Mountain
hassle cures

What with buying and lugging equipment, purchasing lift tickets and driving perilous roads to get there, skiing has never been an easy pastime. New approaches to operating ski resorts, however, aim to eliminate inconveniences that have stymied wider participation.
By Robert Silk

A skier at a Club Med resort. Reducing friction points for guests is a focus of the all-inclusive chain.

A skier at a Club Med resort. Reducing friction points for guests is a focus of the all-inclusive chain.

Carolyn Stimpson, co-owner of the 120-acre Wachusett Mountain ski area 60 miles west of Boston, understands that as pastimes go, skiing can be an especially inconvenient one.

So when the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority extended its commuter rail line from Boston two years ago to include a Wachusett station closer to the mountain than the previous stop, Stimpson and the Wachusett team were quick to capitalize on the opportunity.

Working with the transit authority, Wachusett Mountain redoubled its efforts to promote one train each winter weekend morning and evening as the Ski Train, complete with a designated ski car equipped with racks for skis and snowboards.

The mountain also offers a free shuttle service to drive visitors the approximately 10 minutes back and forth from the train, which is promoted not only on its own website but also on the transit authority’s site. And last year, Wachusett extended its outreach surrounding the train line to include Wednesday College Nights for Boston’s large university set.

The moves have had a demonstrable effect. Stimpson said that approximately 10% of Wachusett’s weekend customers arrive via the commuter rail, including many who don’t have cars or other easy means to get to the mountain. It has also diversified the mountain’s clientele.


A commuter train ferries skiers and their equipment to Wachusett Mountain about an hour east of Boston.

A commuter train ferries skiers and their equipment to Wachusett Mountain about an hour east of Boston.

The train, though, isn’t the only way Wachusett Mountain is trying to reduce the inconveniences that accompany the skiing experience.

Stimpson also takes pride in her company’s streamlined equipment rental process, which, she said, enables people to pick up their gear more or less as fast as they can walk.

She also touts Wachusett’s EZ Ski Card system, which enables customers to buy and reload lift tickets online.

“Our job is to build more skiers for the industry, and we take that very seriously,” Stimpson said, alluding to Wachusett Mountain’s status as an entry-level ski area in close proximity to the Boston and Providence, R.I., metro areas. “We’re trying to take the hassle out of skiing, any of the hiccups.”

Insiders throughout the ski industry recognize that, no matter the passion of skiers, the pastime is endemically fraught with the hassles to which Stimpson was referring.

For the most part, ski resorts are located far away from the cities where their patrons live and work. Getting to ski destinations often requires plane travel as well as drives through inclement weather and along dangerous icy roads.

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Learn and Earn beginner skiers enjoy a lesson on the Bear Hollow slope at Snowbasin Resort.

Learn and Earn beginner skiers enjoy a lesson on the Bear Hollow slope at Snowbasin Resort.

Learn and Earn beginner skiers enjoy a lesson on the Bear Hollow slope at Snowbasin Resort.

Skiing and snowboarding alike require heavy winter outfits and lots of gear, much of which new participants, even many longtime adherents, will rent. Then there are the hotel stays, which most other sports don’t necessitate. And for beginners, skiing can be intimidating, both because riding up a chairlift and pointing down a mountain is innately scary for the uninitiated and because the layouts of base areas themselves aren’t necessarily intuitive for newbies.

Hugh Reynolds, vice president of marketing and sales at Snow Operating, which operates Mountain Creek Resort in New Jersey, said, “If you think of skiing and snowboarding, relative to almost anything else that you could spend your time doing, the barriers to entry are staggering.”

“If you think of skiing and snowboarding, relative to almost anything else that you could spend your time doing, the barriers to entry are staggering.”
– Hugh Reynolds, Mountain Creek Resort

Snow Operating also offers consulting to ski areas on streamlining the visitor experience and easing the early ski and snowboarding instruction process.

“It’s amazing we get as many people as we do to try the sport,” Reynolds said.

The many challenges and inconveniences relating to snow sports are almost certainly one reason data gathered by the National Ski Areas Association indicates that just 18% of people who try skiing and snowboarding in the U.S. stick with those activities in the long term.

And those same challenges also factor into the stagnation that the industry has faced for decades.

Last year, when snow conditions were outstanding across most of the country, U.S. ski areas welcomed 10.2 million unique skiers and snowboarders compared with a 20-year average of 9.7 million. In 2017-18, U.S. ski areas attracted 9.2 million unique visitors.

But though some of the hassles related to spending a day on the slopes are inevitable, stakeholders throughout the industry are taking steps, ranging from the mundane to the innovative, to remove friction from the experience wherever possible.

