Speaker: Challenge is to make beginners lifelong skiers | SteamboatToday.com

Speaker: Challenge is to make beginners lifelong skiers

Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, discusses "The Future of Skiing in Colorado" on Friday during the 2009 Navigator Awards, presented at the 102nd annual meeting and luncheon of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association at the Ghost Ranch Saloon.

— Steamboat skiers and snowboarders for whom a trip up the Storm Peak Express has become the equivalent of a morning commute could be overlooking the best qualities of chairlift rides.

“Bringing your own children into the sport is very powerful, and the quality time you spend on the chairlift with them is a powerful, powerful mechanism,” Michael Berry told members of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association on Friday at the Ghost Ranch Saloon.

Berry is president of the National Ski Areas Association, based in Lakewood. He came to the Chamber’s 102nd annual meeting to lay out the challenges facing the ski industry in the decade ahead. And something as seemingly innocuous as a chairlift ride could make a difference, Berry said.

“We’ve been taking super care of our existing customers base, but we’ve got to welcome an entire new generation to the sport,” he said.

Unless they do a better job of bringing new skiers and snowboarders to resorts and converting them to lifetime enthusiasts, ski resorts nationally will struggle to sustain modest growth into the next decade.

“How do we replenish the pipeline? That’s the challenge of the next 10 years,” he said.

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One answer, Berry quipped, might be to swap out the tissue dispensers in lift line mazes for Advil dispensers.

The number of active domestic skiers and snowboarders is no more than 10 million, Berry said. Of those, one-third are age 50 or older, and the number of baby boomers on boards of one shape or another has steadily declined this decade from 1.25 million to 580,000.

“We can slow the exit,” Berry said. “I’m convinced the remaining boomers in the sport are hardcore,” but inevitably the industry has to do a better job of cultivating the younger generation.

“Erosion of aging skiers and riders is the biggest single concern, and there’s not much we can do about it,” Berry said.

The industry snagged a significant age-group bubble in about 2001-02 when a group of young skiers now in their teens were brought into the sport and stuck. However, recruitment of another generation of beginning skiers and their conversion into lifelong skiers is now the industry’s biggest weakness, Berry said.

“Our beginner conversions are 15 percent,” Berry said. “That means if you have 100 people give skiing a try, 15 of them stay with it. We’ve been negligent to a very important group of customers. We’ve done a wonderful job increasing the frequency of visits by our existing customers. We’ve treated them very well. But the conversion rate of beginners has been hugely problematic for us.”

Research has shown that beginners are first attracted to the sport by friends, members of their church congregation and family members, Berry said. He predicted that in the next few years, new converts making their first trips to major resorts like Steamboat would come from small ski areas just outside urban centers like Boston.

The National Ski Areas Association tested a hypothesis a few years ago, Berry said, when it invited 14 of the best ski instructors in the land to Park City, Utah, and assigned each to small groups of beginners.

The assumption, Berry said, was that assigning highly accomplished ski instructors to never-ever skiers would significantly increase the numbers of neophytes who became excited and would say they intended to continue in the sport. It proved not to be the case.

Of the total class of beginners, the majority had zero intention of returning, Berry said.

What the industry has learned since that failed experiment is that the expertise of the ski instructor is less crucial to converting beginners than the instructors’ abilities to empathize.

“Instructors must be able to connect with people and draw them in by helping them have that ‘aha!’ moment,” Berry said. “People who have the ability to do that need to be cherished.”

It’s something to ponder on your next chairlift ride.

Read related stories

Read the story about Business Leader of the Year Chuck Porter here.

Read the story about BAP/Big Agnes/Honey Stinger here.

Read the story about Young Professional of the Year Stacy Huffman here.

Navigator Award winners

During Friday’s annual meting of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association, the Chamber and the Steamboat Pilot & Today gave out the annual Navigator Awards to:

– Business Leader of the year: retired Sheraton Steamboat General Manager Chuck Porter

– Business of the Year: BAP/Big Agnes/Honey Stinger

Also recognized

– Sustainable Business of the Year: Black Tie Ski Rentals

– Young Professional of the Year: Stacy Huffman of the Steamboat Grand Resort Hotel