is too “elitist” and needs to find a way to get more people from lower income demographics to participate. The article didn’t say it in so many words but I had the distinct impression that the intent was to socialize or, at least, to have governments subsidize snow sport participation.

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China plans to grow snow sports in an unprecedented way. If they are successful they would nearly double the number of active participants in the world. I wrote about that last year in…

Senior Skiing To Grow 400% Worldwide. 

If the rest of the alpine world is to survive, they may well have to learn how to compete against government subsidized resorts in China and Russia.

From that perspective, I can sort of understand where this expert is coming from. BUT, it seems like “experts” in Japan, Korea, OZ, NZ, Canada, and the US are gearing up for what they believe will be a  Wave of affluent Chinese coming their way.

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Given that China has proved it can build a world class ski resort in less than a year, it is likely that millions of folks from Japan, Korea, OZ, NZ, Canada and the US will pass them in the air…on their way to China...to enjoy government subsidized, world class skiing…on a free seat on government owned Chinese Airliners.

What I am saying is that China would very easily take the decision to offer free everything from travel to lodging to meals and lifts. One or two seasons of that could absolutely trash the ski industry in most traditional alpine countries.

Sometimes I wonder if Vail Resorts and Aspen/KSL understand that the 30 some resorts they own between them will be the only ones open in 15 years and are aligning themselves to serve only the wealthiest of the wealthy from around the globe. It’s already cheaper to take the annual ski vacation in Europe than it is to Colorado. How soon before it is even cheaper to enjoy world class powder in China?

The second article, from the same author and website… different expert.….posted in the same week contends exactly the opposite…Skiing is not “elite” enough. It needs the elite and not the “masses”!

First, I am curious to know who gets to decide if YOU are an “elite” or a member of  “the masses”. That decision almost never works out for you when you don’t get to make it.

This second article I didn’t spend a lot of time with. From the perspective of industry specific knowledge, the “expert” didn’t seem to have much. It was more like the standard Google/SEO – blast the world with “branding” thing that appears 400 times a day in my Facebook news feed.

From my view, it is really just a guy trying to sell some consulting time. I based that on the claim in the article that in a market populated by fairly affluent people he seems to think that dominating Google is the strategy of choice.

My thought is that the more easily you can define a target the easier it is to hit it. You go on LinkeIn, search keyword “ski” and bang – 1,000,000 affluent skiers that you can contact directly. His claim that “targeting” is dead is foolishly myopic and “tech-centric” and flies in the face of everything we know about how people in those “elite” classes make buying decisions.

Look, I am a free market guy and if you can get someone to spend $40 for a Cheeseburger by putting it on the menu as “Boeuf Haché avec du Fromage”…congratulations! PT Barnum told us many decades ago how that works.

I will make a prediction right now that $40 cheeseburgers and $300 lift tickets aren’t going to save the ski industry. Neither will socialized skiing. 

Again, the problems facing the industry in its traditional haunts has been the same problem for more than 20 years. The number of participants isn’t growing and neither is the number of times they go skiing each season. The industry has known for a long time that they need to do a much better job of hanging on to beginners.

The woeful statistic is that 82% of people who try it, don’t come back. NOTHING the industry has tried in the last 25 years has had any significant impact on that number.

According to the 2017 global industry study by Luis Vanat, participation in snow sports has been, and still is, in steady decline in traditional alpine nations.

The only places where it is growing are in Russia and China. 

The only demographic data that tracks directly with the decline in alpine sports is the decline of the middle classes in traditional alpine countries.

This conclusion is bolstered by the fact that Russia and China enjoy rapidly growing middle class. It is also supported here in the US that of the 200 plus ski areas lost in the last 20 years  most are predominantly small, local, low cost ski areas.

The cost of a day of skiing has grown much faster than inflation during a period when fewer and fewer people could afford even the low end of the cost spectrum.

All that boils down to that the ski industry really cannot have any impact of political and economic models. If current political and economic policies are eating away at your sources of revenue then you have to do something.

There are two ways to make a million dollars. Sell one million people a one dollar item or sell one million dollar item to one person. Between those extremes there are any number of potential blends of strategy and tactics to reach that goal.

So far, all we see are companies inching their way up the ladder. The cost of participating in lift served snow sports has been rising at a rate much higher than wage growth.

At a time when part of your client base is rapidly disappearing to economic policies, driving prices in the opposite direction only exacerbates the problem. Given the shrinkage in youth participation, the industry may well be heading toward a bubble that will fundamentally alter it and leave it no means of recovery.

When I was a kid in the late 50s and early 60s there simply weren’t many ski areas around. There were mountains of surplus military ski equipment that could be used on whatever local bump kids used for sledding. Our family “ski vacation” consisted of driving up Thompson canyon west of Ft. Collins and skiing the roadside ditch. Mom would drive us up and Dad would ski down with the kids. Then Dad would drive and Mom would ski with the kids. I had been skiing 15 years before I experienced a mechanical lift at a ski area. The current growth in a return to those halcyon days of hiking for turns is a breath of fresh air

In many towns these days the local sledding hills are shut down due to legal liability concerns. Kids are less active generally. Thanks in part to the explosion of a million cliff hucking, drowning-in-an-avalanche, GOPro videos, millions of mothers are deciding that skiing is too dangerous for their children.

There seems to be a growing list of reasons to NOT participate. At least, that list is growing faster than the list of reasons to give it a go and stay with it. The high costs certainly make it easier to stay away.

There are a lot of reasons why people don’t stick with it. Costs are certainly a part of that equation. Costs won’t change until the industry feels that is the only way it can survive.

One of the reasons that shows up in the annual surveys is poor proficiency. People think their skiing sucks and who is going to spend their annual vacation money doing something they suck at?

The problem is that there is much the industry can and should do about proficiency but they simply don’t care to do them. Lessons are expensive and will remain expensive, period.

When ski resorts are operating a government granted monopoly, there will not be any competition for the monopoly ski schools. Until there is, instruction will remain as expensive as it is ineffective and customer losses to “poor proficiency” will continue. Collision accidents on the mountain due to poor proficiency and over-crowding will continue to climb.

Sure skiing is expensive. The interesting thing is that once you reach a point in your life where you have the time to go skiing and you can afford to go skiing, the industry isn’t interested in you anymore.

Have Senior Skiers Been Abandoned? The Wrinkled Irrelevants…

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The outlook for increasing average proficiency is pretty bleak. Instructors with a lot of experience are “aging-out” of the profession and not enough young people are taking it up.

Instructor shortages are so severe that resorts are offering $1000 bounties to any employee who helps them poach an instructor from a another resort.

 

The outlook is so bleak, in fact, that the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) have taken to designing instructional programs for companies who make teaching machines.

But hey, it’s almost December and the local mountain is open. So, we’ll just keep on skiing and riding and muddle through somehow.

Kowabunga!! Tips Up Folks!

 

 

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Aspen Nips the Catz Tail! Trump Saves the Ski Industry!

Tony Robbins would have to admit that backing out of the Paris Agreement is a genius leadership move…

Ya, I know what you are thinking. But really…

I already went off on Vail’s climate announcement so I won’t repeat that (read it here)

Predictably, Aspen today announced they too are “#StillInIt” and all about living up to the Paris Agreement (PA) even if the evil Orange Dragon isn’t putting the federal government in the game. I am still at a loss about why on earth they aren’t saying, “Thank goodness!”

