Industry leaders have eye on future at Mountain Travel Symposium
April 6, 2016
The year was 1957, and skier Pete Seibert had hiked 7 miles to the top of Vail Mountain with a companion when a panoramic view of the apex helped motivate him to open a ski resort there five years later.
During World War II, Seibert was a member of the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division, an elite mountain-warfare unit, and — like many of his fellow ski troopers — returned to Colorado after combat abroad. He and these other 10th Mountain trailblazers have long functioned as the founding-father figures for the modern ski-resort business. But with the industry seeing the prospects of stagnation down the road, the mindset has now shifted toward using these pioneering figures as jumping-off points instead of merely following in their tracks.
That speaking point was central during morning presentations at the 41st annual Mountain Travel Symposium on Wednesday as the world's premier ski and travel tradeshow continued in Keystone. The tagline on everyone's lips: innovation.
"The 10th Mountain Division founders challenged assumptions and took risks," Kirsten Lynch, Vail Resorts' chief marketing officer, told a large conference-room audience. "Our challenge is to keep that going and embody the spirit of their legacy."
How exactly to do that was the question of the day, with leading ski-industry executives on hand to introduce some of the inroads they've made at their international resorts. Skier days, the metric commonly used to judge the strength of a winter season, and lift-ticket sales have remained fairly flat for some years. It's either time for business expansion or to face collapse from grasping too tightly to the traditional resort model, speakers warned.
"It's green trees, blue skies and white snow at every ski area," said Rob Perlman, president and chief operation officer of Steamboat Ski Resort. "So the question is what differentiates one resort from the next. We try to emphasize our Western hospitality compared to our competitors and the unique characteristics that make our resort special."
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Perlman said his resort's focus of late is examining every aspect of the processes of lift-ticket purchasing and equipment rentals, among other things, in order to make the overall resort stay more accessible, free of hassle and as effortless as possible. Ultimately, he said, it's about the quality of a guest's experience, and new technologies like radio-frequency scanners for lift lines and lift tickets that are reloadable online are helping to reduce wait times and increase customer convenience.
Meanwhile, Steve Wright, chief marketing officer at Jay Peak in Vermont, emphasized the need to diversify the business, as Jay Peak did with various investments in the past handful of years. The Northeastern resort on the border of Canada tripled its lodging, built a golf course and water park, and expanded into weekend hockey tournaments with new rinks to provide nontraditional winter business and augment skiing. Next up: convincing hockey and water-park visitors to give the resort's primary offering a try to expand the profitability.
"We used to sell these hard-core skiers on this really spartan ski experience," Wright said, recalling when the resort had just 100 on-hill rooms, a single restaurant and one bar that was only occasionally open. "We held too close to who we thought we were and took too long to disassociate with that identity and show the courage to bring in other assets.
"The key is don't grow so fond of who you are that you can't adapt and innovate."
The industry faces other challenges, of course. How to keep employees productive and happy, the impact of "for rent by owner" lodging in resort communities and year-round growth of these businesses were other popular topics.
Matt Mosteller, senior vice president of marketing and customer experience at Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, recommended better integration of the entire workforce, removing the often sterile resort experience and allowing staff to be playful and show their inner children as the best methods for long-term employee retention.
Jurg Schmid, CEO of Switzerland Tourism based in Zurich, noted Airbnb's rise in his country and how the proper taxation and regulations were still being ironed out. However, creating two strong profit seasons — winter and summer — was key to sustained viability. Still, a chief objective for resorts needs to be attracting new skiers by introducing the sport and winter lifestyle to children.
Studies in Switzerland show that men on average give up skiing by age 64 and women by age 61. They also show that if someone doesn't take up the sport before turning 16, the likelihood of them doing so later in life drops by 65 percent.
"If someone is between 30 and 40 years old," said Schmid of someone suddenly picking it up at that age, "the chances are very minimal. The industry has to do more to create more skiers."
It is this multifaceted, international, outside-the-box thinking that propelled pioneer Pete Seibert to found Vail. And today's resort leaders believe it's this same approach lent by the foremost ski architects that will spur the industry into the future, successfully.
"The legacy of our industry is to challenge the status quo and to take risks," said Vail Resorts' Kirsten Lynch, "And it's not easy, and honestly, it's not always fun. Sometimes we fail, sometimes we stumble, sometimes we make mistakes. Imagine what innovation would be like if we were all willing to do those things."