Black Tie Ski Rentals celebrates 20 years in Steamboat
If Ian Pritchard was in the music business, he might just owe a writing credit to country-western singing legend Alan Jackson and his family for helping inspire Black Tie Ski Rentals more than two decades ago.
“We were working at the ski shop in the Sheraton at the base of the Steamboat ski area, and we had a request to go up to a certain VIP’s room to do a fitting because he didn’t want to get hounded with autograph-seekers,” said Pritchard, who started Black Tie Ski with Joe Sternberg in 2002. “That person was Alan Jackson, and we all got to go up there, and it was an awesome experience. … That was kind of the light bulb moment.”
It was then that Pritchard and Sternberg got the idea for their business, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this winter. It was one of the first ski and snowboard rental delivery companies in the country, offering customers a chance to get the gear they needed without the traditional stop by the rental shop on the first day of a ski vacation.
“We didn’t need the expensive storefront,” Pritchard said. “We could do it out of a van and just make it a better experience for people.”
In the beginning, the two men stored a few hundred pairs of skis in a one-car garage, and when customers called, they would gather what they needed and head to homes, condominiums and hotel rooms to fit their customers into the right gear.
Pritchard said the idea was to deliver a more convenient way for people to rent skis. Black Tie was able to find a following in Steamboat Springs and soon discovered the model also worked in other ski towns.
Three years into the business, Pritchard shifted to licensing other owners in other ski resorts. He continued to own and operate the Steamboat location until about five years ago when he sold that business to the father-and-son team of Brian and Brett Savino.
Black Tie has locations in Canada, California, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and North Carolina, and this year the business will expand to 18 locally owned and operated branches with the addition of a location in Boone, North Carolina, and another in Whitefish, Montana.
“I think the key to our success is staying true to the independently owned and operated model, and that’s what makes us truly unique,” Pritchard said. “We are the only delivery service that has really found a way to make the licensing model work, so there’s a lot of pride in all of our owners and all of our locations, which are mostly boots on the ground in their resorts.”
Pritchard said the key is finding owners with local connections, and then, allowing those owners to make the business their own.
“That’s really the magic sauce in our recipe,” Pritchard said. “It’s not one corporate entity trying to force feed a model to everyone. We give all the owners a lot of freedoms. I offer recommendations not requirements.”
Brett Savino said he runs about five ski rental vans during the peak of the ski season. He also provides an amenity center at the base of Steamboat Resort where customers can store their skis overnight, and qualified professionals can check in with them to make sure the ski and boot fit are right.
“When you rent from us, it’s not just, here are your skies, and go have fun,” Brett Savino said. “The customer is able to check back in with us, and we ensure that you’re having the best experience that you can have a mountain.”
Prichard bought Sternberg out of the business in 2012, and the two remained friends until Sternberg’s death in February 2018. Today, Pritchard focuses on the licensing part of the business.
“I’m still very passionate about coming up with differentiators,” Pritchard said. “We can’t say we’re the only ones to do delivery anymore — there’s certainly other players — but we were the first, and we think we do the best with our customer service. But even on top of that, we still need more, so that’s where we’re really focusing on the technology.”
Last year, the company streamlined the rental process by implementing a fully digital, paperless rental process that allows customers to sign waivers electronically. The company also added foot scanning phone app technology that allowed customers to scan their feet. This year Black Tie will implement text communication capabilities to arrange equipment fittings and returns.
“We appreciate that Black Tie is an innovator in the industry,” Brett Savino said.
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.
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