I will get to reasons why the lift-served snow sport industry ought to be thanking Trump for pulling the US out of the PA. I promise….

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Most people, meaning those for AND against the PA, have no idea what is actually in it. (many will read it and still have no idea what it says)

So, how can they make an informed decision? Truth is, most people don’t. They take whatever collection of 15 second sound bites they have from whatever sources they prefer and they follow that.

We live in an “Information Age” but most of what we consume as “information” isn’t really information. It is a collection of other peoples’ conclusions. In the same way that computer models produce conclusions NOT “data”, consuming news only gives you the chance to vote on their conclusions it doesn’t give you “information” you can use to make your own decisions.

So, I read the PA It isn’t very long. Here is a link to the December 2015 version. Paris Agreement. (I can’t make the URL link work. I found it with the search terms “Paris Agreement Document) If you don’t want to read it, I’ll just tell you that someone at the DNC photocopied the first page and used it for the party platform.

The PA does nothing less than take for itself all the responsibilities of a government. The PA is going to eradicate poverty, promote LGBT rights, fight for the ubiquitous “social justice”, “climate justice”. Lots of justice in there. They will 3D print sliced bread, canned beer and real sex partners for everyone on the planet. The only shared feature of their various definitions of “justice” is the transfer of money.

Some people say. “It isn’t binding so why not just sign it?”

The obvious answer is that if it doesn’t actually DO anything then why bother with it at all?

If you were buying a car, the PA is that moment when the sales guy says, “Just sign the work up sheet here and I’ll go ask my manager to approve you”…unh huh….

But, the reasons run all they way down to our constitutional roots. It is deeply tied, believe it or not, to the current travel ban broo-ha-ha. If you recall, a judge held that the travel ban was discriminatory in its “intent” not because of the language of the executive order itself but because of things Trump said during the campaign.

If SCOTUS should uphold that decision it sets an interesting precedent. If Trump had verbally supported the PA, any regulation that doesn’t fit the PA mold could be overturned by citing the Travel Ban decision and Trump’s verbal remarks would carry the full force and legal weight of a treaty DOMESTICALLY without ever having passed a two thirds vote in the Legislative branch. That would essentially neuter the Legislative branch and turn the Executive branch into the hand maiden of the judiciary branch and effectively give any entity foreign or domestic the opportunity to circumnavigate the Constitution by filing a lawsuit. Any Ork with a pile of cash and a lawyer can become “President of Middle Earth for a Day”

Another popular meme is, “But only Syria and Nicaragua haven’t signed it”

My Mom used to say, “Just because all the other kids are jumping off the bridge does not mean YOU should!”

Ya, whatever, Mom, but seriously..read the PA. If you are the dictator of Bumfuckistan and you get millions in free western cash and are NOT bound by the PA to spend it on anything related to the climate, why the hell would you NOT sign it??”

The world is NOT a collection of unconnected dots, people. There are NOT 195 nations overflowing with love for the planet…yer gonna have to trust me on that..

All the PA really does is establish the global pecking order and loosely define the nations who will pay the bills and which nations will receive payments. The winners and losers have already been determined.

One thing is does communicate clearly. It does NOT like free-market solutions. It prefers money raised by taxation.

MOST of the payments will go to support the massive global bureaucracy that the PA calls for. In order to manage their involvement in the PA, every country will be forced to develop it’s own bureaucracy. Ka-Ching!

In the US that would have meant a new cabinet level position and many thousands of pages of new regulations. Ka-Ching!

Surely, those mountains of regulations would mean that cities, states and counties would have to have their own new bureaucracies…. Ka-Ching

Individuals and businesses (such as Aspen and Vail) would also have to pay the direct costs of compliance with all these new regulations as well as the incremental tax increases associated with the PA… Ka-Ching

Businesses such as Aspen/KSL and Vail would have to hire an army of people to cover the army of government employees who would want to see their plan, approve the plan and monitor the plan, receive massive reports on the plan. ..Ka-Ching

Because the technologies to make a huge reduction in energy consumption are not cheap, businesses would have to raise prices to customers, reduce headcount, reduce benefits, reduce pay raises…in short some pretty tight austerity measures…Ka-Ching

Or, receive massive government subsidies….KA-CHING!

We already know that folks in countries who have gone whole-hog for the renewable technologies have seen unsustainable increases in their electric bills….Ka-Ching

The price of fossil fuels, petroleum in particular, were predicted to rise 300-400% by 2030. We know that is a political target anyway. It was part of the Obama platform in 2008 and 2012. I can’t put that all on the PA.

When China surpasses the US in oil consumption, the trading currency would likely switch from dollars to yuan. The PA would simply accelerate the inevitable change. With US domestic oil production reduced and in many cases, blocked, the US doesn’t have a strategic fall back position…KA-CHING

The economic pressure of high fuel and electric prices is going to mean the end of vacation travel for millions of middle class households that currently participate in snow sports...Ka-Ching

You are maybe wondering who are all the beneficiaries of all this Ka-Chinging?

The simple answer is that if you love lift-served snow sports..it ain’t you…OK?

If you are a skier, YOU are the Ka-Chingee!

The cost of getting to a ski resort is going to go way up…Ouch

The cost lift passes and staying, eating and apres-skiing there is going to go way up…Ouch

There are going to be millions fewer customers who can afford to ski. Guess what happens to everything the resorts charge for and who will pay for that?…Ouch

Perhaps this gloomy economic outlook is the strategic driver behind the flurry of acquisitions? In the potential scenarios created by the PA, only a few resorts will survive. Only the top economic demographics will remain as customers and the dramatic increase in prices won’t affect their participation habits much. But what about all those small businesses in those ski towns who think The Consolidators are the savior returned? What about all that public infrastructure built to support twice the capacity?

Perhaps the “consolidation” craze is just preparing Aspen?KSL and Vail (who already own that market segment) for the inevitable and crushing demise of the lift-served snow sport industry. They intend to own the few resorts they believe will survive.

I was scratching my head over Vail and Aspen volunteering to live up to the PA…

But, if they can suck the budget-skiing resort owners into a “climate war” or influence legislation and regulations in a way favorable to their strategy, it would hasten the demise of those smaller  venues, that’s a win. They are already positioned financially and, as they grow larger, will enjoy more political influence. A huge chunk of the funding for the US Forest Service already comes from VR and Aspen/KSL.

If you are one of the millions of participants who struggle or make sacrifices so you can go skiing or riding, there is absolutely nothing in the PA for you to be happy about. 

 People yak about building “awareness” and take fat donations to do that. I am just wondering if the problem is awareness or “careness”. Everybody from Kindergarten on up is aware of climate change….not that many people care.

The battle cry on the slopes these days is “save our winters!”

My question is, “For Whom?”

But let’s not stop there. Let’s spin the dreidl again and see what turns up.

Even though they are not going to be REQUIRED to suffer all the slings and arrows of outrageous legislation (and YOU won’t have to pay for it all)…

Aspen and Vail just said they are going to do it anyway, which means you will pay for it in one way or another.

BUT…because they won’t have the heavy burden of regulatory compliance and exponential growth in fuel and electric bills, it makes a nice strategic and tactical windfall. They have the opportunity to take the money they had set aside for the effects of the PA in their long range plans and put that money to good use reducing their elephantine carbon clog hoppers.

