An age-old dilemma |

An age-old dilemma

Erik Vienneau

As Vail slides into middle age, celebrating its 40th anniversary this season, one of America’s most lauded and venerable ski resorts seems to be suffering through a mid-life crisis.Should it go out and buy a sports car and snag a hot blonde trophy wife, or should the nation’s perennial No. 1 winter resort stay the course and stick with the aging boomers who made it such a fabulous success story?It’s a dilemma the ski industry as a whole is struggling with as it tries to boost flat skier numbers and offset the lagging interest of aging boomers by going after and securing the sports future: youth-market snowriders who like to rip up the slopes at high speeds and are obsessed by huge air and reckless freeskiing abandon. It can be tough to woo one demographic without alienating the other.As the season slides into gear, it seems resorts’ marketing departments have made a clear choice and are focusing more and more resources on the youth and next-generation skier markets than ever before.Through edgy ads placed in Transworld Snowboarding, Freeze Magazine and other youth-market publications, increasing the budget for X-Games-style snowboard and freeskiing events and by investing more cash in developing aggressive terrain parks, the trend of targeting the next generation of snowriders continues to eat up a higher percentage of many resorts’ marketing budgets each season.But there are risks that come with upping the edginess and chasing after the wild, next-generation snowrider. Breckenridge just learned with its recent youth-market ad campaign (see sidebar) that there are limits to what the boomer generation will accept, both on and off the hill. Breckenridge chose to pull the ads even though theywere running in youth-oriented publications only.”That ad was the least risqu thing in there,” says Breckenridge group sales and marketing manager Eddie McGuigan.Smaller, upscale resorts, like Beaver Creek and Utah’s Deer Valley, know that it often pays off to focus on an older more affluent demographic, while larger resorts like Vail say they can market to young and old while having enough terrain and facilities for everyone.”Bigger resorts can be all things to all people,” says Kristin Rust, spokeswoman for Colorado Ski Country. “If you have a terrain park, pipe and arcade, but also provide easier terrain, spas and shopping, then why not?”As far as marketing goes, Vail and Breckenridge’s simultaneous attention to the youth market and the boomer market is on par with other large resorts, according to Rust. “The parents spend the money, but the kids come and spend money too,” Rust says. “If the kids see the ad in TransWorld and want to go, and if theparents see the ad in SKI magazine, then they may also want to go.”So the kids and their parents may choose the same resort if they see enough ads in their favorite publications and if the resort has the facilities and events that appeal to the young and hip as well as those pesky parents.But what is the value of growing that next generation of skiers and snowboarders, which falls between 18 and 40? This demographic is a big part of the industry’s future, but they are simply not as wealthy as the boomers.In fact, boomers spend two to three times what an X or Y generations snowrider on a budget does on a visit to Vail, according to chief operating officer Bill Jensen.Most industry analysts agree that next-gen riders may not spend as much, but that their spending will increase as they earn more and they will develop a healthy helping of brand loyalty.Most industry insiders agree planning for the future is key while being too next-generation heavy runs the risk of attracting a clientele unable to buy expensive hotel rooms and meals like the boomers do.”They may spend money in the shops and the bars, but many of them have the objective to couch surf,” McGuigan says of the crowds that gather for next-gen ski and snowboard events. “They might not spend much now, but when they get older they are going to go back to their roots. They’re going to come to Breck.”Vail is sticking with what they know while exploring younger markets. “Our primary market is still the boomer generation,” Jensen says, “but over the last three years we’ve focused hard on pipes and terrain parks.”The move is paying off. Jensen says four years ago Vail had “no visibility to that audience,” but now “obviously we’ve put ourselves on the map.”Jensen has seen snowboard visits rise from 12 percent just three years ago to 17 percent last season.Vail’s terrain park was rated No. 3 in North America by SKI magazine’s reader survey, while TransWorld Snowboarding ranked the mountain in the top five snowboard destinations in North America.Jensen says a strong focus on events like the U.S. Freeskiing Open and the Simms Snowboarding competition, and the addition of night events and music,which appeals to the next generation customers of Vail, are the keys to next-gen marketing success.”We’ve certainly got our foot in that door,” he says. “It is a transition for us that will take place over the next 10 or 15years.”Jensen adds the ski company isn’t in too much of a rush to capture the youth and next-gen market, saying, “We don’t have to exaggerate our move to a younger market.”That may come as welcome news to many of Vail’s “pioneers,” who held a recent reunion in Vail. Older skiers are the first to complain about the behavior of the MTV generation on the slopes.The generation gap never seemed wider two years ago when Vail founding father Pepi Gramshammer was hit and seriously injured by a 17-year-old snowboarder on Vail Mountain. No criminal charges were filed, though Gramshammer, a former Austrian World Cup ski racer, pushed for prosecution. Ultimately, the snowboarder settled a civil suit with the septuagenarian Vail legend.”I think somebody has got to do something I don’t know if it is the (ski) company, or whoever, we have to be more careful of this thing,” Gramshammer told The Vail Trail at the time, clearly perturbed by the impertinence of youth. “He hit me. I never hit anybody in 39 years here. People, especially snowboarders, are going to have to watch it.”Vail Resorts’ chief rival in the ski industry, Intrawest, has been much more aggressive in going after youth-market snowriders over the past few year. Whistler-Blackcomb in British Columbia, an Intrawest resort, is renowned as youth-market haven. Just over Vail Pass at Copper Mountain, another Intrawest resort, the move to embrace the youth-market’s favorite sport of snowboarding began 16 years ago, according to Copper communicationmanager Ben Friedland. He says Copper boasts the longest running amateur snowboarding competition in the nation.”We are aggressively focusing on the youth in two core publications,” he says, “and this is the first year we’ve dedicated an entire campaign to that market segment in those core publications.”

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