Year-Round Riding Coming Soon

European and Japanese snowdomes give hint of what’s to come.

Pretty soon, a place near you will always have snow on the ground and you’ll be able to ride 365 days a year. The whopper-sized miracles that will make this happen are called snowdomes, and snowboard retailers (as well as everyone else in the winter-sports industry) stand to benefit.

As freeride experiences go, snowdomes suck the big chilly one. A couple-hundred yards of fifteen-degree slope. Two minutes up the poma for twenty seconds sliding down the inside of what looks like an aircraft hanger.

But this might just be what it takes to get the United States heading back to the real slopes. And if you’re lucky enough to run a store near one (or, even better, in one), then kick back and enjoy the ride. Just look at what’s happening in Europe.

It’s clear the former music retailer who owns SnowWorld in Zoetermeer-a grim little town outside The Hague-is onto a good thing. Holland is arguably the flattest place in the universe and while residents ice-skate for miles on the frozen canals, there are no mountains.

But Zoetermeer is in the middle of a densely populated region with Amsterdam and Rotterdam within 25 miles. The dome needs approximately 400,000 paying customers annually to generate the ten-million dollars per year it needs to stay profitable. And it’s getting them.

The Dutch are a social bunch, so more than 50 percent of the tickets are sold to work-related groups-many as large as a couple-hundred people.

Standing around drinking strong beer and eating fattening food for a few hours plays a big part to the dome’s appeal. But for a good proportion of the members of these groups-and for the many smaller family groups-this is their first experience on snow.

When snowdomes are everywhere they’ll become the main way urbanites learn the basics of carving down a slope. Or so the plans go.

Martin Smith, general manager of the Tamworth SnowWorld located a dozen miles northeast of Birmingham, England sees 250,000 visitors per year. “With the British economy strong, it’s relatively cheap to fly to the Alps for a week in the snow,” he says. “Beginners, be they skiers or boarders, don’t want to waste the first couple of days falling. So they come here. We might see them three times in the weeks before they go on vacation and then we’ll never see them again. We even offer a complete rental/instruction package where we guarantee we’ll keep teaching them until they can make basic turns down the length of our 150-meter slope.”

Forty percent of Tamworth visitors are taking lessons from official instructors and another large percentage are being taught by friends or family. During the entire winter, the dome is at 100-percent capacity compared to about 65-percent capacity in the summer.

Local high schools have been offering optional lessons to students for the past few years. As a result, more than half of the British junior snowboard team are kids from nearby towns.

And even if only a small percentage of beginners get hooked on snow, pretty soon they’re going to be ready to switch from rental. Whatever product they make their first stumbling turns on is likely to be the brand they buy. Which is why Burton has the entire rental program at SnowWorld locked up.

Tamworth closes its slope to skiers on Tuesday and Saturday evenings, puts on the flashing light, cranks up the speaker system, drags out some portable kickers while keeping both its bars open. Special events occur regularly. Recently, Ministry of Sound, one of London’s top DJ crews and club promoters, took over for the evening.

“This is basically the core of the small British snowboard scene,” says Jeremey Sladon of Snowboard Asylum, the snowboard section of specialty outdoor chain Ellis Brigham, which has the lucrative concession at the Dome. “People drive several hours for snowboard nights. A couple hundred people a night show up at the start of the season and turnout stays deccent year round.”

There are eight Snowboard Asylums in the United Kingdom, and although the Tamworth store is smaller than other stores in the chain, it still matches the sales of the company’s Covent Garden store in London-home to some of the sexiest and most expensive retail real estate in the country.

Snowboard Asylum will also assume the retail concessions at two new snowdomes being built near London and Liverpool.

“In our second year we sold 250 boards, with Burton and Hammer as our main lines,” says Sladon. “Although we’re a 'shop in a shop’ with Ellis Brigham selling skis, the snowboarding stuff we sell makes a 50-percent contribution to the overall bottom line. Skiers are almost always beginners, but with snowboarding we get business from beginners buying their first board and from experienced snowboarders here for the evening.”

The store also hosts two demos at the start of the season, which is virtually the only way the British public can test boards on snow.

Snowboard Asylum does no rental and Sladon is adamant that they don’t want the business due to the labor and size requirements. But the store is there to benefit when riders switch from rental to purchase.

“Our location gives us all the advantages of a resort shop,” Sladon adds. “But at the same time we’re relatively close to the Birmingham city center which brings the regular urban business too.”

The U.S. Model

Snowdomes will soon be on U.S. soil. Both The Gotcha Glacier in Anaheim, California and SnowValley in South Windsor, Connecticut announced their separate snowdomes will open in 2000, despite neither project breaking ground yet.

These projects are an evolution beyond their European counterparts-SnowValley has a construction budget of around 300-million dollars (the British domes due to start construction have budgets of around 25-million). SnowValley will feature runs that are three times the height and length of the European model and will also offer facilities for numerous other sports.

Of course, the company behind SnowValley could be much too optimistic and domes the size of Gotcha Glacier, with its 50-million-dollar budget, could become the standard. Michael Gerard, chief of operations at Glacier Sports, is talking about opening sixteen more sites, but talk is a lot cheaper than a snowdome.

But both U.S. organizations insist these projects will be moneymakers. As Tom Stewart, the man behind SnowValley explains: “The key will be our ski and snowboard school. We can generate enough volume to teach kids cheaply and work closely with local schools offering lessons to anyone over five years old. In effect, we’re going to become the incubator for the local resorts.”

Whatever the optimal size and the speed with which they get constructed, you can bet that within ten years there will be a snowdome in every major urban area of the United States. Whether they become the hot alternative to skateparks and Nintendo thumb cramps remains to be seen, but as the European models prove, the concept is already a winner.