 

Aspen says they are STILL in it. That surely means they were ALREADY in it before today. I wonder how they were planning to deal with all the requirements of the PA. Let’s take a look at just some of the things that Vail, and now Aspen, have committed themselves to fund. I don’t mean “support” or “signal intent” or lobby or protest…I mean PAY FOR..send money…..moola…dinero….scheckles

Payments to “The Convention” to be distributed to foreign governments to;

fight poverty…. create food-security… support LGBT rights…create climate justice, social justice..the list is really long. How will Aspen and Vail determine how much money to send off every year? Without a government to tell them how much, it should be interesting to watch. I want to see a photocopy of the checks…

Maybe we are seeing the emergence of a Vail v. Aspen Slugfest (click here to read it)“climate competition” that would blow the roof off their goals. Wouldn’t that be something if free enterprise took the lead over tax driven, ineffective government bureaucracy?!! I mean, after all, the War on Poverty and the War on Drugs worked out so well….

So, I am heartened by these announcements by various companies to toe the PA mark and soldier on alone.

As Tony Robbins has often said, “Real leaders don’t create followers. They create new leaders”

+It just might be that backing out of the Paris Agreement has lifted America from becoming a band of dogged, slogging  followers and created all these new leaders.

Rather than having surrendered “American Leadership”, the Orange Dragon just broke away from the pack of followers and unleashed these new leaders on the world.

To be fair, it just might turn out to be the most genius leadership move ever.

 

 

Senior Skiers Remember!

A great Memorial Day article from The Ski Diva! And a great old movie, Roger Corman’s “Ski Troop Attack!”

Link to The Ski Diva – http://www.theskidiva.com/memorial-day-ski-style-6/

Learn More about the 10th Mountain Division click here

 

Senior Skiing To Grow 400% Worldwide

This article in SkiAsia.com truly fascinates me! It’s really hard to pin down an exact number of active snow sport participants in the world. Outside of Winter Olympic news, The whole notion of skiing in China has been mostly off my radar. Bad analyst..Bad analyst!

So, just thinking “out loud”….

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Many resorts don’t report visits and many people who haven’t skied in years identify themselves as skiers in blind surveys. The number is estimated at around 100 Million worldwide.

Whatever the real numbers are in traditional winter sport countries, the emerging markets in Eastern Europe, Russia, China and elsewhere are on the verge of swamping existing demographics in a very profound way.

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The US has roughly 12 Million active participants who generate about 55 million visit/days each year. It has been that way for a couple of decades.

Now, here is China setting a goal to increase the number of skiers and riders in their country from their current 15 million to 300 million over the next five years!

You read that correctly Three…Hundred…Million…New…Participants.

In Five Years!

The American ski industry has struggled for 20 years just to break even on participation growth.

In reality, the US industry has not created a net gain in participant numbers in a VERY long time. In fact, if you look at this chart, there appears to be a serious “down-bubble” on its way in the U.S. as the number of new, young participants has been shrinking and older participants “age-out”.

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According to the 2017 Laurent Vanat report, the recognized authoritative study of global snow sports market data, while Vail Resorts, and Aspen-KSL are making headlines by moving the deck chairs around the Titanic, China has grown to 646 ski areas and Russia to 354 resorts. Sure, many of them are on run with a surface tow but, it won’t stay that way.

A friend of mine from Kyiv just sent pictures of her Ukrainian ski vacation. Good slopes, good snow, great accommodations and the food was 5 stars on any gourmet’s chart. All at the cost of about 20% of a Colorado vacation.

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For a long time, in the US, the number of participants and the number of visits per season has been either flat or declining. Western Europe is seeing declining numbers as well. Switzerland is tanking in a major way.

Revenue growth has come almost exclusively from price increases.

Coupled with declining visitation, that model is unsustainable as fewer skiers are forced to pay ever higher prices to float the industry boat. VR and Aspen/KSL may enhance their margins by aggregating revenues and creating some economies-of-scale but it doesn’t change the industry’s foundation elements, declining numbers and rising prices.

Products like the Epic Pass are merely the hand the magician wants you to be fascinated with while he lifts your wallet. With declining numbers of customers, the only way they can keep their investors happy in the long term is to raise prices. They have proven incapable of creating new customers.

Faced with emerging, growing markets with cheap and in some cases, government subsidized pricing, it will be much less expensive to enjoy your annual winter vacation in China or Bulgaria than in Colorado.

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China recently flew its first domestically designed and manufactured airliner. 

China recently announced it will open a new “Silk Road” for western trade.

Do the math folks. The world’s fastest growing economy plus 300,000,000 new participants plus government built and operated airliners plus millions of acres of new government subsidized ski resorts. They already manufacture an awful lot of the equipment you buy.

Should China decide one winter to offer free flights, lodging and skiing to Europeans and North Americans, what might be the result? Overnight, the entire western snow sport industry might well become what has been sneeringly referred to as a “feeder resort”.

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The pressure on prices in the western industry will be tremendous. In the short term, the pressure on publicly held North American consolidators may well be more than investors are willing to bear.

Certainly there will be downward pressure on pricing at destination resorts as more options become available in emerging markets

The good news is that small non-destination venues that do not rely on snow making will enjoy a significant competitive flexibility. If they can cover the costs of operating the lifts, they can stay afloat. Highly leveraged operations will struggle…unless…

Unless, large western operations can involve themselves in development of resorts in these emerging markets…(They probably have and I have just been focused elsewhere) It certainly puts the Whistler acquisition in a whole new light for me!

And, it makes sense for them to do so. Pricing in traditional western markets has been treading the tipping-point of the supply & demand curves for a long time. Growth in participant numbers are flat or declining.

Conversely, Eastern Europe, China, and Russia are creating new snow sport participants in very large numbers already. Now that China has made snow sports compulsory for kids in Beijing, the number of new participants may grow as much as 40% year-over-year for the foreseeable future.

Let’s talk about Brain-Drain.

You cannot pack 300 Million new people on the existing slopes. There is going to be a whole lot of building going on.

North American resorts are ALREADY having trouble finding enough ski instructors to cover the demand.

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China and Russia and Eastern Europe will need expertise and the only place to get it in a hurry is from the mature markets of Western Europe and North America.

With Snow-Job wages in the US as ridiculously low as they are, it would not be hard for subsidized, emerging markets to drain off the best and brightest. Resort design, engineering and construction talent, snow making experts, resort operations and travel experts, all of these skilled workers, and many more, are targets for predatory hiring practices.

American snow sport organizations such as NSAA and PSIA already spend a lot of resources on fishing for new instructors on college campuses. The North American instructor corp is already an aging population.What happens to the supply of new, young instructors should China decide to offer a one year paid internship with free housing on American campuses..or worse..to already certified instructors?

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There are a variety of competitive responses available to western snow sport operators, not many, but some very interesting possible outcomes. The one that I find the most worrisome is this…

The NUMBER…..300,000,000 new participants is mind boggling, breath taking.

Add that to growth in other emerging markets and who the heck cares about a paltry 12 million Americans?

If I am Vail or Aspen/KSL I get over there and develop a cut-rate feeder market and drive North American skiing development into THE destination for the global elite. Private gondolas and $20,000 per night rooms….THAT kind of “elite”.

