Growing with Beginners
Innovative work is being done to convert more beginners into lifelong participants, but trying approaches that could disrupt the industry is risky. For large companies like Vail Resorts, instruction is a big part of the business; it generated $177,748,000 in 2017 which was up 24.1 percent from 2016. With earnings this significant, it is hard to consider major changes even if there would be long-term benefits.
In addition to demographic, economic, and cultural challenges, the loss of so many small local resorts has made it more difficult and expensive for beginners. Investing in new backcountry or terrain parks can produce quicker returns than new beginner conversion programs. In 1994 NSAA formed a task force to to study the relationship between instruction and drop outs; unfortunately the conversion rate has not increased much since then.
Participation in major sports is declining, as the popularity of digital gaming increases. A new augmented reality book claims that boys will have 10,000 hours of gaming and 10,000 of porn by the time they get to college. The good news is participation in skiing is relatively stable.
As few as one-third of beginners take a lesson, and about half of those are children. Participation is affected by the availability, costs, expectations, and quality of instruction. Greatly increasing the number of beginners who take lessons would be helpful, but they need to have a good experience; as many as 12 percent of beginners do not have a good lesson experience.
Many beginners think they will quickly perform like everyone they see on the hill. It is not unusual for them to head to a slope beyond their ability for their first run, which often results in fear, frustration, and accidents. This can be more of a problem when friends or families teach beginners; they often start on or quickly go to terrain that is too difficult. If it were not for the Skiers Safety Act, this would be a major risk management issue, not just a growth problem, and resorts would create many procedures to guide beginners so that liability would be reduced.
Providing information before beginners arrive will create more accurate expectations by helping them understand what the first visit is like for most people. In addition to a link on the resort’s home page, apps can be created to walk beginners through the process at each resort. Clear signage should also guide them when they arrive.
What they need
First-timers need a lot of information: how to dress, where to go, how to put on equipment, what slope to start on, what to do, how they are doing, and when to progress to more advanced terrain. Some will want to do it on their own, but in addition to making information available, the best way to ensure success is with hosts to guide them. It is not unusual for beginners to have painful feet or be too cold because they did not dress properly, and they don’t know how to fix the problem.
Host programs can guide beginners from the parking lot to the novice slope with just the right amount of assistance. They need to be trained so they know what to look for and how to help. Hosts also can promote the benefits of beginner programs. Hosts make a huge improvement in the first-time experience, as well as create customer enthusiasm and loyalty for the resort resulting in positive social media promotion.
If lessons are not sold close to the ticket window, customers may not even realize they are available or see another long line and decide not to wait anymore. During busy periods, lessons may not even be available, or only large group lessons are left. Beginner group lessons are often taught by new instructors, but it can be challenging for even experienced instructors to handle large group lessons when some can barely walk and others are bored waiting for the slow ones. Team teaching is a good solution if the staff is available. It is important for instructors to notice if students are bored and give them more challenging tasks.
Selling lessons online can create a smoother experience at the resort, but it also creates a lot of problems when people are late because of bad weather, traffic, or delays getting a family ready. If customers miss their lessons, it can create a negative and stressful situation, credit card charge back problems, and bad social media comments. It is such a big problem that the largest tubing operation at Camelback does not take reservations. Keeping a large number of instructors available for walk up business is the solution, but it takes a very large staff.
Beginner programs that offer a group of lessons, lift tickets and rentals, then provide equipment or lift passes discounts upon completion have been successful. But even with a discounted price, the large up front cost limits their reach. Programs that give discounts with a group of visits, then provide a large incentive upon completion would reach many more beginners. Promotions and and surveys can be offered along the way to keep them returning.
A large element in success is having the proper terrain and lifts for beginners. Some resorts have beginner slopes that are too steep with no run out. The transition from beginner slopes to the next green runs can be very abrupt, which creates problems especially when beginners proceed before they have a solid stop or turn. Marketing plans that promote great beginner terrain and programs are vital to the growth of the industry; the more that is invested in beginners, the more likely conversion targets will be achieved.
