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Ski industry officials: Social media, water access key for the future

Photo illustration / Dylan Silver / Tahoe Daily Tribune
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OLYMPIC VALLEY – More than 500 snow sports industry leaders from across the country descended on Squaw Valley for the National Ski Areas Association’s winter conference and trade show this week.

Doing their best to overlook the dearth of snow in California, everyone seemed more focused on issues they can control, and trends they need to capitalize on to remain competitive.

One session, “Marketing in the Mobile Age,” has significant applications for ski and snowboard areas. More than half of all Americans have a mobile phone, and one can safely bet this percentage is much higher among skiers and snowboarders, said Pete Sonntag, vice president and general manager of Heavenly Mountain Resort.



“There is no question technology and social media will play bigger roles in the ski industry as we move forward,” Sonntag said. “Our customers are demanding it, and I have to say it’s pretty cool to see industry veterans here working on smart phones and iPads.”

During a separate discussion at Heavenly’s Tahoe Snowcial event on Thursday, Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz called getting customers to say good things about a company online “the Holy Grail of social media.”



His talk focused on the expansion of Vail’s EpicMix Ski Application, which has seen dramatic growth in the past year. The surge in interest has been due, in no small part, to Vail’s resorts offering free on-mountain photos through the application, Katz said.

The free photos ultimately benefit the resorts, Katz added.

“If somebody is willing to share that photo to all their Facebook friends, that’s a huge marketing opportunity,” Katz said.

The tourism industry has an opportunity to be a leader in the development of similar applications and noted these kinds of technologies will be “beyond critical” to the next generation of skiers and snowboarders, Katz said.

“We’re only at the beginning,” Katz said.

And, at the Squaw Valley conference, technological trends also gave way to demographic trends as the third annual “Conversion Cup Challenge” featured a lively discussion about the challenge the industry faces in converting first-year skiers and snowboarders into lifetime participants. Just 16 percent of those who try skiing or snowboarding stay with it for the long term, officials said.

And with 1.2 million new entrants each year, there is certainly opportunity to grow skiing and snowboarding to capture a larger portion of the 84 percent of first-timers who drop out after one season.

Progress has been made with this important entry-level group by investing heavily in grooming and snowmaking, Sonntag said, and by the addition of magic carpets on learner slopes and improving the quality of rental equipment.

“The beginner experience has to be an enjoyable one,” he said. “If we exceed the guest’s expectations at this level, we help secure our own future.”

Regardless of the future numbers of skiers and snowboarders, the long-term security of the ski and snowboard industry hinges on access to water. Water is essential to ski area operations and is arguably the scarcest resource in the arid West.

As competition for water resources continues to increase, lack of planning and forward vision can leave a ski area either paying too much for water or not having the water it needs for future operations.

And while it’s clear that there is no one answer or magic solution to the water issue, it’s also clear that in many cases ski and snowboard areas must have their own experts to help them stay on top of the complex legal questions that always accompany water rights.

On a lighter note, mountain operations managers from across the country are meeting at Squaw to discuss what the future holds for the next generation of terrain parks. Balancing innovation and safety – while also appealing to the younger, critical demographic of park users – was at the forefront of the discussion.

“Having 500-plus people attending the NSAA Winter Conference makes a huge statement about the optimism that exists in our industry right now,” added Heavenly’s Sonntag. “There is a buzz here that even a late-starting winter can’t dampen.”

– Arn Menconi, executive director of Avon, Colo.-based youth non-profit SOS Outreach, is on the road attending a series of ski and snowboard industry tradeshows and conferences. The Tribune publish periodic reports from Menconi from the events, telling readers what’s new and interesting in the world of snow sports. This dispatch comes from the National Ski Areas Association Winter Conference in Squaw Valley, which took place Jan. 17-19. Tribune reporter Adam Jensen contributed to this story.


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