There was a seismic shift in the works at the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) National Convention and Trade Show in San Diego, California last week. The energy was different—youthful and positive. Good things are happening on the slopes. The attendees of this year’s conference seem to be more in control of their own destiny than ever before and they understand what needs to be done. It tied in nicely with the conference theme of “Evolve,” and its focus on understanding and growing the youth market and business overall.

Sure, it was the same group of older, resort owners, managers, and staff who spent most of the time hanging together, but there’s another, growing group of younger people who are in touch with the shifting resort-attendee demographics and psychographics, and management is listening to them. And they’re the ones following through on the main agenda of bringing new people to the mountains and growing the resort business.

Things kicked off with NSAA President Michael Berry announcing that the 2002/03 season was, most likely, a record year of snowboarder and skier visits (the preliminary report looks good, but still waiting for a few resorts to add their numbers).

Despite a poor economy, questionable snowfall in the West during the middle of the season, and the threat of war, the overall efforts of individual resorts to grow their businesses are having a cumulative effect on the total resort market. This is just the result that Berry had predicted after launching the Growth Initiative several years ago.

How good a year was it? According to the Kottke National End Of Season Survey 2002/03 presented by Nolan Rosall of RRC Associates during one session, there were a projected 57.6-million resort visits, which is a 0.5-percent increase over the previous record of 57.3-million visits in 2000/01. Total snowboard visits grew 5.2 percent and now represent 29.6 percent of all resort visits.

Great snow on the East Coast and Midwest helped push those regions to record or near-record visit levels, more than offsetting the slightly lower numbers in the Rocky Mountains and Pacific West regions.

But could it be that resort managers are finally learning to take the snow out of the resort-visit equation? Funny idea, but think about it: With strong preseason-pass sales, aggressive marketing, and innovative in-season sales programs, it shouldn’t matter how much snow a resort has to attract people. Of course, it has to be open and have some snow, and the more snow there is, the generally better the results.

Good ideas that focus on getting people to the slopes were the subject of several different seminars through the four-day conference, and were also the focus of the Sales and Marketing Awards, where nine resorts were recognized for their proven success in growing the resort attendance. (See the related story about the awards.)

The first session discussing growing the business was called “Conversion…A View From The Top,” and focused on targeting beginner conversion and the experiences that NSAA Test Sites have had. The conversion numbers tell the story: More than two-million new people try skiing or snowboarding every year, and only fifteen percent actually stick with it. So to increase overall participation levels, resorts and the industry have to get more people to stay with the sports after they try them.

In the session, it was pointed out that learning programs with successful conversion involve getting the new customer on the snow for three or more days. Hunter Mountain President Russ Coloton said that his resort learned that its conversion rate was higher any time a customer went through a multiple lessons instead of just one. So Hunter priced three-time lessons more attractively than one-time lessons.

Other resorts have also taken the same approach, and heavily push three-day lessons packages over one-day lessons. One resort saw a 1,300-percent increase in three-day lessons while seeing a fiftteen-percent decrease in one-day lessons.

Bill Jensen, senior VP/COO of Vail, pointed out that his resort focuses on providing better service by treating people right on the slopes. If someone doesn’t take a lesson, Vail still gets instructors to help out when they’re trying to learn. Other resorts said they simply put instructors in the beginner area to help out anyone who’s trying to learn without a lesson.

Magic carpets were also hailed as major improvements to the learning experience, because beginners can ride them up the hill without the intimidation factor that comes with learning to get on and off chair lifts. Many agreed that magic carpets have drastically changed their beginner’s experiences.

In a follow-up session, the Conversion topic shifted from the actual first-time experience to marketing programs addressing the beginners. The use of web sites, e-mail blasts, group trips, and follow-up messages to beginners were all discussed.

“I’m going to make sure every beginner is e-mailed a picture of themselves in the lesson, so it gets there before they even get home that night,” said Brian Fairbank, CEO of Jiminy Peak, Massachusetts.

Jeff Boliba of Burton Snowboards pointed out that the social aspect of snowboarding and skiing is vital. People want to look good and fit in on the slopes. Something as simple as having rental boards with bumpers or big “rental” signs on them will make people stick out like sore thumbs. He encouraged resort operators to not make people stick out like that.

Before one of the keynote addresses, Jack Turner, creator of Snow Monsters, gave a ten-minute inspirational talk about the importance of looking toward the youth.

“This is the best time for our industry. The world seems to be a dangerous place and people want to lock up their kids, but it’s really safer than ever. You’re the ones focused on the development of the industry and you have to look to the future, not just the short term,” he told the audience.

Then he showed some stats on how much consumers spend on skiing and snowboarding, depending on when they get started in the sports. If kid starts snowboarding at age ten, they will add $52,000 to industry over their lifetime. But if they start at age 25, they’ll only spend $14,000.

He ended by pointing out that Walt Disney built Disney World and the Disney Empire, and created Mickey Mouse. Although Walt isn’t around any more, Mickey lives on thanks to kids. “You’re going to die, but people keep having kids. They’re the future,” he said. Then added: “Growing old is mandatory, but growing up is optional.” He implored the group to keep the fun in the sports and to focus on the future, and they’ll reap the rewards in the long-run.

With two strong keynote addresses from action sports leaders like Quiksilver and Vans, the message of focusing on the youth by staying true to it was hammered in to the mostly balding, gray-haired attendees, and seemed surprisingly well received. With a new focus on the youth, continuation of many of these marketing programs, and incorporation of some new innovative ideas, the resort business is poised to grow even more in the coming years (of course, more good snowfall would help).

Mark your calendars now. Next year’s NSAA National Convention and Trade Show will be held in Savannah, Georgia, May 23—26, 2004, and it will be in Scottsdale, Arizona in 2005.