Andrew Barfield, director of ski services at Snowbasin Resort in Utah, said, “As an industry, we have to look and see opportunities. We have to create new skiers.”

To address that issue, Snowbasin began offering its Learn and Earn beginners program four years ago. For $499, first-year participants get three lessons and equipment rental for the year. Once they complete the lessons, they get a ski pass for the remainder of the year at no extra charge.

During summer welcome sessions for Snowbasin’s Learn and Earn participants, guests get fitted for gear and become pros at maneuvering the base area so there is less confusion in the winter.

During summer welcome sessions for Snowbasin’s Learn and Earn participants, guests get fitted for gear and become pros at maneuvering the base area so there is less confusion in the winter.

During summer welcome sessions for Snowbasin’s Learn and Earn participants, guests get fitted for gear and become pros at maneuvering the base area so there is less confusion in the winter.

The Learn and Earn program actually begins before ski season, though, when participants attend welcome sessions in which they pick up their rental skis, boots, poles and helmets and take a tour of the Snowbasin base area.

“That allows them to feel kind of stress-free on the first day,” Barfield said.

After their first ski season, Learn and Earn participants can buy into a second year and, ultimately, a third year.

The program has been a strong success, Barfield said. This year, 73% of those who were in the first year of Learn and Earn last year have signed up for a second year.

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At New Jersey’s Mountain Creek, visitors are fitted with encoded bracelets that they can then use to get on lifts, check into lessons and pick up rentals.

At New Jersey’s Mountain Creek, visitors are fitted with encoded bracelets that they can then use to get on lifts, check into lessons and pick up rentals.

At New Jersey’s Mountain Creek, visitors are fitted with encoded bracelets that they can then use to get on lifts, check into lessons and pick up rentals.

A different type of innovation for beginning skiers and snowboarders is Terrain Based Learning, which debuted at Mountain Creek in 2011, a year before the same team formed Snow Operating. The system eases the learning process, Reynolds said, by using terrain that is sculpted to facilitate maneuvers such as stopping and turning.

“You can have guests with very little skill feeling those high-level sensations of moving,” Reynolds said.

Further, Terrain Based Learning takes place in its own set-aside area, which enables novices to avoid the fear of sharing lifts and slopes with the general skiing public. Snow Operating has worked with more than 50 ski areas around the world to implement Terrain Based Learning, Reynolds said.

More broadly, the company has also pivoted toward consulting on easing the ski experience. That means addressing everything from the purchase of lift tickets to the rental process and more.

Working with clients on the entire guest experience has resulted in innovative solutions. As an example, Reynolds pointed to Sommet Saint Sauveur in Quebec, where the learning area is a 10- to 15-minute walk from the rental shop. That amounts to quite a pain for a new skier wearing boots and carrying gear. The resort took Snow Operating’s advice and now transports clients to the learning areas via a horse-drawn carriage.

Snow Operating’s newest innovations, first implemented at Mountain Creek, lie in the technical realm. In summer 2018, Snow Operating rolled out a software system it calls SnowCloud.

Much like Disney’s MagicBands, customers are outfitted with an encoded wristband, which operates on RFID technology. Each band stores customer information, and Mountain Creek guests use them to get on lifts, pick up rental equipment and to check in for lessons.

Snow Operating is working to add hotel room access and payment capabilities to the band, as well. Already, though, the system has enabled Mountain Creek to take down all eight of its ticket windows and replace them with 36 iPad stations, thereby reducing lines substantially.

The company plans to further refine the system at Mountain Creek this winter, after which it is considering offering the solution for sale to other ski areas, Reynolds said.

Meanwhile, a longtime leader in the ski tech space is the online lift-ticket vendor Liftopia, whose Cloud Store e-commerce solution enables ski resorts to sell bundled offerings that combine, for example, lift tickets with lodging, rentals, lessons or food.

“The ski industry has done a really good job of investing in the on-mountain experience, but there is still a huge amount of friction that occurs between the thought of going skiing and actually getting there."
–Evan Reece, Liftopia

Liftopia CEO Evan Reece said not all the challenges arise on the mountain itself.

“The ski industry has done a really good job of investing in the on-mountain experience,” Reece said. “But there is still a huge amount of friction that occurs between the thought of going skiing and actually getting there. A lot of what we’ve done is making it easier for people to commit by showing them what they could and should buy.”

Reece said many ski resorts are still burdened by legacy sales systems that make online purchases a hassle and bundling difficult. On the Liftopia site, customers can purchase bundled combinations. But Liftopia doesn’t stop there. Confirmations provide customers with details such as where on the mountain, specifically, they must go for their lesson or ski rental.