Lessons from technology
Apple and Google generated more revenue and grew much faster by allowing independent software developers create apps for their mobile devices rather than doing it all internally. As a result they quickly had a large marketplace of options with a wide product mix of prices and quality for customers to choose. This same approach could provide more lessons for beginners with a wider range of prices, quality, and features. It would help keep creative and talented instructors teaching longer with greater opportunities to earn a better living.
People choose restaurants, lodging, and other services based on online reviews. Providing profiles and ratings of instructors would allow customers to choose what fits their needs.This not just the future; it is already what customers expect. Having a very large staff of instructors can help, but it is expensive and hard to do. The technology model would be a major transition from the way most instruction is provided, and there are already instances of it working.
Examples of independent schools can be found in Europe and to a smaller degree in this country. Many large resorts in Europe provide a list of several independent schools and professionals on their websites. This ensures more customers can get lessons when they want, at a price they will pay, and it reduces management expenses for the resorts.
Many coaching programs in this country are independent, but there are also independent instruction programs like Blizzard Ski and Snowboard School, Winter Walden Ski and Snowboard Club, Lyon Ski and Snowboard School, and North American Ski Training Center. These programs bring in groups of students and instructors, so they increase resort business and instruction.
Some smaller resort schools are independently owned as concessions, which can produce much larger schools. Two examples of this are at Mt. Holly and Pine Knob resorts in southeast Michigan. They have had the largest schools in the area for more than forty years that provide a lot of lessons especially for large groups of schools children in the evenings. These schools offer a unique teaching approach that is very effective at creating return business. Instructors stay longer than most schools because of the fun culture that spreads through the staff to the customers. Entrepreneurial spirit drives this level of success, and the resorts don’t have all the costs to hire, insure, outfit, train, pay, or schedule the staff.
Lessons from the past
Instruction provided a competitive advantage and was highly promoted in the past. During the nineteen twenties and thirties, European instructors came to this country and started schools. They brought their skills, personalities, and a variety of approaches that would draw customers to their resorts. Even if they were teaching a particular method, such as the Arlberg or French, they could make changes to what they taught or how they taught to make their programs more attractive than their competition; it was very American.
Otto Schniebs was one of the most influential instructors in this country’s history; he made Dartmouth the center of alpine skiing and founded the American Ski School in Lake Placid. Using his approach, people were able to learn in a few days what would have taken them months with other methods. Austrian instructors at the time made learning a chore; they were exacting taskmasters at each level before progressing. But Otto made learning fun, so it became a way of life rather than just a sport. This was a period of creativity and competition in instruction that produced benefits for the resorts with great programs.
Resorts don’t promote instruction programs as a unique competitive advantage and leave much of their approach and training to PSIA/AASI. Instruction can still seem like a chore today with a culture that the rigorous technical details of certification can produce. Creative instructors like Otto now have little opportunity to create an innovative new approach. Many customers today do not even think instruction is necessary, or that it is the same at every resort.
GLM, Perfect Turn, Breakthrough on Skis by Lito Tejada-Flores, Visible Skiing, Terrain Based Learning, and Burton Ringlet are more recent examples of programs that were successful. Customers should choose the program they prefer rather than having one approach for the nation, especially if the success of that approach is not directly related to increasing conversions or resort business. Online reviews can now allow customers to discover the successful approaches that they would like to try. Even if having one consistent approach was the goal, relying on a group of high level skiers who spend a lot of time teaching instructors new technical trends is not the most effective way for a business to develop an approach for teaching large numbers of beginners every day. Returning to a more competitive process when instruction was a major part of a resort’s marketing will generate a creative marketplace of options for customers.
Dave Rowan, the founder of Ski Area Management, knew that the loss of so many small local resorts over the years would slow the growth of the sport. Having fewer beginners can be offset by keeping more of the beginners we do have with instruction that is better, cheaper, and more available. Growth will require bold and disruptive action that provides beginners with better marketing, information, guidance, terrain, lessons, and more independent schools to create a marketplace of options. Then positive social media will help to increase the number of beginners. More great instruction, especially for beginners, has a large impact on conversions that can finally start to grow the sport.