Broad based North American participation from the middle class would no longer be a significant business consideration. If you can consistently attract 60,000,000 visit/days out of the world’s wealthiest skiers, who the heck cares if Joe the Plumber can afford to ski?

What bugs me is that current operations such as Aspen/KSL and Vail are already boiling that frog. Pass prices are going down but the cost of everything else associated with a ski trip are going up at rates higher than inflation.

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They have their Old-Schoolers too! Very Old school 🙂

Slowly as the glam and bling rise, and the western middle-class declines, snow sports are increasingly out of reach for a growing number of traditional participants.

But, with millions of new participants on the near horizon there may be enough of the world’s newly minted millionaires in China and Russia that the western ski industry can afford to simply walk away from it’s traditional base.

The article doesn’t spell out HOW China will create these millions of new skiers and riders. Even if it is just all grade school kids, they will grow up one day.

Time will tell and I will be watching closely from here on out. Now if you will excuse me I have to go read Benny Wu’s market studies on the Chinese snow sport industry….

Stay Tuned!

Face Shots

https://youtu.be/bWtQn4RxkKE

 

Unintended Consequences

Sometimes it is necessary to say the things that no one really wants to talk about. Much of the snow sport industry media is a never ending flow about all the happy things, and that is fine. There are a lot of happy things about the experience…..but…

People protesting Big Oil to save the environment leave behind mountains of trash, burning tires, and a dead body. We want to save our winters but we make that proclamation in a helicopter high over the virgin snows of untouched wilderness in Chile..after a 10,000 mile trip in a jet that burned several tons of fuel.

Several ton of hydrocarbon and flurocarbon wax gets flushed off the mountains into our streams. One large Ivy League school, renowned for it’s activism against white privilege has a ski & snowboard club with thousands of members, mostly white.

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As Vail & Aspen gobble up ever more public lands for their enterprises, they become ever larger targets for political and environmental activism. Those attacks could take many forms from road-blocking to anti-trust suits. Most of the ski-able terrain is on public land in what amounts to a government granted monopoly.

The more I think about it, perhaps breaking up that monopoly may not be a bad thing. Competition for on-resort services like Food & Beverage, lessons and daycare will likely, in time, lower prices, improve the quality of those services and availability of those services, and wages as well. Lord knows the let-them-eat-cake philosophy behind these behemoths doesn’t sit well with America’s grass roots, bedrock egalitarianism….Just Sayin’

“Yellow Jackets” or Brown Shirts?

An acquaintance of mine was “pulled-over” by the increasingly infamous Yellow Jackets last month. She was told that “Acrobatics are allowed only in the terrain park…” Her offense? Drills. She was doing White Pass turns, Charlestons and Dolphin Turns and switch pivot-slips.

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She wanted to get the drills down pat so she figured, “What the heck” and headed to the terrain park to practice. There she was stopped again and told that if she wasn’t going to be skiing over the various features she would have to go. Those 58 year old women are a dangerous and unruly bunch…

I guess if you want to ski on one foot at a Vail resort you have to pay the ski school a few hundred bucks for the privilege.

Coming Attractions…

You Will Need that Arm & Leg for Skiing

As the costs of a western ski vacation promise to keep rising at the mega resorts, there are still a lot of venues out west that are silly-cheap. Perhaps the broad media visibility of the diamond-dusted resorts has everyone thinking that everything out here costs an arm and a leg and they just don’t bother coming out.

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This summer we’ll take a look at a number of Rocky Mountain ski areas that have all that famous cold-smoke pow without the frills. Let’s call it the Alt-Ski Tour de Haute-Hillbilly.

My skis don’t care if I can buy a 2 carat diamond or a $100 12 oz sirloin or a fur coat in the lodge. When I am asleep, my mind is untroubled by the price of the bed. If it matters to my friends how much I spend skiing…I find new friends.

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How does all this sound? $6.50 for a full breakfast? $26 lift tickets? $50 per night for your cabin? For less than a half the single day ticket price at Vail or Aspen you can pay for lodging, meals, and lifts for a day…and your legs will still be burning and your smile will be just as big and when you get home you will have saved enough money to buy your “off-to-college teenager a decent used car.

 

Intelliskin

If you have heard of “kinesio-taping” you know it is the strategic placement of various kinds of tape that support weak or injured areas. Well, here are some garments that use various stretch panels to accomplish the same thing. The fun part is you can take it off and use it again the next day 🙂 We’ll have a full on-snow test and product review for you.

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PSIA Endorses Direct-to-Carving?

BERP to ERP to EP?

PSIA recently took “Balance” out the old BERP model. Is “Rotary” out now as well? According to the maker, this gizmo can’t model wedge or wide angle steering movements. Effectively we have a high level PSIA personage starting beginners with what the maker implies is “Direct-to-Carving”? Seems to me that takes the elements of rotary and friction out of the beginner’s kit of turn shaping, speed control tools. IMO the carving fad is getting entirely out of control. Welcome to the EP model?

Carving is a low friction, speed enhancing technique…in a world chock full of beginners and Intermediates trying desperately to slow down?

I can see how more advanced skiers and riders would like this. It’s hard to tell exactly how useful this will be for teaching beginners. Since PSIA has developed a manual for this company and JB himself says this is a good thing…how about posting a video of teaching a beginner?

PSIA has quietly poo-pooed Direct to Parallel for many years and wedge and stemmed skiing are still part of the daily fair at ski schools all over the world. To more or less casually announce Direct to Carving is astonishing to say the least.

 

 

 

Senior Ski Lesson Myth Buster: “Standardized Ski Instruction”

A reader, obviously an instructor, posted this comment to an article last week. It raises a number of interesting dynamics within the profession of snow sports instructions so, I thought I would go through it piece by piece. We all see the world through the lens of our own experience but, when their are customers at stake we cannot afford the luxury of living inside that bubble. We must look beyond and take a cold hard look at the facts and make sound business decisions from them. So here goes….

“So I’m wondering why the assertion that traditional ski schools still use a wedge and focus on the outside foot?
In all three schools (at Aspen now) I have taught for in CO the direct parallel/inside foot initiated turn has been the move of choice in beginner instruction. My teaching career started 15 years ago. I will use a mild gliding wedge for people who struggle to balance in a parallel stance. The turn is still initiated one of two ways, inside foot steering and/or simply pressing the little toe side of the inside foot flatter.
Also I recall way before I taught skiing, in the 70’s in Aspen they used the GLM combo of a very short (120cm if I recall) ski and a direct parallel progression to ski parallel the first hour let alone the first day!
I have no doubt there is a small area or two somewhere and a few out of touch instructors who may be what you say. Let’s not take that as dogma industry wide as it assuredly is not!!
Clendenin Method has a mogul skiing focus to some extent. Moguls are a skill blend reuiring a lower edge angle and skidded turn shape.
Harb is more focused on carving so an edge biased method is an obvious result.
All mountain skiing requires a varying blend of both edging and rotational movements along with varying blends of the three pressure skills: fore/aft, foot to foot, and magnitude.
5 skills, quite simple actually and that is current PSIA tech. A rigid “cookie cutter” approach to beginners would totally ignore the guests fitness level, coordination, learning style, fears, level of self esteem, age and expectations. You are a good example prefering as you say above to go out and be shown and try vs the wordy explanations in the Harb materials. There are those out there that love and need that stuff too.
I have never had a guest ask for a formulaic lesson. If that happened I would point out that progressions can be regarded as an outline that is then customized to guest movement needs, level of skill, desired outcome, daily snow conditions, age, fitness and reachable expectations. Custom on the spot for the person in front of me or a formula? The choice is obvious.”

kid school1

The Meat

Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) is the organization that is tasked by the National Ski Area Association (NSSA) to create and promulgate industry standard practices that pertain to the teaching of snow sports.

