Ski industry examines its lack of diversity

Attendees of the National Brotherhood of Skiers 2020 Summit at Sun Valley, Idaho. Photo Credit: Courtesy of the National Brotherhood of Skiers
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Rob Katz, the longtime CEO of Vail Resorts, offered a blunt assessment last month about the state of diversity in the ski industry.

"While I'm sure most everyone in our industry believes they are tolerant and welcoming, we need to acknowledge that there are parts of the culture of our sport that are clearly not inviting," he wrote in a letter to employees, while also calling the situation a personal failing. "Maybe the image we have created of the mountain lifestyle needs to be more varied. Maybe, as a fairly close-knit and passionate group of skiers and riders, our community carries a deep, implicit bias. It would not be a stretch to call us a clique."

A few days later, Rusty Gregory, CEO of Alterra Mountain Co., Vail's largest rival in the North American ski industry, penned his own letter to employees on diversity, promising concrete action and asking them to hold him accountable for following through. 

"Merely standing against racism and discrimination does little to create change," Gregory wrote. "Talk and intentions are cheap. So, I choose to act, as an individual and as your CEO."

In the reckoning over systemic racism that has followed the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, the ski and snowboard industry indeed has much to examine. According to preliminary data from the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), 88.2% of visitors to U.S. ski areas during the 2019-2020 season were white. Just 1.8% were Black. 

"We've seen very little meaningful change in racial/ethnic demographics of skiing over the past 10 seasons," said NSAA spokeswoman Adrienne Isaacs. "There is opportunity to make snow sports more accessible and more inclusive. More people should have access to the physical and mental benefits of winter adventure."

The NSAA does not have data on Black employment in the industry, though it, too, is thought to be wanting. 

"Our racial and ethnic diversity in the ski resort industry is extremely low with both employees and guests," said Alterra executive vice president David Perry, who has been charged with building the company's Environmental, Social and Governance Plan.

Industry insiders cite various reasons for low participation among Black people and other minorities. Notably, skiing is expensive, making the hurdles to entry high for economically disadvantaged communities. 

Ski areas also tend to be remote, and therefore difficult to access, from cities where Black communities are concentrated. 

But outreach and limited support from the industry are also issues, said Reginald Johnson, east region director and a national board member of the National Brotherhood of Skiers. The organization, which has 55 chapters in 43 cities nationwide, works to foster participation in the sport by urban people of color and has a mission of developing Black Olympians in winter sports. 

To increase Black participation, ski resorts need to do a better job of targeting advertising toward minority communities, Johnson said. They also should include people of color in their advertisements and consider hiring minority-owned advertising firms. 

Resorts, he added, should proactively work to have more forward-facing Black employees, including ski instructors. And they could do more in terms of donating to minority youth ski programs.

"I'm a living example that, once introduced, there is a love and passion for it," said Johnson, who was introduced to skiing by his parents when he was child. 

With more than a dozen ski areas that serve major metropolitan areas, Vail is particularly well positioned to work with urban minority communities. The company hasn't yet put forward a broader action plan following Katz's mea culpa, but spokeswoman Marjory Elwell said that Vail already hosts nearly 4,500 underserved children at its resorts each year and plans to expand those programs to all 34 of its North American resorts. 

One thing that is clear, said Alterra's Perry, is that outreach works. At Big Bear Resort, for example, a targeted strategy to engage the Korean American community in nearby Los Angeles is one reason that 17% of the resort's guests in 2019 were Asian. 

Alterra, too, is still working on the details of its action plan to bring more Black skiers. Perry said it will include discounts for minorities and active recruitment of Black employees. In addition, the company will begin unconscious-bias training this summer. And by the upcoming winter it will have a program in place to reach out directly to Black communities to invite individuals to Alterra ski areas.

"We talk a lot about building a global mountain community within Alterra," Perry said. "It's not only the right thing to do, it is good business to do it."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report incorrectly identified the year and location of the National Brotherhood of Black Skiers Summit. The photo was taken at the 2020 summit, which was in Sun Valley, Idaho.

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