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Pamper beginners, says national ski president

Christine McManus

The 15 percent skier-return rate translates into hundreds of millions in missed revenue opportunities, especially as the baby boomer market ages.

Berry said the future of the ski industry is at stake in how well the resorts and related rental shops change the beginner experience for the better.

Berry spoke Wednesday to about 80 business people in Breckenridge.



“Our industry has done a dismal job of attracting new people to the sport,” Berry said.

The past several years the National Ski Areas Association has interviewed first-time skiers to find out exactly why beginners don’t come back. After all, it is easy to spot the first timers, especially for those who have been skiing for years.



Beginners cross their skis, flail their arms and contort themselves until they fall awkwardly on their poles. They move slower than molasses that’s going uphill in the winter, both on the slopes and off the slopes. They fall on the chairlift off-ramps. By lunchtime, their feet hurt because no one told them not to wear three pairs of socks, and their boots weren’t fitted properly. If they’re women, they get scammed on and if they’re kids, they’re ignored. And then the expensive resort hamburger seals the deal – they’re not coming back.

The 15 percent who do return to the slopes are the tough cookies.

“We could beat them with sticks, in fact sometimes we do, and that 15 percent still come back,” Berry said.



Berry’s goal is to increase that 15 percent return rate to a 25 percent return rate over the next decade. Resorts, shops, motorists and towns must change.

From Web page designers who lure and educate visitors to the lift-line attendants who see people who’ve been waiting a while, everyone needs to remember their own beginner days, he said.

“Most of the people living and working here are true enthusiasts. It’s hard for us to put ourselves in the mind frame of someone just starting out,” said Corry Mihm, executive director of the Breckenridge Resort Chamber.

“It’s terrific that we’re talking about the ways the resort industry as a whole can preserve our customer base. Everyone needs to realize it’s a collective experience. We want to make sure someone doesn’t say, “I didn’t like downhill skiing, I’m never coming back to Breckenridge.’ There’s also snowshoeing, ice skating, the rec center activities,” Mihm said.

The remaining 85 percent of beginning skiers and boarders of all ages say they need more personal attention, Berry said.

The need someone to make sure their boots fit and tell them not to wear three pairs of socks. They want an instructor who can explain how to stop and how to turn – exactly the way they will understand, he said.

Instructors could check beginners’ equipment. If they buy a hat, it better be warm, he said.

“It’s nice to see we’re doing things the right way,” said Sam Brede, a manager at Carvers Ski, Board and Sports in Breckenridge, who listened to Berry’s ideas.

“If it takes 45 minutes to do one boot fit, we’ll do it for that person who takes a little longer,” Brede said. “It’s our job to educate the first-time skier whose cousin told him to use 210-centimeter skis.”

Money is not among the top five factors deterring beginners, Berry said. Beginners see themselves as doing something courageous and life changing. They want some acknowledgement and encouragement for trying, because then they’ll come back, he said.

“It’s about making sure they have the most fun possible because then they’ll come back,” Brede said.

Bringing the beginners back

It’s easy to spot them, so here are some recommendations on how to convert beginners into return visitors.

– Pre-arrival education – Encourage lessons. Set realistic expectations. Provide basic training exercises online or when trips are booked.

– The rental shop – Take the time to fit boots and skis. Personal attention for beginners. Treat women well, they decide vacation spots much of the time. Give beginners good equipment because it’s worth the investment.

– On-mountain experience – Seek out beginners on the slope who obviously did not sign up for a lesson. Seven is the ideal number of skiers in a lesson. The most important time for the beginner is the end of the lesson, so instructors should stick around.

– Follow up – Remember: beginners are converted into return visitors after multiple visits. Thank customers every step of the way for their participation and involvement. Remind them to return with their friends because some people are taking vacations together more often.


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