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Skiers at Monarch Mountain in Colorado can rent Patagonia coats and ski pants. Photo courtesy of Monarch Mountain

Skiers at Monarch Mountain in Colorado can rent Patagonia coats and ski pants. Photo courtesy of Monarch Mountain

Skiers at Monarch Mountain in Colorado can rent Patagonia coats and ski pants. Photo courtesy of Monarch Mountain

People who show up for a day of skiing better prepared and with fewer additional transactions to deal with will have a better experience, Reece said.

That philosophy also drives the equipment rental company Ski Butler as well as the storied all-inclusive resort operator Club Med.

Ski Butler, which opened its first store in Park City, Utah, in 2004 and now operates in 15 ski towns, delivers rentals to wherever its customers happen to be staying.

CEO Bryn Carey said, “We knew that the biggest pain in the ski experience is going to the ski rental shop. We decided we were going to do delivery, that the equipment was going to be new, and we thought we could solve that hassle factor. And to this day, that’s our mission, to make ski vacations convenient, because they can still be quite challenging.”

Ski Butler customers provide necessary information, such as their age, shoe size, weight and skiing or snowboarding ability ahead of their appointment. Then, when the Ski Butler van shows up at their place of lodging, it carries preselected skis and poles as well as a selection of boots and helmets to make sure the right fit is found.

The company will also swap out boots, boards or skis at the ski mountain if a customer wants to make a change. Carey said the cost of the service is typically the same or cheaper than an on-mountain rental shop but pricier than the average off-mountain shop.

Reducing friction points is also a focus of the all-inclusive resort chain Club Med, which has more than 20 ski resorts in Europe, Japan and China and which plans to make its return to the North American market with the opening of its Quebec Charlevoix resort in late 2021.

New U.S. ski resorts are also on the company’s wish list, though no such projects have been announced.

In an interview in April, Xavier Mufraggi, who at the time was president and CEO of Club Med North America and the Caribbean, said, “We have all these clients. They are ready to pay, and they want convenience.”

Mufraggi now heads Club Med’s Europe, Africa and Middle East operations.

Guests at Club Med ski resorts receive meals, drinks, lift passes, ski and snowboard instruction, apres-ski social activities and children’s programming as part of their package price. In addition, resort guests provide information related to equipment rentals prior to arriving at the hotel. Then, upon checking in, they head to their reserved locker, where their gear awaits.

Club Med’s all-inclusive ski packages include apres-ski meals and activities.

Club Med’s all-inclusive ski packages include apres-ski meals and activities.

Club Med’s all-inclusive ski packages include apres-ski meals and activities.

“Within an hour, you’re on the slopes,” Mufraggi said.

Another step toward reducing friction for skiers is being taken by Colorado’s Monarch Mountain. There, visitors can rent not just the standard on-mountain equipment but also Patagonia ski pants and jackets. The service, which costs $25 a day for adults and $15 per day for children, is especially useful for people from warm-weather climes who otherwise have little use for such items, said Allie Stevens, Monarch’s marketing manager.

“I’m not even sure we make money off the program,” Stevens said, “but it’s a convenience for guests. That what’s important for us. It’s that ease of mind.”

“I’m not even sure we make money off the program, but it’s a convenience for guests. That what’s important for us. It’s that ease of mind.”
–Allie Stevens, Monarch Mountain

Still, while steps like these can’t hurt, they aren’t necessarily getting at the root of the ski industry’s challenges, said Gregg Blanchard, senior vice president of strategy for Inntopia, which provides reservation and e-commerce systems for resorts, including properties in the destination ski market. (Inntopia is owned by Northstar Travel Group, which publishes Travel Weekly.)

“The resort industry is working really, really hard to make skiing easier,” Blanchard said. “I think that’s a valid thing to chase. But there is just not a ton of data that suggests that alone is going to make a tremendous bit of difference.”

Blanchard pointed out that when the industry was booming in the 1960s and ’70s, skiing was an even bigger hassle than it is today. Among other things, the equipment was worse and more dangerous, the clothing was less comfortable, high-speed chairs had not yet replaced slower two-seat lifts, and many resort parking lots were mud.

Nevertheless, the sport grew because people were inspired to get on the slopes.

In Blanchard’s view, getting the masses back to dreaming and romanticizing about skiing is what will motivate more people to endure the inevitable inconveniences.

“We’ve never had a good, clear, coordinated direction for how we are going to do that for the industry,” he said.

Ski Butler’s Carey, though, said that reducing the hassle factor is indeed a key issue for the ski business.

“I think the industry as a whole needs to keep making it as convenient and affordable as possible to keep the older folks coming and the younger folks coming in,” he said.

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