What most people don’t know is that “PSIA” is actually 10 separate organizations. A ‘national” organization and nine regional divisions. The national organization creates manuals and defines the testing and certification of instructors in all the various disciplines.

The nine divisions may or may not adopt all of the national standards. Many have their own tweaks to the processes of training, education, testing and certification. Further, every resort ski school has it’s own in-house training program that may further change the standard practices defined at the division level.

In the case of corporations, they may have their own policies and practices that may or may not be tweaked by individual resort schools.

It’s like that game “post office” we played as kids. PSIA (national) whispers into the ear of the divisions … the divisions whisper into the ears of the corporations … the corporations whisper into the ears of the resort schools … the resort schools whisper into the ears of instructors….and the instructors have their own individual implementations of the standards.

By the time the “standard” reaches the ears of a customer, it may or may not reflect the original intent of the standard…any built-in efficacy may be lost.

“So I’m wondering why the assertion that traditional ski schools still use a wedge and focus on the outside foot?”

Below is a screen shot of a Bing search on the terms “PSIA Required Tasks”.

Screenshot (172)

“Required Tasks” are those movements a candidate must perform correctly to be considered qualified for certification” If you open and read these documents, it is readily apparent that everyone has their own take on the subject of testing and certification.

It is also readily apparent that Alpine instruction candidates at all three levels must demonstrate proficiency in wedge and wedge-christie skiing. There are no required tasks that would indicate that the instructional organizations, as a whole, require proficiency in teaching “Direct-to-Parallel” methods.

To buy into the commentator’s notion that wedge based learning is NOT pervasive would mean you also have to believe that all ten of the various PSIA entities are wasting a lot of time and money publishing, distributing, testing and certifying methods that no one uses.

I applaud Aspen and any other resort who is adopting Direct to Parallel (DTP) methods. If there were broad, top-down efforts across the PSIA-driven instructional industry to adopt DTP methods, guys like Harald Harb and his PMTS methods wouldn’t be out there accrediting ski schools.

As far as the outside foot thing goes…find me a video by any of the experts that says anything at all about the inside foot and I will show you 100 that do not.

To make sound business decisions we must take the facts as they are rather than what we believe them to be. 

Fact 1: The wedge and wedge-christie are still the beating heart of ski instruction decades after Direct-to-Parallel methods were first developed.

Fact 2: We know from the reader’s comment that not all resort schools are created equal and that “standards” are more like “guidelines” and subject to a significant degree of modification. 

 

As a customer, it behooves you to ask a lot of questions before you plunk down a large pile of dead-presidents when deciding on where to take a lesson.

“Also I recall way before I taught skiing, in the 70’s in Aspen they used the GLM combo of a very short (120cm if I recall) ski and a direct parallel progression to ski parallel the first hour let alone the first day!”

I was there. Been there. Done that. The t-shirt is worn out. But, this is my point, DTP methods have been around a long time. They were, for a short time, pervasive but were dropped and are now..40 years later, slowly coming back into vogue.

“GLM” stands for “Graduated Length Method”. It was created by Clif Taylor, a veteran of the 10th Mountain Division in WWII. You would start off on really short skis and as your skills improved you moved up in length. Back then the Spademan binding and matching boots allowed you to switch skis with out having to adjust the spacing of the heel and toe pieces. During a lesson, if you felt your student was ready for a longer ski, you could just go grab a pair and set them to the right DIN with a pocket screwdriver.without having to take a lot of time away from the lesson. Really handy!

 

Spademan

Not only did GLM get people skiing in parallel very quickly, the associated Spademan binding saved a lot of labor in the rental shop. One has to wonder why something that was so effective came and went so quickly and why, today, the instruction industry is still not committed to Direct to Parallel methods. There seems to be a persistent willingness to resist anything that makes learning easier.

“I have no doubt there is a small area or two somewhere and a few out of touch instructors who may be what you say. Let’s not take that as dogma industry wide as it assuredly is not!!”

I first want to pick the bone that “small area” is a bad thing. Small schools are usually family or community owned so they tend to be much more client-focused than the massive corporate areas. They know their customers intimately and have the freedom to work with new ideas that corporate school directors may not. So, could we please drop the ridiculous idea that big and glitzy is always better?    I’m OK now…let’s move on…

Let’s ask Merriam-Webster…

Definition of dogma

1a :  something held as an established opinion; especially :  a definite authoritative tenet b :  a code of such tenets pedagogical dogma

Definition of Pedagogy

  1. the method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept:

     

Wedge and wedge-christie movements are still the documented and pervasive required tasks across the instructional industry. Movement patterns that suggest a Direct to Parallel methodology are conspicuously absent from lists of “Required Tasks”. I would contend that the industry’s commitment to snowplow teaching methods are still dogmatic in nature. There has been some progress in the 40 years since “GLM” but it has been glacial in nature.

 

“A rigid “cookie cutter” approach to beginners would totally ignore the guests fitness level, coordination, learning style, fears, level of self esteem, age and expectations.”

This is exactly why the snowplow teaching method is still pervasive. Assessing whether or not a beginner is ready for Direct to Parallel methods is beyond the skill set of many Level 1 instructors. The snowplow IS the cookie cutter. I suspect that if you asked a few “risk-management” folks they would tell you they would prefer that the school sticks with the snowplow, less liability.

“I have never had a guest ask for a formulaic lesson.”

Many customer expectations, across many vertical industries are never articulated. By “formulaic” I mean that the process of how to learn and what to learn should be consistent from school to school, instructor to instructor and it isn’t.

I keep going back to facts…

Fact 3) According to a study conducted by NSAA, roughly 70% of people just leaving a lesson said they “would not” or “were not likely to” recommend the experience to a friend or relative.

Fact 4) According to an NSAA study, roughly 10% of skier “participation days” result in a visitor taking a lesson. Many of those students may not have volunteered for school but were put there so their parents can ski alone for a few hours.

Translate these numbers to other industries.

Municipal Water Service – 70% of the people who drink it once won’t drink it again

General Motors – Only 30% of the people who buy their cars from GM, like their cars. The                                 other 70% tell their friends and relatives that GM cars suck.

Con-Edison – Your lights and the refrigerator work 7 hours and 12 minutes per day.

Are there good, fully committed professionals teaching snow sports? Abso-frickin-lutely there are! LOTS OF THEM…However, looking at the facts that define the quality of the ski instruction “product” in the US one can only conclude that, on the whole, the facts represent an astounding customer service failure.

A book by Theodore Leavitt, “The Marketing Imagination”, a business has only two functions, to GET and KEEP new customers. The snow sports industry in the US has struggled with both tasks for decades.

