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Bagging the young and hip visitor

Naomi Havlen

The lights dim inside the Wheeler Opera House around a buzzing crowd, making the most visible thing in the room a large Bud Light logo projected onto a wall. An onstage DJ spins a mixture of hip-hop and ambient techno music, and the night’s emcee appears onstage in a spotlight.

Decked in a zebra-striped cowboy hat and an equally loud electric-blue coat, the emcee hollers “Can I get a ‘hell yeah’ from everybody out there?” The crowd shouts back with a resounding “HELL YEAH!”

This was the scene at the first annual Nepsa Awards (Nepsa is “Aspen” backward), a competition of ski films as part of the Spring Jam in mid-March. A brainchild of the Aspen Skiing Company’s marketing gurus, the free event showcased thumping music, daredevil tricks captured on film and an audience full of young people clad in baggy pants, stiff but hip truck driver caps, and hooded sweatshirts emblazoned with logos like Puma, Adidas and Burton.

But others were mixed in too. Smack in the middle of it all, judging the contest entries, was Aspen Skico Senior Vice President David Perry, who stood up and waved when introduced to the audience. The crowd cheered loudly for him, just as they had for Perry’s fellow judges ” professional skiers and snowboarders, filmmakers and trendsetters.

It was a surprising, almost surreal, moment. After all, Perry’s life odometer will hit 50 in October.

His hair is graying and he wouldn’t be caught dead in a pair of baggy pants, but Perry understands clearly that the industry’s fate lies with a young audience of huckers, jibbers and grommets. During the ski season of 2003-04, Aspen/Snowmass jumped wholeheartedly onto this baggy-pant, big-air bandwagon.

Beside the Nepsa Awards, the Skico promoted January’s Rail Revolution in the Gondola Plaza, followed by a free downtown concert by rockers The Offspring. Thanksgiving featured the “Thanksjibbing” event, in which local daredevils slid across a 15-foot-high wall in front of a rock band at the base of Aspen Mountain, leaving the media to define “jibbing” for older readers.

The fourth annual Spring Jam celebration was moved from April back to March to accommodate kids on spring break, and featured more big-air competitions and a hip-hop concert by the Wylde Bunch in the downtown core.

And let’s not forget the new-school notoriety of the ESPN Winter X Games, which returned to Buttermilk Mountain for the third consecutive January, and have agreed to return each winter through 2007.

What’s the deal?

Says Perry: “To me, it’s absolutely critical that we reverse the onset of what I like to call ‘Resort Alzheimer’s’ ” my personal term for the creeping gentrification of some resorts.”

The demographics of change

Over the years, Aspen has become known as the “grande dame” of U.S. ski resorts, but it wasn’t always that way. As Perry puts it, “resorts have evolved from places where there’s youthful energy, athletic activities and a high degree of irreverence. They were known for their fun, and then somewhere along the way resorts became more like retirement communities and country clubs. This transition from rockin’ places to country clubs is something that absolutely needs to be stopped and reversed for our long-term viability.”

Just a few seasons ago, the notion of Aspen as a rockin’ place was a source of heartburn for Skico management.

In 1997, The Aspen Times sent a reporter to a ski industry conference in Snowbird, Utah, where aging industry insiders began to acknowledge the changing times. Michael Berry of the National Ski Areas Association showed the graying audience a new marketing campaign called “Operation Snownet.” Designed to lure younger people to the slopes, the video featured loud hip-hop and rock music, snowboarders and skiers leaping and tearing in all directions, and an unapologetic “go for it” attitude.

The video both excited and terrified the audience of industry insiders. “This from the association that brought you ‘Be aware, ski with care,'” Berry joked at the time.

Still the president of the NSAA, Berry recalls having to convince his industry colleagues of the need for the edgy campaign. Ski resort visitation, he said, went flat in the 1980s at around 52 million skier visits. Though many baby boomers discovered the sport between the 1950s and ’70s, there weren’t enough members of “Generation X” for the industry to keep growing through the ’80s and ’90s. It gradually became clear that the industry’s future hinged on the “echo boomers,” the 71 or 72 million grandchildren of the baby boomer generation.

“We saw the baby boomers getting older, and no amount of Nuprin or Advil on the planet was going to keep them [skiing] six out of seven days a week,” Berry said.

So, as baby boomer ski visits began to bust, Berry and others began wondering how to attract the new generation.

“They’re not copies of their parents. They’re snowboarders, they’re serious about music, and events for them are a big deal,” he said.

