Mountain Travel Symposium emphasizes need to be inclusive

Lake Louise Ski Resort vice president Kim Locke at the Mountain Travel Symposium.
Lake Louise Ski Resort vice president Kim Locke at the Mountain Travel Symposium. Photo Credit: Danny King

BANFF, Alberta -- With their industry challenged by a combination of an aging, largely male user base and by a reputation for exclusivity, Mountain Travel Symposium (MTS) panelists and featured speakers last week emphasized the need to market skiing and snowboarding with more inclusive messaging while finding more creative ways to attract both novices and international visitors.

And in a week when President Trump reversed many of the Obama administration's policies designed to address climate change, some industry leaders warned about the prospect of shorter ski seasons and encouraged people to be politically vocal about their concerns.

While MTS presenters waxed poetic about the joy of winter sports, they acknowledged the challenges of expanding the number of participants, which domestically has changed little in the past couple of decades, and stressed the importance of inclusiveness.

For example, while winter sports have been on the forefront of using social media to further the appeal of its lifestyle, MTS speaker and ex-GoPro education and training manager Kristian Jamieson said resorts and gear suppliers were falling short by focusing on expert participants and beauty shots.

"We are not inspiring on Instagram," Jamieson said. "What we are doing is making people jealous. The days of 'shred porn' [videos of hardcore skiers/snowboarders tearing up the mountain] are over."

Many of the Forum's panelists also acknowledged the male-centric emphasis on much of the sector's marketing efforts, noting that the combination of the industry's predominantly male leadership and "bro-ish" image of younger participants has caused the sector to fall behind when it came to including women in both its marketing message and leadership ranks.

"Inspiring millennial women translates to real dollar signs," said MTS presenter and Expedia market manager Jessica Robbins, a millennial. "Let us know that we're welcome."

Organizers of the conference, which was held at the Fairmont Banff Springs and attracted about 1,100 travel buyers and suppliers, did their part to emphasize women's growing winter sports prominence by bookending its two-day Forum sessions with keynote speeches by winter Olympian Kelly VanderBeek and Paralympian Amy Purdy.

The Forum also featured presentations from Deanne Buck, executive director at Camber Outdoors (formerly the Outdoor Industries Women's Coalition) and Kim Locke, vice president at Lake Louise Ski Resort.

Industry leaders hope such image enhancements will help spur new users to a sector where U.S. participation has been essentially flat for a couple of decades. For the 2015-16 ski season, U.S. snow sports visits to resorts fell 1.5%, to 52.8 million, which was about even with typical annual visitor numbers during the mid-1990s, according to the National Ski Area Association.

When discussing potential new blood, MTS panelists focused on millennials and overseas visitors. Locke cited the need to address a younger, urban contingent that is less likely to own a car needed for a mountain road trip, while Mammoth Resorts national sales manager Stephen Remillard acknowledged that some problems ski hills have attracting millennials are self-inflicted.

"Millennials prefer to travel in large groups," said Remillard, also a self-described millennial. "Compared to the other options available, our booking process [for groups] is too time-consuming."

As for international skiers and snowboarders, Kristi Kavanaugh, managing director of global sales at Aspen Skiing Co., said her company's visitor contingent is broad enough to necessitate ski lessons in a dozen languages.

Moreover, that international contingent could surge as China prepares to host the Winter Olympics in 2022. By that year, as many as 300 million Chinese will regularly engage in winter sports, compared with the approximately 120 million people who currently ski worldwide, according to University of South Carolina College of Hospitality director Simon Hudson.

"With the international market, it's not all about skiing," Hudson said. "One in five [visitors] does not ski. These people are spending more money than the people on the slopes."

Still, the largest factor in future winter sports growth might merely be scientific. MTS speaker and technology crossover ventures partner Erik Blachford cited the prospect of a permanently shortened ski season because of global warming, or what he termed "the Big Melt."

Added MTS speaker and Liftopia COO Rob Webb, "If it's Christmas week and it's 33 degrees instead of 31 degrees at the base of a mountain, that's terrifying for us. The fight to save our industry from climate change is an extremely effective way to fight against climate change as well. If you come in with an argument that includes jobs and economic value, [politicians] listen."

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