Setting the ‘scene’
For several years now people in the ski industry have been going to Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains to see the future of the ski industry.
From the summit of the Mountain High Resort, a 90-minute drive from downtown Los Angeles, they can see from the Mojave Desert to the Pacific Ocean. Between ocean and desert, sandwiched by San Diego and Santa Barbara, live 15 to 18 million people.
But as remarkable as the city’s sprawl is the activity at Mountain High, a tiny, 220-acre ski area. Less than a decade ago it was doing only 182,000 skier days annually. Then Mountain High began changing. It hopped on the Internet bandwagon. It began operating lifts from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. It sells lift access in four-hour blocks and also in vertical feet.
Now, with virtually no hotels or lodges nearby, Mountain High averages 500,000 users annually, or about half as many as Keystone. Most are young, 80 to 85 percent are on snowboards and 40 percent fall outside of the blue-eyed, white-skinned demographic that has always been the core market for ski areas.
Such small ski areas, called beginner portals, are holding their own, sometimes even thriving, from New York to Colorado to California. Instead of closing, as was the trend for two decades, small ski areas are being refurbished and new ski areas are opening.
This shift can even be seen in Colorado at Eldora Mountain Resort. A small ski area west of Boulder, it gets no overnight visitors. It’s day use all the time. It has also been squeezed by the cheap ski passes offered by Vail Resorts and Intrawest at their Interstate 70 resorts, which are not that much farther away.
Still, with that narrow advantage of location, Eldora has doubled its volume in the last decade. Skier numbers last year verged on 290,000, nearly the volume of Aspen Mountain.
This fits in with what Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, says is happening across the country. Most small ski areas, close to cities, have made 180-degree turns. They’re doing so well that at times – during school vacations, holidays, after-school programs – there’s a capacity problem.
“If you turn back the clock 10 or 12 years, the future of Eldora was uncertain,” says Berry. “But if you look at it today, it’s very clearly an ongoing successful business. They’ve carved out a very successful niche.”
All this, says Berry, is simply explained.
“It’s all attributable to the demographic reality that there are a lot of kids under 20,” he says. “We expect to see this phenomenon continuing for between eight and 12 years and we have actually focused a lot of effort in the industry to make sure we take full advantage of this opportunity.”
This new focus on beginners can also be seen at New York’s Hunter Mountain, two hours north of Manhattan. There, a new 35,000-square-foot facility, which comprises everything from rentals to restaurants, is designed specifically for beginners. It is, explains Hunter Mountain spokeswoman Crystalyn Thienpont, part of an industry effort to make skiing easier for beginners, with the hope they’ll become regulars.
The National Ski Areas Association has set the goal of increasing both participation and retention in snowsports by 1 percent each year for the next 10 years.
“We have taken a long, hard look at the entry-level experience during the last three or four years,” explains Berry. What has been re-emphasized is a part of visiting the slopes that ski area managers call essential: “Time well spent with family and friends,” he says.
Surfing and skateboards
At Mountain High, the context is friends, not family. There, the ski area successfully integrated itself into L.A.’s skateboard and surf cultures. From skateboard and surfboards, it’s an easy step onto snowboards. Whereas most skiers learn with family members, this transition on boards is in the company of peers.
About 80 to 85 percent of Mountain High’s patrons are on snowboards. They’re not merely tolerated – they’re the meal ticket.
The marketing mechanism was casual but deliberate. Employees spend a lot of time in the beach and skateboard cultures of L.A., sponsoring surfing and skateboard competitions. Also, the staff at Mountain High mirrors potential customers. About 40 percent are Hispanic, Asian or something other than blue-eyed and white.
The ethnicities are somewhat beside the point, says Karl Kapuscinski, general manager. The point is the culture of board sports. “Snowboarding crosses cultural boundaries. Skiing has a perception of being lily white, expensive, something the elites do,” he explains.
“Do we spend a lot of time marketing to ethnic groups? No, we don’t,” says Kapuscinski. “We spend a lot of time involved in the lives of the skateboarding communities, at the surfing events, as sponsors at other events. We are seen as big partners. Then, in winter, it’s our turn to be front and center.”
At Mountain High, they began with the general thought that they had to try in a real sense to be part of the culture they were catering to, says Kapuscinski. They cater to mostly 14- to 23-year-olds and although they try not to offend those who are 45 or 55 or older, they’re not trying to be everything to everybody. And the result is that they are “to a degree more of a scene than a resort,” he says.
Tailgate parties are common Ð and so are shorts and T-shirts. After all, the beach is less than a couple of hours away. Tagging by gangs could be a problem, but the resort won’t tolerate it. Stickers are removed immediately and anybody caught doing hanging graffiti or posting stickers loses resort privileges for two weeks.
Bracing for buzz
Can these kids on boards at Mountain High matter much to Colorado resorts? Kapuscinski isn’t sure a similar resort would work, even close to Denver. But he has no doubts that his customers today will, in time, be customers at Tahoe and Mammoth and, later in life, in Utah and Colorado.
“Most of them are pretty sharp kids, albeit dressed a bit differently than you and I. Someday, they will carry on their passion, just as those after World War II and into the 1980s carried on a passion for skiing,” adds Kapuscinski. “But make no mistake – their passion is not for skis, but for boards.”
Partly because of this demographic bulge at small ski areas, executives in Colorado are projecting growth in years ahead. But one of the key questions has been whether skiing and snowboarding today have that hard-to-quantify “buzz,” the “cool” that was so evident 35 year ago in the skiing world.
Mountain High’s Kapuscinski remembers 25 years ago, in Vermont, when he was a freestyler competitor, and skiing was a “scene.” In California, it’s a scene again.
