VAIL — Kevin and Karl Hochtl had some pretty good Olympic picks going into this season.
The local brothers are the owners of HWK Ski Wax Vail, the North American arm of the Austrian wax manufacturer. They chose to sponsor eight athletes this season, and three of them have made the Olympics.
Freestyle moguls skier Heidi Kloser, halfpipe snowboarder Kaitlyn Farrington and biathlete Lanny Barnes were all on HWK Wax on their road to Sochi this season, part of a guerrilla marketing campaign that the Vail wax importers insist is playing a crucial role in their company’s growth.
Karl Hochtl says luck has been on their side, but in their two years in business they’ve also been able to take advantage of opportunity.
“We can’t afford to have large spreads in the magazines or go to the SIA show,” Karl Hochtl said. “We have to develop a reputation here in the U.S. before anything’s going to happen. You have to have the reputation before you can sell the wax.”
The wax is a product of Ebbs, Austria, just down the road from Kufstein — the hometown of the Hochtl brothers’ father, also named Karl Hochtl. Ebbs also happens to be the hometown of Vail legend Pepi Gramshammer. HWK is made there in small batches by hand, and the Hochtl brothers say it consistently won the glide-wax tests they did over the years against top wax companies currently sold in the U.S.
“We knew it was really good, we’d been skiing on it for years, but because they don’t speak much English and Kevin and I both speak German, that gave us a leg up in terms of accessing them and then creating a good relationship so we could bring it over,” said Karl Hochtl. “And the fact that Dad grew up in Kufstein, the fact that there were mutual acquaintances that we both knew really allowed us to get started.”
Kevin Hochtl was an original member of Ski & Snowboard Club Vail’s “Team Homegrown,” the club’s Nordic program.
He first discovered HWK wax while competing on the international circuit as a Nordic skier.
“I traveled over to Europe via the Vail Valley Foundation, they supported me throughout my racing career and their sponsorship allowed me to go to Europe often and race. That put me in Austria for quite a few years, and I was able to see my relatives and family friends. One of our family friends was an Austrian National Team ski coach, and he said, ‘Hey, I’m going to pick up some wax over at HWK, why don’t you come?’ I met a guy there who said, ‘You should import this for me.’ I said, ‘No, I’m trying to go to the Olympics.’ He said, ‘Call me when you’re done.’”
Kevin Hochtl narrowly missed the Olympics in 2010, and in 2012, he decided to take HWK up on their offer.
“I sent them an email, and literally the next morning we were in business,” he said.
Meanwhile, Team Homegrown continued to thrive, and HWK decided to support Vail native and Homegrown member Sylvan Ellefson on his quest for the Sochi Olympics with both a financial and product sponsorship.
“Growing up as a cross-country skier in Vail, Kevin Hochtl was the reason to keep skiing. He was the guy in our minds that made cross-country skiing look like a job we could pursue someday,” Ellefson said. “Karl Hochtl was one of my first coaches to get me out there on my skinny skis. Without these guys, I would have never been where I am today. They are and have always been an inspiration.”
HWK Vail became Ellefson’s first head gear sponsor, which is often one of the most sought-after sponsor placements for a professional cross-country skier.
“They are completely selfless in their ways and act in a way I can only hope to someday,” Ellefson said. “They sponsored me at a time when they didn’t even know if they were going to break even with sales at the end of the year.”
Kevin Hochtl says he’s incredibly pleased to see where Ellefson and Team Homegrown have gone.
“The support level behind it, the community effort to get some of these guys to the Olympics is just incredible now,” he said.
HIRANO: ‘IT’S TOO FAST’
While they’re still new in business, the Hochtl bros say the sky is the limit.
“We’ve seen steady growth since the beginning, and we know, based on the number of clients we have and based on the number of sales we have, we’re barely scratching the surface of what’s out there,” Karl Hochtl said. “We’re just trying to achieve a little bit of growth, and do it well, little by little.”
Supporting athletes such as Heidi Kloser, often the fastest in the field in her competition — a timed sport — is helping the wax’s reputation here in the U.S.
“They’re wonderful guys, I really think it’s a perfect fit for Heidi,” said Mike Kloser, Heidi’s father who is himself an amateur Nordic skier. “You look at every little thing at the top level and for her to be the fastest in the field, and on their wax, and the Hochtl brothers and her all being local kids, it’s perfect and is just one more thing you can say about all the great stuff that happens here in our valley.”
Along the way, the Hochtl bros have had a good deal of fun, as well. They say HWK wax has brought them places you’d never expect to see a couple of Nordic skiers.
“What an amazing experience it’s been,” Kevin Hochtl said. “We’ve gone to events like the Dew Tour or the Burton U.S. Open and waxed for pro snowboarders like Kaitlyn Farrington and Ayumu Hirano — it’s high intensity, so much fun. Hirano was flying 25 feet out of the halfpipe on our wax. Afterward he said, ‘No more, it’s too fast.’”
Learn more about HWK wax at www.hwk-skiwax.com.
Staff Writer John LaConte can be reached at 970-748-2988 or firstname.lastname@example.org