Adventure July 29, 2008

Reinventing Cool

The ski industry has enlisted several industry-changing ideas. From the mogul craze in the late ‘60s and ‘70s to the neon clad days of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Will the Ski Tour be the next big thing to hit the ski industry?

For 20-somethings eager to evolve Sun Valley’s pedestrian rep amongst modern-day ski towns, last winter’s Honda Ski Tour and its crop of Winter X-bred spectators and athletes, live music and street performers, dreams became reality. The fan base was not limited to testosterone-filled youngsters. Rather, below-zero temperatures greeted baby boomers with children bobbing on their shoulders, longtime Ketchum residents, gated-community denizens, and grade school kids dreaming of becoming the next Zach Crist or Simon Dumont or maybe even Tommy Lee. The skiing and music might not have completely warmed the toes, but it reinvigorated the soul and ghosts of America’s first legitimate ski town.

Indeed, it felt different. It was the first stop of the inaugural tour in a town that hadn’t seen a professional ski competition since 1979. Sun Valley ski icons Averell Harriman and Dick Durrance must have stirred with nostalgic glee in their graves. Sun Valley, of all places, hosted a halfpipe event. Fans three rows deep lined the pipe despite arctic-like temperatures. They watched the world’s best halfpipe skiers soar and spin in front of ABC cameras under stadium lights. “Sun Valley was hungry,” Casey Puckett, the Sun Valley Honda Tour skiercross champion, told me later. So was the ski industry.

As Honda Tour co-founder and extravaganza-host extraordinaire Kipp Nelson asserts: “Skiing used to be considered old school and lame; snowboarding is definitely the new thing within the last couple decades; and the new, new thing is skiing again. People are discovering that skiing is cool again.”

Whatever “cool” denotes these days, the youth and mountain culture embraced the Ski Tour. In its perpetual struggle to reinvent itself, the ski industry came alive, stoking Gen-X and Y rather than solely focusing on the saturated affluent parent demographic—an all too common tendency in an industry attempting to shake off its stale past. Additionally, it recharged long-time bastion settings of skiing legend and lore like Sun Valley and Squaw Valley, by attracting puffy-coated mountain town regulars and, more significantly, tourists unfamiliar with the scene. But have Nelson and Ketchum’s own Crist brothers discovered the solution by rekindling interest in a rather fickle business? It’s certainly a snowball rolling in the right direction. The temporary fix has recharged and quelled concerns of rising ticket prices, resort conglomeration and global warming.

Continuing a spike and fall trend resembling an electrocardiogram, national skier visits declined 6.5 percent in the 2006-07 season, after a record number of national skier visits in 2005-06 with a total of nearly 59 million visits, according to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) Kottke National End of Season survey. Since the NSAA began recording the annual report in 1978-79, six of the best seven seasons (skier visits-wise) have occurred since 2000. Despite a five percent increase in lift ticket prices, which tended to price out some interested customers, gross revenue has grown 22 percent in the last five years. So how is the ski industry staying afloat and operating with such undulation?

In 1990, skiing was hurting. Neon one-pieces and terms like “extreme” were lame and outdated. Marketing campaigns for ski companies and ski areas spotlighted the rich and their furs off the snow and pedestrian trends on snow. Long-time purists and people with money were the only ones who seemed to identify. >>>



“In the early ’90s,” says Mike Douglas, one of the modern-day saviors of skiing, “the ski industry was largely controlled and run by the old guard—by people who came from alpine-racing backgrounds.” Douglas had competed and coached in World Cup and NorAm mogul events for the Canadian Freestyle Team during the old guard years from 1991-1994. “There was this unwillingness to change, almost like an exclusive country-club attitude where people were like, ‘we don’t need to change ’cause we’re great.’”

At least that was the case in North America. Comparatively, Europe and its ski-centric roots schussed right along with ski racing and multi-day backcountry tours as the recipe for success. By intuitively ignoring image concerns mostly due to cultural differences, European skiers avoided North America’s identity crisis. More specifically, Europe cultivated renewed interest by hosting World Cup events in their respective backyards. Germans, Italians, Swiss, Austrians, and Frenchmen watched the best ski racers in the world in person at nearby resorts. But North Americans rarely experienced the live, in-person opportunity to watch the world’s best on a regular basis. Nelson, a former Division I alpine racer at the University of Colorado and retired Goldman Sachs partner, realized the need for live exposure to skiing in the States in order to renew and generate interest in the sport. “What got me into ski racing as a kid was just that—seeing it. It was like, ‘Oh my God, I want to be one of those guys.’”