But this sort of cultural shift isn’t easy for ski areas. Until winter 2001, Aspen Mountain was still off-limits to snowboarders.

Back in 1997, the Skico still felt the snowboard ban offered a certain cachet for older customers, despite the negative message to young boarders. The struggle at the time was how to be all things to all people. How can the aging boomers in turtlenecks enjoy skiing when their kids and grandkids are snowboarding with earphones and catching big air?

And if a ski area accommodates the kids with piercings, tattoos and frumpy-looking knit caps, does it risk alienating the graying “ski guys” who have been their bread and butter for 30 years? Today there are still four U.S. ski areas that don’t allow snowboarding.

“It presents an interesting issue, since 60 percent of people under the age of 20 are coming into the sport as snowboarders,” Berry said. “If you have a ski area that chooses not to allow snowboarding, they’re ignoring 60 percent of the market under age 20.”

In the past few years, Aspen/Snowmass has charted a new path. The aging crowd still has plenty of places to sip Cognac by the fire after a hard day skiing, but the Skico is focusing on those who, after a day on the hill, want to party, listen to music and hang out with friends. From a marketing standpoint, it’s an about-face.

Out with the old…

In the mid-’90s, the loud music, big air and nose rings favored by snowboarders and freestyle skiers made the “ski guys” quake in their one-piece ski suits. But over the years, the fringe has become the mainstream.

Like the hippies, punkers and grunge rockers of yesteryear, the new-school snow-sliders are now the norm. Aspen’s branch of Polar Revolution sells baggy pants, hooded sweatshirts and knit caps to anyone who wants to buy into the culture.

“In one of my speeches I say, ‘These are kids who mow your lawn and deliver your paper. They’re not alien beings from another planet because they wear their pants low,'” Berry said. “It used to be 18-year-olds in the ’60s drinking 3.2 beer at Galena Street East. Now it’s drinking Red Bulls at the Wheeler.”

So how does a company bring the new definition of “cool” to the slopes?

That’s John Rigney’s job. As the Skico’s special events director, his main mission is to make young people drive past 10 Front Range resorts to get to Aspen.

“We’re always on the hunt for what’s new, and what’s next. Take the wall ride [Thanksjibbing, 2003] ” that was awesome. We had no idea how that would be received, but 4,500 people came to watch people railing off this wall with a band on top,” Rigney said. “We couldn’t have gotten 4,500 people to watch the last World Cup.”

Rigney, 36, is quick to note that he’s not the sole creator of these events; he depends on his 10-person staff of “hard-core skiers and riders” with a median age of 27 for the newest ideas.

“I’m always surprised by their creativity, but I’m not afraid of it,” he said. “If there’s no event here one weekend, they’re driving to an event in Vegas or Vail, or Front Range concerts. They ask, ‘What are these kids listening to? What makes them tick?'”

From such questions came this season’s Budweiser Hi-Fi series. During peak skier weekends (Christmas, X Games, spring break and Presidents Day weekend, for example), Skico threw a free concert in cooperation with Sony Music. For every event, the trailblazers of the new generation came out in force.

Ask Perry or Rigney if they’re still concerned about alienating the older clientele, and both will describe the mixed crowds at the events. They’ve seen longtime, older residents mingling with teenagers, 20-somethings and 60-somethings bobbing to the music, and parents with kids on their shoulders alongside the fur-coat set.

“Everyone is attracted to the energy of youth,” Perry said. “It’s infectious.”

Says the NSAA’s Berry: “My 12-year-old son is a snowboarder, and Aspen is on his map. Just having the X Games there had a huge resonance with him. He asked me to take him to Aspen because of that.”

Perry, who is both a skier and a snowboarder, says Aspen has always been an industry trendsetter, whether it’s the first-ever hotdogging competition on the Ridge of Bell, or North America’s first-ever FIS ski races on Aspen Mountain.

“Aspen has grown through the times and grappled with issues, and we’ve come up with our own solutions. We couldn’t look anywhere else to know what to do, so Aspen has led the way in dealing with mountain town issues,” Perry said. “The basic tenets of youthful energy include open-mindedness, a willingness to experiment and trying new things. Those things tie in perfectly to what a resort town should feel like.”

When the Aspen City Council approves an outdoor concert in the downtown core, when older residents dance alongside teens in the street, and when a full house at the Wheeler cheers on a cutting-edge ski film, Aspen starts to embody youthful energy.

It’s not a bad thing ” it’s a new thing. Brought to you by a new-school Skico.

Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com


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