Proficient skiing..or lack of it..is part of the problem. Poor technique is tiring and as people age the athleticism that poor skiing requires has many people quitting in their 30s and 40s. A frustrating lesson for a beginner sends them packing never to return.

People don’t plan their vacations and spend thousands of dollars to do things they suck at.

The great part about having a government granted monopoly is that responding effectively to these kinds of problems isn’t as much of a priority when the competitive element is removed from the equation.

All ski schools are not created equal. Part and parcel of the King’s Wardrobe of standards is that there are, in fact, resorts with schools with very progressive methods and deliver a high quality product. There are also resorts whose schools process customers through like cattle. Employees are disengaged by poor wages and poorer treatment.

W. Edward Demming is considered the father of modern quality assurance. He defined “quality” as the adherence to defined standards. In as much as standards are subject to change at several levels of the hierarchy, and the adherence to standards of any kind are highly localized, we have to conclude that the value to the client of an over-arching “standards”   organization is limited.

keyston gif
Ski School finds a customer

Unfortunately, like choosing a doctor, it’s nice when you finally find one you like and want to go back to. You just pray the search process doesn’t kill you first…

Unless and until, the instructional side of the industry adopts a customer driven business model and a commitment to consistent standards, I am certain the 70% failure rate and 10% attendance will continue to be facts of life. Poor proficiency will still be a limiting growth factor in lift-served snow sports.

The problem with all these industry studies is they only ask “what” is going on. The questions and methodology never delve into “why” something is happening. Until they do, it leaves business managers and industry organizations to stumble around a darkened room fumbling along the wall for the light switch.

But, being a monopoly means you don’t have to be customer driven. When business drops off, just raise the prices. ….(read more about the monopoly effect here)

Stay Tuned to Senior Skiers’ Network. This summer we will see if we can discover why only TWO of the ten PISA organizations have a certification program that focuses on senior skiers…

 

 

 

 

Senior Skiing Op-Ed Monopolies and Your Vacation

In an exchange between instructors on a social media site, they were talking about how things haven’t changed much since the 70s, except that instructors don’t get the respect they used to.

Even after all the big, high profile acquisitions and all the real estate and the $35 breakfasts, there aren’t anymore snow sport participants today than there were 20 years ago.

In any other industry failure to grow is failure, period, yet the lift served market keeps chugging along and prices grow at rates higher than inflation. Make me wonder why it isn’t growing. There are two ways to grow revenue. Get more customers or get more money from the customers you have. But what happens when those customers finally stop coming?

So, what is so unique about these three screen shots? Can spot it?

Screenshot (164)

Screenshot (163)

Screenshot (162)

One organization represents the people who protect the public while they ski. The 26,000 members of the National Ski Patrol have one job, to make skiing and and snow boarding as safe as possible When people do get hurt, get them to help as soon as possible. Thousands of people are employed by ski resorts for this purpose.

The address of their headquarters 133 South Van Gordon St. Denver, CO

The second has the responsibility to teach people to ski or ride proficiently and safely. PSIA-AASI claims more than 30,000 members who are known as instructors, employees of the many ski resorts.Their address is …

133 South Van Gordon St, Denver, CO.

The last is the association of all ski resort owners in America. Their members are the employers of thousands of ski patrollers and instructors. Their address..is…yep…you guessed it…

133 South Van Gordon Street in Denver.

Am I the only person on the planet who has a problem with two organizations that represent employees of ski resorts, whose sole responsibility is the safety of the skiing public, sharing an office with the organization that represents employers and voracious new coporate interests?

coalminer

Does the AFL-CIO share a headquarters with General Motors? Does the IBEW share it’s office space with Verizon? Probably not, yet, here is NSAA, whose members enjoy government granted monopolies, which operate on public lands, sharing their headquarters with two organizations that represent employees of NSAA’s members.

PSIA-AASI will be the first to tell you, loudly, that they are not a union. OK, fine..whatever. They have been granted an effective monopoly to collect money from its members. Members have no choice. One can only hope that money is utilized to serve the needs of those members. Yet, in some cases resort schools pay LESS to maintain their PSIA accreditation than individual instructors pay for their certifications. That doesn’t sound right to me.

If the US Forest Service wants to hand out  monopolies that’s one thing. Forcing people to pay membership dues to work in that environment, on public land, is somethings else all together.

While the costs of membership to NSP and PSIA are borne by their members, the VALUE of that membership accrues to the resorts. That ain’t right. Their members pay what amounts to “union dues” but get no representation. The resorts profit by it.

Do Aspen, or Vail, or their share holders really need their employees money that badly? Perhaps the glory of all the recent acquisitions ain’t so glorious when billionaires have to live off the backs of their servants simply because they can get away with it.

coal miner 1

All is not well in the fife. The serfs are slowly revolting. Most senior skiers have no idea how instructors get paid. Although they are required to obtain and maintain expensive professional certifications they often make less in a day than the kid running the french fry machine. This article from 2 years ago spells out the trouble in paradise.

FAIR WAGES FOR INSTRUCTORS SLAM VAIL RESORTS

It’s high time to make things right.  Senior skiers are asked to pay hundreds of dollars for a lesson and ALSO pony up a gratuity to subsidize the low wages paid by large corporations. You pay $900 for the lesson Vail get $700 to $800 of that and expects YOU to make up half the instructor’s income for the day.

I have been told employees have to sign what amounts to a gag-order, with dire consequences for speaking to the media without permission. Some are willing to talk anyway. Several instructors have told me that  Vail’s response to the wage issue was to put up signs asking patrons to tip more. Really??

These Multi-billion dollar snow sport companies operate on the same labor model as a 19th century coal mine. People work at Vail and get paid minimum wage and turn around and pay it back to the company for slum living?

Vail Tells Employees to Brace for Tighter Living Conditions

Vail Back Pedals in Employee Housing

Local taxpayers wind up subsidizing mega-corps while their share holders profit. That just isn’t right. Beaver Creek patrollers voted to unionize and a movement is underway to unionize instructors at Vail. If all was bliss and light with Vail, these things would not be happening.

What can you say about a company that would fire an instructor with 18 years of experience because they couldn’t balance on a sponge? What kind of bureaucrat dreams this stuff up? Seems like Vail tries to implement all kinds of 19th century labor polices and then has to back track when they can’t find enough people to work for them.

Astronaut John Glenn famously said, “I guess the question I’m asked the most often is: “When you were sitting in that capsule listening to the count-down, how did you feel?” Well, the answer to that one is easy. I felt exactly how you would feel if you were getting ready to launch and knew you were sitting on top of two million parts — all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”

monopoly

Monopolies never serve their customers’ best interests. Monopolies serve the best interests of the monopoly. When a major resort has to offer it’s employees a $1000 bonus to pirate a ski instructor from another resort, something just isn’t right. If it takes that sort of measure to get people to work there you have to wonder if you are getting the best service available. Instructors at Vail make a lot less than instructors are paid at Aspen. You have to wonder which place might offer the best learning experience.

There can be no question that, from an economic perspective, seniors skiing at these resorts would be better served if there were competition for on-mountain services.

Is this truly the future of American skiing? As a customer, do you really want to entrust your multi-thousand dollar family vacation to a mega-monopoly who treat their employees this way?

Just sayin…

Smells funny

Vail versus Aspen- A Senior Skiing Slugfest?