Acknowledging the void, Nelson made it a point to attract World Cup ski races to the States as a board member of the United States Ski and Snowboard Association. “A couple of things were really obvious to me. Sponsorship money was down. Prize money was down. Alpine skiing was becoming more and more, not less and less, a European sport. We didn’t have enough events in the U.S. for the public to get exposed to on a live basis.”

Skiing enjoyed a great spurt in earlier years, stimulated in part from Aspen’s hosting of the alpine skiing championships in 1950. Then the glamorous Kennedy family spurred interest in skiing during the early ’60s. Filmmakers Dick Barrymore, Warren Miller and Greg Stump documented the lifestyle and action of skiers and made skiing seem fun and edgy. But the adventure slowly stagnated. Despite the fame of exciting skiers like Scot Schmidt, the Mahre brothers, and Glen Plake, the key figureheads in the industry remained ignorant of the one key demographic that has challenged complacency through the test of time: the youth.

Standing in the Warm Springs lift line, a short snowboarder, no more than 13, with baggy, neon pants, shuffles forward until it’s his turn to load onto the next chair. But instead of loading the chair with two others, a salty Sun Valley ski instructor with snow-white hair and race-stock skis deliberately holds out his arm, blocking his client from getting on. “I don’t ride chairlifts with snowboarders,” he remarks to his curious client. “They’re just a bunch of punks.” And this was 2006 with the newly shaped Sun Valley halfpipe just up the slope from the lift.

Whether the old guard accepts it or not, much of the ski industry’s growth in numbers and resort development today is largely due to the “punk” snowboarders. Either crossing over from skiing like East Coast snowboarding pioneer Jake Burton or bringing the skate and surf culture of Southern California to snow, snowboarders rebelled against the decaying, elitist ski scene. “For anyone under the age of 25, snowboarding looked a lot more fun at the time,” asserts Douglas. And you can’t blame them. If you didn’t have the money to race or come from a family with connections, skiing was too expensive and, hence, elusive to the dissident youth. According to John Fry, former editor-in-chief of Ski Magazine and the author of the extremely comprehensive 2006 release, The Story of Modern Skiing, snowboarding rescued the ski industry from business disaster. As skiing endured its worst season in skier visits in 1990 since the NSAA commenced collecting data, with only 46 million participants, snowboarder visits increased by 270 percent.

“Before snowboarders showed up,” says skiing legend and Ketchum resident Mike Hattrup, “we all wore suits for S.I.A. (Snowsports Industry of America), it was so professional,” referring to the annual ski and snowboard trade show. “The snowboarders came in and were drinking beer, wearing jeans and sweatshirts, with long hair and smoking pot. Because of snowboarders, I have like 16 suits in my closet that I never use anymore.” Hattrup was featured in Powder Magazine as one of the “48 Greatest Skiers of Our Time.” He’s seen a lot in his 19 years in the industry, all while being a part of the K2 family where he’s currently the director of the Telemark and Alpine Touring division. He, too, cites the snowboarding establishment for triggering change. “Snowboarders brought halfpipes to the mountains and created terrain parks, which eventually led to twin-tip skis.”

“The ski industry recognized that snowboarding put the youth back on the map,” declares Aspen Skiing Company Senior Marketing Manager Steve Metcalf. “When snowboarders, in regards to popularity, were passing skiers, it was obvious something had to be done to stop that.” >>>



Fortunately for skiing, Douglas and his fellow mogul team bumpers known as the New Canadian Air Force (Shane Szocs, Vincent Dorion, J.F. Cusson, and J.P. Auclair) conceived the idea of a twin-tip ski. Instead of a flat tail, twin tips had a turned-up, rounded tail matching the tip—hence, twin tip. The new design allowed for an avalanche of creativity and avenue for fun with skiers now being able to take off and land jumps backwards. In addition, skiing backwards presented daring skiers with another on-hill challenge. According to Douglas, six of eight companies rejected their twin tip proposal in 1997. “They didn’t think it was a good idea, so they didn’t want to invest any money in it.” Eventually, Salomon accepted their proposition and produced the first industry-wide twin-tip ski called the 1080. Dorion started taking off and landing backwards while Szocs, perhaps, impacted the youth the most by hosting freestyle summer camps in Canada’s Whistler as the director of High North Ski Camps. And for his efforts, Douglas was dubbed the Godfather of Newschool, the new breed of skiers breaking away from traditional alpine skiing (racing and moguls) and combining the influence of snowboarder to freestyle twin-tip skiing.

