INSIGHT: Packages, guarantees designed to keep newcomers to ski coming back

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Industry experts know that a great first experience on the slopes can create a skier or snowboarder for life. Unfortunately, a great first experience is sometimes hard to find.

Over the years, I have lost count of the number of people who told me that they went skiing once, had a terrible time and vowed, "Never again."

The scenario is nearly always the same. They were coaxed into a ski trip by an experienced skier or snowboarder, usually a boyfriend or roommate who promised to teach them the ropes but instead took them onto a chairlift to the top of an intermediate or even expert trail and said, "follow me."

"Follow me" is not a ski lesson, and in these days of superlative ski instruction, it offers not only a hair-raising experience for the novice but also a missed opportunity to convert someone to a new sport and to a new kind of vacation experience.

Ski areas nowadays offer a whole menu of instruction for newbies, rusty skiers and children, some of which are commissionable to agents when combined with ski-and-stay packages. Kids programs get a lot of press because they teach and entertain small fry for the day, mixing indoor activities, like arts and crafts or movies, with lessons on the bunny hill.

Best of all, while children are typically separated into tiers of age groups, they also are moved along according to their skill advancement, and parents get a full report on their progress at the end of the day. All three of my children learned to ski and snowboard through programs at various ski areas, and not only did we appreciate how quickly their skills improved but my husband and I liked having time to ourselves on the slopes.

As to lessons for novice adults, instructional techniques and easier-to-use equipment have become so fine-tuned that many resorts promise to get even first-timers off the novice terrain and onto a chairlift the first day and certainly in one weekend. In fact, the industry is so confident of its novice programming that Learn to Ski or Snowboard Guarantee packages are widely available for that first lesson, bundling equipment rentals, lift tickets and instruction into one, discounted price.

Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort, for example, guarantees students will be able to ski/ride the mountaintop to bottom on a 2.5-mile beginner run after three lessons, or the fourth lesson is free. The package, including lift ticket, lesson and rental, is priced at $150 for three days. Squaw Valley USA Ski Resort Learn to Ski or Snowboard package deal is priced at $35 for the 2009/10 season, including lift ticket, two-hour lesson and equipment rentals. In Vermont, Bromley guarantees first-timers will learn the basics via its Beginners Circle package, including equipment, clinic and lift ticket, for $104 for two days.

In addition to shortening the learning curve, these programs speed up that first nirvana moment on the slopes, which can happen at any skill level. Once it does, a repeat client is born.

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