NSAA Conference Focuses On Future

Bust out the party hats, it’s been a record year for the resorts industry, according to figures released at the recent National Ski Areas Association conference in Palm Springs.

The annual Kottke report released by bean counters RRC Associates shows 57.3-million skiers visits this past season, a new record, as well as the addition of 5.1-million ticket sales over last season.

Does this mean the annual zero growth that has been a worrying but predictable industry constant for as long as most us have been riding is now over? Does it mean the industry has collectively come up with a product that the average leisure-time consumer finds attractive and worth the assorted negatives such as long white knuckle drives and outrageous prices?

Sadly the answer is probably no. Seventy-five percent of the all the growth had taken place by the end of the holiday period, during the time when much of the country was seeing its best snow in years. The rest of the season. when snow was average, saw ticket sales pretty close to previous seasons. Areas in New Mexico, a minor market but one that went from horrible snow conditions in ’99/00 season to the best snow in the country this season, saw almost a 37 percent increase in visits. As this came with no obvious changes in management, major capital expenditure, or any of the other factors that might impact visitor levels.

And once again it looks like snowboarding can claim it as the driving force behind a substantial part of the industry. The number of snowboarders increased by 22 percent on the hills when looking at the total number of resort visits, contrasted to a five-percent growth by skiers.

An interesting note is that during April, after Aspen had lifted its ban on snowboarding, they recorded a 40-percent increase in sales over last April, something COO John Norton attributes almost entirely to ending the ban.

However with snow conditions perfect and snowboarder visits increasing by 21 percent, the fact that ski visits have only improved by five percent suggests that ski areas are still failing to deliver or communicate an experience that appeals to the majority of their market. The record sales nationwide may make the ski resort industry give itself a collective pat on the back, but this past bumper snow year may just be covering over the cracks. Similar growth in an average snow year is the only way to tell if the resort industry’s house in order.

In fact, 25 percent of ski areas still recorded flat or negative growth. But the top-ten percent of resorts by growth recorded increases of 45 percent or more and five resorts posted 100-percent gains.

And yes good snow helped, but we know that ski areas such as Mountain High, which is among the fastest growers, has successfully implemented major developments in their on slope and base development as well as focusing on marketing in recent years. You can bet the others that are in the “100-percent-and-up” club have also made every effort and not just relied on snowfall to push their growth.

The NSAA seminars and sessions gave the impression of an industry that knows it has to do something, but simply isn’t quite sure what. (New lifts are not going to be the answer. According to both Poma and Dopplemeyer, new lift sales to the ski industry are set to drop 50-percent next season.)

The program seemed to be divided in to sessions hosted by motivational speakers, more used to delivering speeches to large groups of corporate execs, and highly specific speakers offering technical case studies on anything from Microsoft’s new Xbox games platform to the crisis in the golf industry.

Dr. James Canton, offered a presentation titled “Technofutures: How New Technologies are Changing Customers and Markets.” Dr. Canton describes himself as a “futurist.” The first red flag was that he is a self-described “futurist” specializing in technological prediction. In fact, the essence of what Dr. Canton says is right on—but hardly earth shattering. Ski areas have to use modern communication systems, viral marketing, and broadband delivery to tailor make communications and have them rapidly delivered to a targeted audience.

Tom Meyers, marketing director of Wachusett Ski Area, that has worked hard to reach its local tech savvy Boston market, pointed out that much of what was being suggested were initiatives already taken by his ski area.

However while Dr. Canton personally may be a genuine clairvoyant, he is diminished by association with every other self-styled “futurist” who swore to a Jetsons-like future. In fact, after so many premature announcements of the digital future, there is no certainty “future of communications” is anywhere close to as certain as he predicts. Plus, his main focus was on the use of emerging mediums to sell the ski area product, even though it’s the product itself and not the way ski areas are promoted to the public where the problem may lie.

Howard Hyden may also have come from the motivational mode, but it was apparent his session was far more relevant to the resort industry’s problem areas.

“If the rate of change in the market place is faster than your rate of change, then the end is in sight,” he said. He made an appeal for innovation and risk taking, primarily by ignoring the standard product and listening to what the customer and market demands. Standard stuff, but then he twisted the knife.

He suggested that quality control should be a given, not something seen as a competitive advantage. So if quality is standard, in other words a core value, then something much further is needed to create the added value that will attract the customer.

So a well-run, traditional ski area is no longer enough, regardless of how fast the lifts are, how well the runs are groomed, and how good the ski school is. Something extra is needed to turn the experience from one which skiers and snowboarders want every year, not just in the best of snow years.

The technical sessions largely failed to speak directly to the needs of ski areas. Adrenaline Theatre has a good story of distributing action-sports videos in new ways, but basing its entire sponsorship on dotcom money offers another warning about relying on a technological future. The golf industry is in even worse shape than the ski industry, which we should absolutely not snigger over, no way. Vans has been very successful at extending its brand through association with events and music, something we already knew, but few ski areas actually take advantage of.

But project planner Brenner Adam’s description of the new Microsoft XBox snowboard game Ampted offered a lesson that most ski areas should attempt to discern between the billion or so lines of programming code. Microsoft is devoting $500-million in marketing to the project. A sizable amount of this will end up pushing the snowboard game around the world. The three areas featured in the game—Brighton, Stratton, and Snow Summit—have all distinguished themselves by redefining and creating a new level of customer experience beyond the traditional ski area product. The rewards go to those that innovate, however much it snows.