Kids hitting the slopes this winter with array of activities

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BOSTON -- As the boom in family travel continues to grow -- one in five domestic vacations last year included children under age 18, according to a Travel Industry Association survey -- it comes as no surprise that the ski industry has tapped into the family-travel market.

With an ever-evolving roster of new winter sports, terrain enhancements targeted at young visitors and a host of family-friendly packages, the tactics seem to be paying off.

According to the 2004 National Demographic Study summary report, compiled by the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) in conjunction with RRC Associates of Boulder, Colo., there has been a slow but steady increase in ski and snowboard visits by children, first-timers and novices.

NSAA statistics show that in 2003, 57% of visitors to ski areas were families with children under age 18, compared with 46% in 1992. Snowboarders make up a significant portion of young visitors, as 80% of snowboarders in 2003 were under the age of 24.

Some resorts that previously restricted the terrain to skiers, like Aspen Mountain, now welcome snowboarders with open arms. Half-pipes and terrain parks are commonplace at nearly every ski resort in the U.S., with such nontraditional and easy-to-learn activities as snow-tubing and snow-biking also on the rise.

To address the influx of young enthusiasts, Beaver Creek in Colorado created a Parkology program that teaches kids safety and etiquette when using the parks, according to Jim Kercher, director of Beaver Creeks ski and snowboard school.

Mike Kaplan, vice president of operations at Aspen Skiing Co., said, More and more decisions on winter travel are being dictated by youth.  You have to give the kids what they are looking for, and right now thats terrain parks and halfpipes.

The Winter X Games, televised on ESPN, have been a huge draw for youth, Kaplan added.

And while snowboarding has exploded in the last decade, freeskiing is also going mainstream at many ski areas, as young skiers are performing aerial maneuvers previously witnessed only at extreme ski events.

To further entice young visitors to snow sports, the NSAA has partnered with WinterKids, a nonprofit organization that encourages winter recreation among children through partnerships with local schools.

Packaged ski-and-stay vacations targeting families are another draw, typically combining accommodations and lift tickets for significant savings, especially during off-peak periods.

Colorado resorts recognize families as an important market, if not the most important market, said Ashley Boyden, media relations coordinator for Colorado Ski Country USA, a trade organization. They offer programs such as Kids Stay Free, Learn-to-ski, family lessons and family ski passes.

The advantage for travel agents is that packages often comprise multiple commissionable components and are easy to book.

Dee Byrne, director of the Vail Ski & Snowboard School said, In general, we are doing more packaging, including all the service amenities the resort has to offer, to streamline the booking process and make it easier for folks to engage in the mountain experience.

To contact reporter Felicity Long, send e-mail to [email protected].

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