“The good old days are now,” he says.
Forest Service: numbers confirm predictions
If Mountain High truly reveals the future of the ski world, it bolsters the argument of environmental critics who have been saying that ski area expansions have largely been unnecessary.
For years, the expansion of skiable terrain at Colorado resorts has outpaced the increase in customers. Skier visits increased 26 percent while terrain expanded 107 percent on the White River National Forest, which spans Breckenridge, Vail and Aspen. This was between 1985 and 1999 and hence before Vail’s Blue Sky Basin, which by itself is as large as all of Aspen, Breckenridge’s Peak 7 and Copper Mountain’s Tucker Mountain expansion.
“These numbers say that we have enough ski acreage,” says Jeff Berman, executive director of Colorado Wild, an environmental group. “If there is a bottleneck or any shortcomings in ensuring a quality skiing experience, it has nothing to do with acreage. It has to do with parking, traffic and lift lines.
“Expanding skiing acreage is simply a rationale, simply a method to steal skiers from one ski area to another, by advertising newer, bigger and better,” he says.
Mountain High, in contrast, has 500,000 skier days annually, or about 31 percent of the visitors of Vail Mountain. It does so, however, on terrain that is just 4 percent of Vail’s. How can this be?
As with freestylers at terrain parks everywhere, the younger set at Mountain High spends more time standing around and watching. There are more technical maneuvers on rails and in half-pipes instead of 30 mph giant-slalom turns.
“The density is just off the charts that we’re used to in Colorado, and that’s because the kids are using the area differently than what they use ski areas here,” says Ed Ryberg, winter sports coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service in the Rocky Mountains. “They have terrain features from top to bottom on most of the runs. They’re sitting around watching or they’re hiking back up (the slope). It’s just a totally different paradigm in the sport.”
About 90 percent of skiable terrain at the ski areas of Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, and Garfield counties is on Forest Service land. As such, the Forest Service is the key decision maker on ski area expansions. In its last analysis several years ago, the agency foresaw no need for additional terrain at Aspen-area resorts and minor needs in the Vail Valley.
The most likely needs for expansion are in Summit County, ruled the agency. The reason: the burgeoning Front Range population. With the benefit of several years more experience, what does the Forest Service now see?
“What we have seen in the last couple of years just sort of confirms that analysis,” says Ryberg. “We are not seeing, particularly in Colorado, an increase in destination skiers. The growth in demand is going to be generated by population growth within the state.”
Increased use is directly tied to a decrease in the cost of skiing of recent years, he adds.
David Barry, vice president for Intrawest Colorado, scoffs at the Forest Service prediction. “Did the Forest Service expect we would be doing 58 million skier visits nationally?” he asks.
Barry professes belief in long-term growth. “The sport is healthy and the sport is evolving and the future is bright,” he says.
Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, also sees room for potential expansions as new skiers elsewhere eventually finding their way to Colorado.
“If you look at it from a medium and longer view, this new entry will affect business done in destination resorts and I think it’s appropriate to leave the door open for the discussion of expansion,” he says. “I don’t think we should be in a hurry to close that door. Things even now are different than three or four or five years ago.”
But Berman argues that ski areas have it all wrong. While they constantly add terrain and snowmaking to draw more customers, what really drives demand are price and natural snow.
“It has little to do with skier acreages and it has little to do with snowmaking,” says Berman. “People come when they can afford to and when there’s snow. Period.”
Yes, he agrees downhill skiers will use expansion areas. That has been demonstrated at Vail’s Blue Sky Basin, which has become the hardest-to-get-to but most-popular part of the resort. With the expansion, Vail’s front side now is sometimes vacant at mid-day.
But even skiers who like skiing in Blue Sky and other expansion areas don’t necessarily want to see these expansions, charges Berman.
SIDEBAR: Wal-Mart wades into paradise
By Allen Best
Special to the Daily
For a Wal-Mart Supercenter, the new one in Avon has a faintly upscale look. Ditto for The Home Depot.
But do these new big boxes – along with Wendy’s, Pier 1 Imports and all the other familiar outposts of America that now line Interstate 70 and its tributary arteries – amount to a sullying of the collective resort nest? After all, why would people come to a place that looks so much like home?
Bill Jensen, chief operating officer for Vail Mountain, argues that this rash of retail sprawl fundamentally violates the tourism appeal of the Colorado Rockies.
“This trend toward urbanization, in my opinion, represents a threat to a way of life that we have known for 40 years and a way of life that I believe has always made us special to the rest of the world,” he says. “Anything that makes that experience less unusual or more like the rest of the world is not necessarily good for the community’s long-term success.”
This urbanization of the Vail Valley and Summit County is, at least in the eyes of other ski towns, something to be scorned. At Crested Butte, chief executive John Norton’s amusing if somewhat desperate advertising message has been “we’re not just another crowded I-70 resort.” Steamboat and Aspen have used variations of the same message.
The idea has gotten so much play that USA Today, in a travel piece written last November, audaciously suggested that Bozeman, Mont., was somehow less urbanized than Colorado’s I-70 corridor and hence a better place to visit. In fact, Bozeman is in a more highly populated area, one spliced by its own interstate.
But if Wal-Mart and The Home Depot have critics, they also have fans. Jim Lamont, who has been active in Vail public affairs since the late 1960s, says such stores became fated the moment Vail Mountain opened in 1962.
“That’s just the reality of a successful, urban culture,” he says. “You can dive through the valley and not really know the stores are there.”
Plus, they are a necessary part of the infrastructure. “Those sorts of facilities,” he says, “make it easier for the necessary labor force to exist here.”
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