Fast-forward to 2007 and The Honda Ski Tour wouldn’t have rocked Sun Valley without the twin-tip innovation. Certainly skiercross does not necessitate twin tips, but the two-sport tour would not have even come close to occurring without the rapid craze in freestyle skiing in the last decade. In fact, it’s possible that ski area year-round growth and resort development would not prove to be sustainable without the surge of interest and subsequent money young daredevils have poured into the ski industry. Tanner Hall and Simon Dumont, two of the megastars in skiing today and Honda Ski Tour competitors, would not have a stage on which to display their mastery. “Similar to snowboarding in the ’80s,” Metcalf, the former editor of Powder Magazine from 2002 to 2004, tells me, “The Honda Ski Tour is legitimizing the efforts of all of the innovators of the past.” And the influential Nelson, no stranger to smart business, knows the audience that needs to be excited in order to achieve growth and success.

“It is the younger demographic you want to stoke to create new audiences, ’cause that’s who I was as a kid. The sport grows when kids get fired up.”

Walking on recently placed cobblestone bricks with my skis perched on my shoulder, I crank my neck skyward to view the construction of another gabled hotel in Telluride’s Mountain Village. Although ski area base villages attempt to distinguish themselves from the next, they all seem to resemble each other. Chic coffee shops and high-end bootfitter shops greet the heavy-pocketed visitor. Meanwhile, other boutique retail shops line the street level as massive, A-frame condos rise upwards to mirror nearby peaks.

Despite a gradual increase in skier numbers, operating ski areas have been in a steady decline for the last 20 years. According to the NSAA, only 478 (sometimes due to weather) ski areas were in operation in 2005-06, some 200 fewer than in 1986-87. During those rough years of the late ’80s and ’90s, ski areas went bankrupt allowing for companies like Intrawest and the American Skiing Company (ASC) to scoop them up. Ski resort conglomerates focused their efforts off the hill by emphasizing real estate development. This, of course, bulldozed several ski communities replacing palpable mountain character with high-end timeshare condominiums. But, as of late, due to timely community planning and corporate awareness, ski areas have shifted their investment attention to the mountain. Implementing high-speed lifts and opening and expanding once closed-off terrain, ski areas such as Vail, Crystal Mountain, Big Sky Resort, Schweitzer Mountain in Idaho, Telluride, and Jackson hope to increase gross revenue by on-hill improvements. Big Sky, Crystal and Schweitzer debut new lifts for the ’07-’08 season, while Vail continues to expand into the back bowls and Jackson eagerly awaits the return of a bigger, red aerial tram for the 2008-09 season.

But talk to any public relations or marketing coordinator at a ski area and the number one priority is introducing new individuals and families to the sport. And for most families and kids that do not reside near the mountains, that can be tough to achieve, especially considering the costs involved—gear, lift tickets, lodging and transportation. “The biggest challenge for us,” says Crested Butte communications director April Prout, “is bringing new people into the sport. You have to market to families and make it fun and easy. Once you get the kids hooked, you have mom and dad.”

Terrain parks and halfpipes, which now exist at nearly every ski area in the world, including in Europe, derived from snowboarders and the popularity of the Winter X Games. Places like Taos and Sun Valley, two traditional ski areas, recently built a terrain park and halfpipe, respectively, acknowledging the need and demand. These playgrounds, comprised of small and big jumps, street trails, picnic tables and fiberglass boxes, attract the youth and fulfill a massive niche in the industry. So much so, in fact, that two deep-rooted snowboard companies, Mervyn Manufacturing’s Lib Technologies and Palmer, entered the ski market within the last two years, each producing two different models of a limited amount of skis. Even snowboard companies, who once rebelled against anything skiing, recognize the augmentation and attraction of skiing as the two countercultures continue to seamlessly merge into the same or, at least, the similar.