After last week’s examination of the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut, Vail Resorts, (Senior Skiers Sound Off – Vail…Beauty or, the Beast? ) I had planned to put out something a tad more light-hearted. After all, the season is winding down and we need to maintain the stoke for the 2017-18 season, yes?

But, you can’t let news like this just slip by. In recent news, the Aspen Ski Company has announced an agreement to buy Intrawest for $1.5 Billion. Intrawest owns Winter Park and Steamboat Springs in Colorado, Mount Tremblant in Canada, Stratton in Vermont and 3 other resorts.

chinese downhill

Does this signal a head-to-head slug fest? Crown versus Katz, in the street at high noon, for primacy in the North American snow sports market? Will this touch off a kind of Corporate Chinese Downhill where competition serves the marketplace by driving down prices? Doubtful.

As we have seen with VR acquisitions, traffic goes up and prices go up. While season pass prices have gone down compared to 20 years ago, the total cost of a ski vacation has risen.

As Aspen enters the corporate snow sport fray, we won’t know how they intend to manage these new properties until they actually begin operations. If they are to echo the Aspen Experience, we have to assume they will want to draw their business from the higher income brackets. Today’s announcements that not much will change seems carefully calculated to insure stability in share prices until the merger can be completed.

To think a management team, driven in the public eye by the Aspen name, will go off into the future without even taking advantages of economies of scale is naive in my view.

Everywhere that has happened it tends to pull prices for all goods and services upward, out of reach for the average senior skier. This is yet another signal of a kind of “gentrification” of the lift served snow sports market. Have Senior Skiers Been Abandoned? The Wrinkled Irrelevants…

plantation

From Wikipedia, In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report Health Effects of Gentrification defines the real estate concept of gentrification as “the transformation of neighborhoods from low value to high value. This change has the potential to cause displacement of long-time residents and businesses … when long-time or original neighborhood residents move from a gentrified area because of higher rents, mortgages, and property taxes. Gentrification is a housing, economic, and health issue that affects a community’s history and culture and reduces social capital. It often shifts a neighborhood’s characteristics, e.g., racial-ethnic composition and household income, by adding new stores and resources in previously run-down neighborhoods.”

What we are likely to see in the coming years is an economic stratification, which also implies racial and ethnic stratification, in lift-served snow sports. Those who can afford the Disney-esque immersion, that is now being called “experiential” skiing, will likely appreciate the up-market move.

But, this up-market move does two things. It relegates those who cannot afford the “experience” to venues who will struggle to keep the lifts running, and it vacates the mid-priced segment.

In other industries that has tended to pull prices upward across the board. In an industry that has struggled to find new customers for 20 years, it does not bode well. It is an industry for which the cost barrier for new client acquisition is already significant.

Should the gentrification of snow sports pull prices upward away from its blue-collar roots, it may well accelerate the closure of down-market venues; more crowding, and further economic stratification, as the industry bleeds customers from the lower income brackets. Perhaps the Alt-Ski community will see some growth ( Seniors Skiing on the Cheap – An Alt-Ski Community )

abandoned skiing
When ski resorts are abandoned, the physical structures are often left to simply rot in place

In that light, numerous programs to introduce poor urban kids to snow sports almost becomes a form of mockery. “Hi kiddies and welcome! We hope you love skiing and riding now because you will never be able to afford it when you grow up”. My more libertarian  sensibilities cringe at the notion of public lands being used to enrich the lives of a relative handful while driving their availability to others downward.

cage match

“From All according to their lobbyists, To those few who can afford them”  – flies in the face of American democratic traditions.

As snow sports become less and less affordable, the Aspen-Vail cage match may well create a hue and cry that endangers these government granted monopolies that operate on public property,

The “multiple use” policy of the US Forest Service ought to have limits that serve the interests of all. In the same way that a vacation to a national park has become corporatized, less affordable and less enjoyable through government granted monopolies, so too may seniors’ skiing.

In the last 20 years the number of active snow sport participants has held steady at around 12 million per season. According to the National Ski Area Assoc. there were 622 ski resorts in the 1988-89. Today, according to a chart at the Statistics Portal there were 463 during the 2015-16 season.

That’s the same 12 million people skiing and riding on 159 fewer resorts and a LOT less acreage.

crowded ski

We seniors skiing on these crowded slopes can testify that you have to have the vigilance of a combat veteran to get through the day. Eyes in the back of your head and your head on a swivel, just isn’t fun. Senior skiing ought to be about a sense of freedom…not survival.

king kong v godzilla

With over-crowding and collision injuries on the rise today, if this trend continues, the remaining slopes promise to only bring a degradation of the snow sport experience. And, that drives down demand (fewer skiers) and drives up prices even further. Up to a point that perhaps not even the Godzillas and King Kongs of corporate skiing cannot afford to remain in business.

Many people have reported a marked increase in congestion at VR acquired resorts. Aspen’s entry into gentrification may well accelerate the twinkly-light, gourmet-dining but over-crowded “experience”. Where you are seen in ski togs becomes more important than the quality of the on-snow experience.

crowded skiing

Shops and hotels and restaurants in these acquired areas love the increase in traffic but that increase also adds unforeseen burdens on public infrastructure. Everything from constructing parking to traffic management systems to sewage and trash collection costs more in government expenditures.

Tax increases always happen whenever governments see the opportunity. Increased taxation tends to drive out locals on the lower economic strata. Homeowners who have lived in these town all their lives can no longer afford to remain and Gentrification becomes complete.

Back in the late 70s and early 80s, the focus of “smart money” in snow sports stopped being about skiing and started being all about real estate development in the area around resorts. Now that that fad has hit the wall and slid to the floor, I see this “corporatization” as an extension of that trend. It is just that the only remaining, available real estate in a ski town these days are the resorts themselves.

Once this fad has run it’s course and the stocks in these corporate giants stagnate, what will “smart money” do? Leave? Then what?

While the costs of a season pass might go down in the short term, the long term social costs in terms of diversity may well be unacceptable and unsustainable.

We do have a feel for where the upper limit is with this Gentrification movement. The once ballyhooed ultra-posh private Yellowstone Club near Big Sky has changed hands more times than a Christmas fruit cake. As Vail and Aspen probe upward looking for that line they dare not cross, the less-than-posh can only wait and ski.

Many people herald these acquisitions as if they represent the cavalry charging over the hill to the rescue. Well, the cavalry eventually retires back to its fort and we all know what a herd of horses leaves in the yard….and who has to clean it up :/

Time will tell.

Just Sayin’….

Senior Skiers Sound Off – Vail…Beauty or, the Beast?

There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground in how folks view the Vail Resorts (VR) phenomenon. Hundreds of thousands buy the Epic Pass every year. Others bemoan VR as “corporate skiing” or “Big Skiing”. Our take on it is that the truth usually can be found somewhere in the middle.

THE BEAUTY

There isn’t much new to be said about the Epic Pass or its affect on the industry. It has been an epic success by any set of metrics. Even folks who don’t visit a VR venue now have the MAXpass, Mountain Collective and other multi-resort ticket options and prices have come down for pass products. That makes people who ski a lot, happy.

                                                vail disney

Many people who utilize a ski area acquired by VR will tell you that VR put a LOT of money into upgrades on everything from lifts to restaurants. The place looks better, the lifts are faster, and there are more customers. Everything is upscale and up-market.

