Skico nurtures new batches of resort patrons | AspenTimes.com

Skico nurtures new batches of resort patrons

A crowd celebrates the opening of The Hideout at the base of Buttermilk Saturday. Aspen Skiing Co. has invested multi-million dollars in children's ski school facilities at Snowmass and Buttermilk to try to make skiing fun for youngsters and hook them as customers for life.

The average Aspen skier might not give a hoot that Aspen Skiing Co. spent $5 million on a new children's ski school center and associated improvements at Buttermilk, but for Skico, it's a major investment in the future.

Skico, like the entire industry, needs to tap younger generations to replace the legions of baby boomers expected to drop out of the sport in increasing numbers in the next couple of decades.

"We have to find a way to get younger, attract that next generation," said Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan. "That's the focus across the board."

In 2007, Skico built the 12,300-square-foot Treehouse Kids' Adventure Center at Snowmass' Base Village and dubbed the facility the first of its kind in the ski industry. The multistory building provides playrooms and supervised activities for children as young as 8 weeks. It also packages ski-school programs and equipment rentals under the same roof.

The new, 7,500-square-foot Hideout brings the same concept to Buttermilk. The facility will accommodate child care and ski-school programs for children 2 through 6 years old.

They're different buildings at different ski areas, but the concept is the same: Ease the hassle factor for families, get them coming back for more, and get the children interested in the sport — and Aspen/Snowmass — for life.

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Skico is looking for an advantage in an industry that is struggling to attract youth. The 2013-14 Kottke National End of Season Survey commissioned by the National Ski Areas Association said the percentage of skier visits attributable to children 17 and younger has dropped each of the past four ski seasons.

The number of visits by skiers 12 and younger fell to 15.3 percent last season from 15.7 percent in 2012-13, the report said.

When the report looked at visits by skiers 17 and younger, it dropped to 30.5 percent last season from 32.7 percent the year before.

Nevertheless, ski areas have been effective at getting the children who are coming into the sport into ski lessons — a lucrative part of the business. Participation in children's ski lessons was up 3.6 percent last season.

The Kottke report noted that "fostering participation in snow sports by children and teens remains critical to the long-term health of the industry."

Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, said the ski industry's numbers have remained healthy overall despite the slight decline in children. The youngest of the baby boomers — those in their late 50s and early 60s — are retiring earlier and staying active.

A demographic study commissioned by the National Ski Areas Association during the 2012-13 season said the average age of skiers and snowboarders increased to 38.5 years compared with 33.2 in 1999-98. Meanwhile, the number of participants in the 25-to-34 and 35-to-44 age categories has dropped, and the participants older than 45 has increased compared with 1997-98.

"Clearly, the loyalty and staying power of older participants has been a plus for the industry," the demographic study said.

Kaplan said Aspen and Snowmass have benefited from the loyalty of their aging customers, but now it's vital to nurture the next generations of loyal customers.

"Baby boomers have sort of exceeded expectations in that the older baby boomers are healthier, stronger, stay more active than the previous generation," he said. "The younger baby boomers have more wealth and free time. We'll milk the baby boomers for a little while more, that's going to be a bump, but, again, it's these next generations that we have to get into and hooked."

Skico's efforts to get youth hooked on skiing and snowboarding go well beyond children's facilities. Skico has worked hard to retain a long partnership with ESPN to keep the Winter X Games at Buttermilk. The games attract families with preteens and teenagers. They also lure college-age people and young adults traveling on their own. They are viewed by millions of young people on the TV sports channel. That builds the image that Aspen is a hip place to be.

The Mountain Collective Pass is also aimed at the young-adult market, though not exclusively. Skico and 10 other major independent ski areas in the West teamed three years ago to offer two days of skiing or snowboarding at each of the resorts. The price was $389 this season.

Kaplan said Skico's research shows that one audience the pass is effective at attracting is young professionals in California who have the time and money to take a road trip to resorts around the West. They watch for lodging specials and check out the resorts.

Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle said the Bud Light Concert series is also effective at bringing in young adults. He recalled recently checking into a Denver hotel and hearing front-office workers talking about how they were headed to Aspen the next day to see a show.

Skico is banking on its variety of efforts to keep business numbers strong even as the number of baby boomers hitting the slopes drops off in coming years.

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