Feds give chairlift ads a green light
December 1, 2005
Advertisements for private jet clubs and credit cards on chairlifts at local ski areas might become a permanent fixture after a ruling last week by the U.S. Forest Service.The Washington, D.C., office of the agency issued an “interim directive” saying that ads for products and services are acceptable inside buildings and other “interior spaces” operated by concessionaires or permit holders, like the Aspen Skiing Co., on national forests. The directive defined the safety bars of chairlifts as an interior space.That means ads are allowed on chairlifts as long as they are on the safety bars facing riders and not hanging off the back of the lift, said Kristi Ponozzo, spokeswoman for the White River National Forest.Public comment on the Forest Service’s directive will be taken through March 27 before a final decision. The directive has critics wondering if nothing is sacred from commercialization.”When I’m going to public lands it’s to get away from the commercial world,” said Scott Silver, co-founder and executive director of a nonprofit group called Wild Wilderness. “It’s the one place to escape.”Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Roaring Fork Valley’s Wilderness Workshop, said the ads are another incremental step in the commercialization and privatization of public lands. Some people are pursuing an agenda convert public lands into private holdings, he said.Matt Jay, the Aspenite who created and runs the company that produces the chairlift maps and ads, said the critics’ concerns might sound good in a newspaper story but he doesn’t think they have substance. He said he doesn’t see how a specific decision about ads and sponsorships on a chairlift will lead to broader commercialization of public lands.”What’s going to happen?” Jay said.Heidi Valetkevitch, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service’s Washington headquarters, said agency officials are sensitive to perceptions of commercialization. That’s why they created a long comment period so skiers and riders could see chairlift advertisements for themselves, then share their views.The Forest Service prohibits use of its logo on maps that contain an ad.
“That’s definitely something we’re concerned with as a federal agency,” Ponozzo said. “We don’t want the public to think we’re endorsing a product.”Skico was guinea pigThe Aspen Skiing Co. helped press the Forest Service for a ruling on the issue. Jay’s company, Ripple Resort Media Inc., approached the Skico about running ski area trail maps on the chairlifts in the 2002-03 season. The ads or sponsorships offset the cost. A plastic cover that contains the map along with ads or safety tips is attached to the safety bar.The Aspen Ranger District was uncertain how to treat the program because advertisements were prohibited in national forests. Former White River National Forest Supervisor Martha Ketelle allowed the chairlift ads as a pilot program while seeking direction from the forest chief’s office. The Washington office encouraged the pilot program, according to notes the White River supervisor’s office keeps.Aspen’s four ski areas were the only place in the White River National Forest and in the country where the ads were allowed to run, according to agency officials. Ads are allowed on a chairlift at Beaver Creek because it’s on private property.John Rigney, Skico’s managing director of event marketing, said the Skico has proven it can run ads that are relevant to its customers and in a “tactful” way.Rigney said Skico surveys in past seasons indicated customers like the maps. If there was any indication skiers and riders found the ads offensive, the company would take action. “We’ve been very sensitive to that,” he said.Ignoring the rules?Silver contended that the Forest Service’s interim directive ignores a law that prohibits ads in national forests. “There’s no ambiguity,” he said.And the Forest Service doesn’t have the power to make a rule that trumps a law. Only Congress can make laws, Silver said.That issue aside, Silver said he believes the wording of the directive itself has flaws. He said he found it mind-boggling that the Forest Service could find that a chairlift is an “indoor space.”In the bigger picture, Silver maintained the chairlift ads are part of a broader “conspiracy” to privatize recreation and the outdoors. Top officials in public land management agencies are working with corporations and private interests, he said.”The agencies are acting as rogues and no one is stopping them,” Silver said. “The agencies assume that unless somebody sues them, they can get away with murder.”The Forest Service directive found that the chairlift advertising was allowable on grounds that concessionaires often provide the primary contact with forest visitors. Concessionaires are often recruited to help get information to the public, and sometimes those outreach efforts cost money. Concessionaires wanted the ability to raise revenues through ads, and the Forest Service concurred.The public can send comment on the chairlift ad policy to the Forest Service by letter, fax or e-mail. Send information to: Carolyn Holbrook, Recreation and Heritage Resources Staff (2340), 1400 Independence Ave., SW., Stop 1125, Washington, DC 20250-1125; by fax to Carolyn Holbrook, (202) 205-1145; or by e-mail to email@example.com.
Some of the advertisements running on 13 high-speed quad chairlifts in Aspen and Snowmass seem directed at virtually every skier and rider on the mountains. Others seem to target the ultrawealthy.Ride up chair 74 on the Ajax Express chairlift on Aspen Mountain, for example, and you will see an ad for Sentient, a company promoting its private jet membership club. “Getting to Aspen should be as exhilarating as skiing here,” one of its ads says.Sentient bills itself as “the official jet provider of Aspen/Snowmass.” It’s one of a half-dozen or so major marketing sponsors working with the Aspen Skiing Co.Sentient’s hourly rates start at $3,300 per hour for a round-trip flight – a price that seems beyond the means of many skiers and riders, even at Aspen.
But Skico Managing Director of Event Marketing John Rigney said Sentient’s marketing efforts were fruitful enough in Aspen last year that it expanded its scope this winter.Sentient is one of a handful of companies paying for exposure on the unique chairlift “lap maps” that show the trails at Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass.Other prime advertisers are Cadillac, the Ritz-Carlton Club, Aspen Club, Surefoot and American Express. The credit card company’s ads are unique because they also tout several local businesses that presumably accept the card.Regardless of whether the ads appeal to the masses or to niche markets, they’ve proven acceptable to Skico customers, said Matt Jay, president and founder of Ripple Resort Media Inc. His firm creates the lap maps and finds advertisers.He said that Skico customers said in surveys that the maps are useful and that the maps don’t erode their experiences in a national forest. Forest Service workers wrote the survey questions, he noted.Jay said he believes the ads are tasteful and don’t offend anyone – even those who cannot afford a Sentient jet. He said the Skico also maintains control over the content.”They’re not going to do anything that jeopardizes their business,” he said.Jay said he considers the convenience of the maps to be the key to his service and company’s success. Skiers and riders can just examine the maps on the safety bars rather than pulling off a glove and securing their poles while searching for their paper maps. The ads or sponsorships that accompany many of the maps provide the Skico with a way to cover the cost of the chairlift maps.”We’re not just putting ads on the chairlift,” Jay said. “There’s a tremendous amount of value in that service.”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org