At MTS, resorts consider attractions beyond skiing

The Peak 2 Peak Gondola at Whistler Blackcomb is a popular attraction for non-skiers.

WHISTLER, British Columbia -- On a recent Friday afternoon, a snowstorm had set in on Whistler Blackcomb ski resort, leaving the upper portion of both mountains obscured in a thickening fog.

But the less than ideal visibility hadn't deterred Peggy and Edwin Espejo of Burke, Va., from riding the new Blackcomb Gondola high up the mountain, then transferring to the resort's extraordinary Peak 2 Peak Gondola, an engineering marvel that took 11 minutes to carry them the nearly 3 miles between Blackcomb and Whistler at more than 1,400 feet above the valley floor. 

As the Espejos stepped off the gondola in their standard winter clothes, they stood out among nearby riders who were decked out for skiing and snowboarding. Still, they explained, they and Peggy's parents had made the two-hour drive from the parents' Vancouver home primarily for the Peak 2 Peak experience. 

"It's amazing," Peggy said. "How majestic. I'd recommend it for my sons."

The North American ski industry has seen stagnant participation numbers for decades, according to data from the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) trade organization. Last year, for example, U.S. ski areas had 9.2 million unique participants, compared with a 20-year average of 9.7 million. The last time the U.S. industry hit the 10 million mark was 2011.

Industry leaders say a variety of initiatives should be taken in an effort to replace that stagnation with growth. But as those leaders gathered here this month for the annual Mountain Travel Symposium (MTS) Forum (owned and hosted by Travel Weekly parent Northstar Travel Group), one prominent theme was the need to find novel ways to attract people to the snow.

"Everyone loves snow. Not one kid in the world doesn't love snow, so just get them there," Karl Kapuscinski, CEO of Mountain High Resort just east of Los Angeles, said at the forum. 

Ski areas have taken steps toward diversifying their winter offerings for years, most notably through the proliferation of tubing hills.

But this past ski season, Kapuscinski decided to expand Mountain High's off-slope options beyond its tubing course with the thought that by offering the uninitiated a simple introduction to winter recreation, many will eventually graduate to skiing and snowboarding.

The result was Yeti's Snow Park, which offers activities as simple as merely sitting in the snow or building a snowman, along with higher-level diversions such as ice climbing and the tubing course. Packages range from $20 to $70. 

Customers can also sample the feeling of being on skis or a snowboard. 

"What we set up with this gateway is an opportunity for people to come up with basically no pressure," Kapuscinski said in an interview on the sidelines of the MTS Forum. "Just park your car. If you like it, we'll direct you to that next step of getting a sense of a lesson product."

This season, Kapuscinski said, more than 40,000 people visited Yeti's Snow Park. And though he expects that less than 20% of those visitors will ever become skiers or snowboarders, Mountain High is already looking at new ways to diversify. Possibilities include scenic lift rides and a winter nature trail.

Indeed, offering non-skiers access to the breathtaking views on display from ski mountains is a diversion that an increasing number of resorts have begun offering. At Winter Park in Colorado, for example, customers this season could ride a new, 10-person gondola from the base to the Lodge at Sunspot for $29 and then take in 270-degree views from a full-service restaurant at 10,700 feet.

Similarly, at Big Sky in Montana, non-skiers this year could pay $36 to ride the new Ramcharger chair, which has heated seats and a protective bubble, then dine at the upscale Everett's 8800 with views of the slopes and nearby Lone Peak Mountain. 

At Whistler Blackcomb, full-service dining is offered at restaurants at the top of both the Blackcomb Gondola, which came on line this season, and its counterpart Whistler Village Gondola. Both restaurants can be accessed from the Peak 2 Peak Gondola.

Indeed, during a lunch last week at Christine's on Blackcomb, Mary Zinck, travel media manager for Tourism Whistler, said that the Peak 2 Peak experience is her go-to activity suggestion for visitors who don't ski or snowboard.

NSAA CEO Kelly Pawlak said she rode a gondola a couple of times during the week of MTS with sightseers. 

"If you make it available, people will take advantage of it," she said. "Taking the Peak 2 Peak Gondola here, if you're not a skier, that's an experience of a lifetime."

MTS Forum speakers also said the industry needs to make more use of innovation, both of the technical and non-technical variety, to drive participation. 

Ideas proffered included development of more on-mountain "gamification" apps to engage millennials and members of Generation Z as well as more creative lift-ticket pricing, including offering discounted lift tickets that are only good for lifts in beginner areas.

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