For the average skier, Hattrup cites the technology and the complete redesign of a ski’s shape as a key component to the industry’s efforts to reinvent itself. “I used to ski on 207 cm GS skis, and now it’s rare for anyone to ski something longer than a 190.” Without a doubt, the evolution of the hour glass-shaped ski made it easier for less experienced skiers to have more fun. Instead of long, stiff skis, the novice or holiday skier now selects from a quiver ranging from 160 to 180 cm skis with a much wider platform allowing for easier turn initiation and off-piste domination. >>>



On the ground level, Metcalf points to rental equipment partnerships that encourage family participation by offering packaged pricing. Crested Butte, on the other hand, reintroduces the über-popular “Ski Free” program for 2007-08. Walk up to the lift ticket window starting November 15th and ski free until December 15th. Several resorts offer discounts at partner resorts, such as Intrawest’s Winter Park/Mary Jane, Steamboat Springs and Copper Mountain. Meanwhile the powder meccas of Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, made up of Alta, Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude, now offer one interconnect pass that works at all four areas. In addition, most ski areas aggressively advertise asyear-round destination resorts by building a network of mountain bike trails and parks with man-made features.

But as ski areas implement strategies to boost visits, the most significant challenge facing the industry today is the dramatic change in climate and its obvious effect on the environment in which we recreate. And no one company within the industry seems to be shouldering a heavier load of responsibility of reducing its carbon footprint than Aspen Skiing Company. From running snowcats on biodiesel, to using wind power to run chairlifts, to ski patrollers building a solar ski shack, Aspen has been a lever of change.

Aspen Skiing Company has spearheaded the campaign to educate skiers and all people on climate change and ways to preserve snow and the powder experience. “I think for decades that manufacturers and resorts have conveniently ignored it,” Metcalf says. Fortunately, other ski companies are following suit with an assortment of environmental campaigns, including Patagonia, Stockli and Head. “The environment is the basis of the sport—the snow, the mountains, the experience,” Metcalf continues. “If any one of those pieces fell away, we wouldn’t have the ski experience. The industry has only recently woken up to the fact that they require the environment to be in good health to stay in business.”

Mike Douglas agrees with Metcalf on global warming and its alarming effects on skiing and the environment, but raises another glaring issue—obesity. “People are freakin’ lazy, man. Technology has made it so that if the weather is minus 15 and blowing snow, people stay in and play video games and surf the Internet and watch TV. You see it everywhere you go, especially in North America.” According to the 2005 World Health Organization’s latest projections on obesity, approximately 1.6 billion adults (15 years and older) are overweight. It truly has evolved into a worldwide epidemic. And vice versa in Metcalf’s case as he notes that modern-day technology distracts the youth and acts as a competitor to increasing skier visits. “Compared to seven years ago, we’re replacing real community with a virtual community.”

Sitting in a corner booth in a cozy Mexican restaurant, I attempt to warm my frozen toes from the Sun Valley night before while eavesdropping on two 20-somethings rehashing their eventful evening the night prior. As much fun as those two appeared to have over the weekend, I was equally as surprised by the success of the three-day spectacle. How did a town tucked into a remote valley far from any major highways pull it off so well? The Honda Ski Tour left an indelible mark on Sun Valley due to the vision of a few men and a person like Nelson who listened to the beat of the industry.

Honda Ski Tour Ski Cross competitor, ambassador and Ketchum local Zach Crist and his older brother Reggie played a vital role in the organization and production of the event and for good reason. “I’ve been involved in the sport for 15 years as a pro,” says Zach, a former U.S. Ski Team member and 2001 Winter X Games Skiercross gold medalist. “I’ve seen it done so poorly for so long, and it takes people that have seen it done wrong enough times to help do it right.” It’s leadership and awareness in this industry that follows the same cyclical pattern. The Ski Tour, which returns in 2008, rekindled interest in the ski industry. But who knows how long it can retain its momentum? For those purists of the sport, like Hattrup and Douglas, whose physical and social makeup is carved by skiing, they’ll somehow figure ways to reinvent their passion.

This article appears in the Winter 2008 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.