There is more to do and more to see and all of that glam is now available 12 months of the year, Disney Land in mountain-minature. The actual ski experience and the price of the pass is the center for the onion. Every layer you peel through to be there has a price and it is usually not cheap.

THE BEAST

The numbers in the snow sport industry have not changed in two decades in a way that is statistically significant. 12 Million participants per year deliver 60 million visits. That’s an average of five visits per participant. The End.

kotke-demographics

Now that the resort related real estate boom is waning, If you want to grow the bottom line you have to take market share from a competitor. Then you have to  find a way to get those same numbers of people to spend more per visit.

The problem with the EpicPass and it’s competitors is that AVERAGE VISIT number…five (5). Many thousands of people use those passes to ski a LOT more than five days per year. Many of these resorts on these passes have insane prices for daily tickets.

Consider this, to hit that average of five visits, for every person with a pass who skis 100 days a season you have to have 24 people who only ski one day a year. And who exactly are those people who only ski once?

They are those people who belong to another interesting statistical grouping. They are part of the 82% who try snow sports once and never come back. Why?

For them the “value proposition” just isn’t cutting it. They paid $200 for a day of trying to hack their way around on the snow, in the snow, scattered all over the snow. Often they flail away on the bunny hill in plain sight of the school. Ever see someone walk out of the school and go over to that potential life long customer and try to close that deal, create a new life long client..Not often.

Only 10% of visit/days result in the sale of a ski school product. For many years, industry surveys reported that “self-perception of low proficiency” was a major reason that people don’t stick with it.

They quit because they suck at it and at $900 per day, lessons are ridiculously expensive.

People DO NOT plan to spend thousands of dollars on their weekends and vacations to go do things they suck at, period. When you consider that proficiency is a major factor in industry growth, you can only scratch your head and move on.

Part of this dynamic is that the lesson industry in general has the same problem with instructors that it has with participants. It is getting harder and harder to find and KEEP new instructors and the attrition in the Boomer generation of instructors is starting to gain momentum.

From the stand point of supply & demand, as the supply of instructors dwindles the price is bound to go up no matter how detrimental that maybe in the long view. But, that is a subject for an entire article so check back here for that.

In a meaningful way, the industry has trouble with growth because it indulges in strategies and tactics too short-term in nature. In effect, these antics indicate a willingness to sacrifice next year’s clients to subsidize this year’s clients. Ski school profits, in the form of high prices and low wages, are more important than long term customer “conversion” and retention.

Big Skiing…Bullseye

While the new upholstery at VR resorts is stunning, they are just deck chairs on the same old boat.

To boot, the bigger VR becomes the more likely it will become a political target. In this day and age, people want to revile “Big This” and “Big That”. No doubt, Vail is rapidly becoming the face of “Big Snow Sports”.

While the industry is full of green news and those efforts are laudable, you can’t plan for climate change. No one can accurately predict what the affects might be, or when they will arrive. You just can’t write a business plan around that.

It is far more likely the industry faces something like a “perfect storm” from an unexpected quarter. While the focus seems to be on a looming lack of snow, the greater and more predictable danger from “climate change” for lift served snow sports is a change in political climate.

It is hard to conceive of any other individual recreational sport with a larger carbon footprint. Everyday millions of people pile onto buses and trains and planes and cars and travel to ski. The places they ski consume massive amounts of electricity. Between the lift motors and the millions of twinkling lights for ambiance, the power consumption per participant is monstrous.

vail at nite
Courtesy of Wildwood Art Studio

Monsters attract attention and VR is rapidly assuming the proportions of Godzilla. VR makes a juicy target for the millions of environmentalists who DO NOT participate in snow sports and who do believe resorts in general to be an environmental blight.

The problem with VR’s size is that before with so many much smaller targets it was hard for anti-ski folks to have any impact. They would have to mount legal attacks on hundreds of individual ski areas. Now, there is one BIG target out there. The threat of the application of both environmental law and regulations, and potential legal attacks based on anti-trust law are real but, a few years down the road.

                             godzilla

To top it all off, The National Ski Area Association, and the two labor organizations, PSIA_AASI and the National Ski patrol, share the same address. With VR as the large visible target and the underlining interlocked labor associations the whole thing is based on 19th century Taylorism.

Some VR patrollers have already unionized and a Facebook page calling for the unionization of ski instructors has more than 600 followers. Ski school operational models haven’t change since Arlberg, nearly one hundred years.

                                                  hot dogs

Tone deaf to the market, proficiency is offered to the customer with the same philosophy as a candy machine. You walk up, put your money in and pull a handle and ski instructor action-figure falls to the tray.

action figure

The only competitive tool that is applied is discounting and packaging. When price is your only tool, it’s tough to make headway. Never one thought is given to redesigning the product. Creating a proficiency product that is designed by the demand side of the market, rather than top down… “Here is what we care to offer, take it or leave it” …products offered over a cash register.

To add to that problem, a growing and significant portion of :lessons: sold are really just day care and the gang of 5 year olds in a group lesson for 4 hours may or may not be there on a voluntary basis.

                                       kid school

There are other numbers plying the pistes. They, too, have not changed in a very long time. The numbers of people 24 and younger coming into the sport have been either flat or declining slightly over the last 15 years

Then, people start to quit the sport in their mid to late 30s. Some return years later, others never return. (we will address the various myths surrounding seniors skiing in a future article)

The Silent Generation is all but gone. Boomers are the industry’s only bright spot. Their participation is nearly 20% of the total visits each year. But 10 years from now that bubble of shrinking visits from those less than 24 years old today is going to hit their “core” years at the same time massive numbers of current “seniors” will be”aging-out of snowsports.

In the current vernacular of social justice, Vail Resorts may well be the last bastion of rich, white, male privilege. Skiing has always been white-male dominated. Diversity is a major concern in the years ahead.

How many potential clients are out there who will not become participants for political reasons? Hard to say but the impact of social fashion could do far more damage to the industry than climate change and in a more predictable way.

Snow sports have been in a slump. The fact that profitability may be up is immaterial to the question of whether or not that trend is sustainable. Without a steadily growing total market all this business is really just taking the same old dollars out of some other operator’s pocket and depositing in a VR account. That  doesn’t change the demographics in a positive way. It just has them spending the same dollars in a different place.

Add to all that a shrinking middle class, as the blue collar roots of the market slip away and with no successful conversion/retention efforts, and politcial/legal pressure all landing in the same 4-5 year window the failure of such a large enterprise would devastating to the entire industry.

With the Sedentary Generation on the looming horizon, new young participant may be harder and harder to find and keep., how does skiing replace the joy of sitting warmly at home and engaging the world with a smartphone?

For a many years the number of people 24 and under entering the market has been shrinking and beginning in their late 30s people begin to quit the sport all together. Those two issues could combine to produce an unprecedented loss in participation days right smack in the middle of the “core” demographic. Throw in a couple of low-snow winters in the midst of this bubble and it could spell real trouble.

Numbers haven’t changed for 20 years. In this modern world, if you aren’t growing, you are dying. The industry isn’t growing and while Vail has upgraded the deck chairs, is it an industry ship that is quietly, inexorably, sinking?

There will be more to come as we take a deeper dive into some of the issue. SUBSCRIBE and StayTuned!