With its plan to build more than a dozen skateparks around the country, Vans’ purchase of High Cascade Snowboard Camp, located on the flanks of Mt. Hood, seems to be part of a larger strategy for the brand.

The purchase is the latest step toward transforming snowboarding summer camps into a highly desirable product testing and marketing opportunity for major brands both in and outside the snowboard industry.

“The purchase gives us a chance to relatively informally spend more time with our core customers,” says Gary Schoenfeld, president and CEO of Vans. regarding the ten- to 24-year-old snowboarder frequently found in the pipes high on Hood’s Palmer Glacier. “It’s also a very good fit with us. The kids do stuff like wakeboarding and mountain biking, all part of our Triple Crown tour and all the stuff Vans is about.”

Schoenfeld declines to discuss the financial details of the deal–except to say that it was a paid for with Vans stock. But the asking price for the camp was known to have been three-million dollars, and insiders put the value at around two-million.

Vans denies that the purchase will squeeze out other snowboard sponsors. “We are very inclusive of other sponsors at our events and will continue to be at High Cascade,” says Schoenfeld.

In fact, the financial and product input made by sponsors is essential to the camps.

“Camp sponsorship is the second-biggest item on our marketing budget after our team,” says Sims Marketing Director Dave Wray.

Like the other five snowboard brands sponsoring High Cascade and the six at Windells, Sims is required to supply a full fleet of demo product worth about 15,000 dollars, plus about 5,000 dollars in giveaways at each camp. This is in addition to the 10,000 dollars in cash snowboard brands are charged at High Cascade for pipe access, banners, logos on the vans, and a link on the camp’s Web site. The cost is 5,000 dollars at Windells.

So, what’s the total price tag for a brand like Sims? About 75,000 dollars. But Wray says to derive maximum benefit the investment has to be nurtured.

“Staff is the key to making the expenditure work,” says Wray. “Our B-team riders act as coaches and monitors and if the kids think they are cool guys, that’s what sells the products. We sell about a dozen boards per session to kids who go back to their hometown and influence numerous other kids to take an interest in Sims products.”

But the straight marketing component, valuable as it is, is now perceived as just one of the benefits the camps deliver.

“Buying the camp is marketing budget we will eventually earn back,” says Schoenfeld. “But we also get numerous intangible benefits such as the ability to do more efficient product testing, and the ability to work more closely with our team riders. The far easier free flow of information and opinion from which we will benefit makes us a better company. Internally, everybody is totally pumped. It’s hard to put a value on that.”

With every session sold out, and the camps expanding the number, timing, and age range of sessions as well as their physical facilities, Vans is unlikely to make any significant changes in running the camp. The key structural change will be to revamp High Cascade’s skating facilities using the same crew that recently built the Vans skatepark in Orange County, California.

But the hardcore image of the camps may be slightly altered by the demand from mainstream “lifestyle” brands to get their hands on and products in front of, the camp’s trendsetting snowboarders.

This past summer Sunny Delight, a soft-drink brand owned by Proctor & Gamble became the first non-snowboard company allowed to sponsor High Cascade.

In return for the 12,000 dollars and 5,000 units of their new Eclipse drink, they weree allowed to conduct focus-group sessions with a total of 32 kids and staff.

High Cascade will continue searching for a title lifestyle sponsor–as it was before the Vans purchase, according to General Manager Victoria Mendalouski. She confirms initial discussions with a snack company.

Tim Windell, owner of Windell’s, is also thinking long and hard about signing up lifestyle sponsors. He says this year a soft-drink company offered him 100,000 dollars to be major sponsor of the camp.

“As a company with barely one-million dollars in turnover, it was a pretty tempting offer, but I turned them down. If I sell out to the guy waving the biggest check, I loose credibility not only for the camp, but with myself.

“We are being approached a lot, but it’s a question of finding a lifestyle product that has the right association,” continues Windell. “Obviously some products would be far more suitable than others and it’s important we keep it real.”

The ski resort industry is also looking for ways to cash in on the camps’ cachet. The previous owners of High Cascade will apparently be looking at opportunities to set up High Cascade training centers at resorts around the country.

Tim Windell is less keen on the idea: “Medium-sized areas without snowboarding programs seem to think it would be a good marketing move for them to have a Windell’s facility. But it’s unlikely they can match our facilities and the way we operate. It’s the same problem as with lifestyle sponsors. We don’t want to loose our core focus and don’t want to erode our brand.”–Matthew Kreitman