Snow Industry Launches Campaign to Attract Children

WHISTLER, British Columbia — With less than a year to go before America hosts the 2002 Winter Games, a coalition of heavyweight snow sports organizations is preparing to launch a grassroots campaign to get more children on the slopes — thus increasing the pool of future Olympians — and at the same time reverse the stagnant growth that has beset the industry for nearly two decades.

Under the auspices of the Ski Tour Operators Association (SKITOPS), a non-profit trade group of specialty travel companies, a wide variety of organizations has formed a unique task force to “share the passion of the mountains” with the young people of North America. Included are representatives of ski resorts, ski and snowboarding manufacturers, instructors, skiing publications, video producers, travel marketing interests and ski show promoters.

The impetus for the campaign came from a study commissioned by the Snowsports Industries of America (SIA), an association of manufacturers and apparel makers, showing that 45 percent of parents would ski more if it were “easier to include children.”

And a new survey by the Tour Operators Association, released last weekend during the group’s annual Network trade show and conference at Whistler confirms that family winter vacations seem to be on a downward spiral. Other industry research shows that the average age of skiers is creeping upwards — hovering around 39.

So the strategy is simple: Get the kids on board — or on the boards — and the parents will follow in their tracks.

Bruce Rosard, co-chairman of the SKITOPS Industry Vision Committee, says the group hopes to enlist the voluntary help of athletes, ski and snowboarding instructors, resort marketers, travel planners and “virtually anyone who has a stake in snowsports” to become mentors and motivators with schools, churches, synagogues, public recreation centers, and various youth organizations.

Concurrently, the task force intends to develop a Web site listing children’s programs, events and special offers aimed at enticing kids and families to share the joys of winter in the high country. Thus, the working name of the effort is “Mountain Clubs.”

Although snowboarding provided a shot in the arm for the ski industry a decade ago, most studies have shown that it was barely enough to offset the high turnover of skiers. Thus, it was a wash as far as growing the pie of snowsport enthusiasts. And while most ski areas foster school and junior development programs in their local, rural communities, they seldom have much impact on metropolitan areas.

The SIA study got the attention of industry supporters with a stunning economic comparison: The lifetime “value” of a skier who begins skiing at the age of 25 is $14,466, whereas the value of a skier who begins at age 10 is $52,024. That means the industry could nearly quadruple its returns by bringing more young people into the fold.

“It’s not exactly rocket science,” says Rosard, who is also president of Moguls Ski & Snowboard Tours based in Boulder, Colorado. “The earlier people learn to ski or snowboard, the better they become. The better they become the more they ski and snowboard.”

The targets of this unprecedented grassroots campaign are children and youth from ages 6 to 18. “Our focus in sharing our collective passion for the mountains is to emphasize fun, recreation, education, physical fitness, the environment and personal growth,” says Rosard.

Part of the effort will involve compiling and promoting the existing programs of the industry. For example, many ski areas, both large and small, offer free or low-cost skiing and boarding for children 12 and under, free or inexpensive lessons and gear rentals, and other perks such as free lodging for youngsters who are accompanied by parents. “But it has been difficult for us working individually to get the message out to the public at large,” says John MMorgan, co-chairman of the committee and national sales manager of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming.

Hoping that the team approach will command more attention, the committee is poised to reach out on several levels. Apart from SKITOPS, participants include SIA, the National Ski Area Association (NSAA), Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA), The Skiing Company (publishers of Ski, Skiing, Freeze and Transworld Snowboarding and owner of the Warren Miller ski film productions), Snow Monsters (a video company), Ski Area Management (a trade magazine), Mountain Travel Symposium, EM&M Consumer Ski Shows, BEWI Consumer Ski Shows, and Ski Maine for Kids.

Rosard says that additional groups will be invited to join as the campaign gathers momentum. And he emphasizes that this isn’t a one-shot, quick-fix attempt. “It’s a two- to three-year project at a minimum just to get it started. We can’t re-invent the sport and the industry overnight. We need continuity and long-term commitments.” But he hopes that the first elements of the campaign can be rolled out in time for the next ski season, which will get extra attention from the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. “We need to leverage the visibility of skiers such as (1998 freestyle Gold Medalist) Jonny Moseley, who really connects with children,” he says.

Rosard notes that the cost of skiing, widely touted as the reason for the sport’s lack of growth, is actually the least significant barrier to participation. More important are social and logistical issues, which respondents in the SIA study cited as “nobody to go with,” “not fun unless good (proficient in technique),” and “hard to learn.”

In recent years, the industry has made near-revolutionary strides in developing user-friendly equipment and in teaching people to ski and snowboard more quickly than in the past. The new shaped or parabolic skis are shorter and much easier to turn, and instructors can actually get beginners to negotiate lower intermediate slopes on their first day. But industry studies show that the public is still largely unfamiliar with the recent advances in technology.

The Ski Tour Operators Association (Web site: http://www.skitops.com) consists of 25 independently-owned ski tour operators in the U.S. and Canada, many of which are family-owned companies that have been in existence for 20 years or longer. The group is not affiliated with any resort, manufacturer or media organization.