Stephen Wood: It's not lapsed skiers we need, it's families
Saturday 15 October 2011
Last week, I drew attention to the excitement among UK ski businesses about the "lapsed skiers"– said to number as many as four million – who could be drawn back into the sport. I hate to dampen their enthusiasm about this new strategy for boosting skier numbers, but it is only a short-term expedient. The problem is actuarial: "lapsed skiers" have fewer years of winter sports left in them than the group previously targeted in recruitment drives: children. If you want new recruits, best get them young.
A couple of years ago Rob Katz, the CEO of Vail Resorts, now (with the decline of Intrawest) the most powerful snow resort business in North America, described children as "critical for the industry right now". And he didn't mean just because of the new blood they provide. How many of the skiers who lapsed did so because they had children? Small kids can compromise their parents' skiing pleasure. As Katz, a father of two, pointed out: "If our kids are having a good time, everyone's having a good time. If they're not, nobody is."
A facility such as the Treehouse (treehousekids club.com) in Aspen Snowmass – which I visited last season – is the sort of thing that's needed to give both generations a good time. Not that there is another facility quite like the Treehouse. Opened in late 2007, it has a floor area of 2,322 square metres, more than one-third of the size of Liverpool FC's football pitch and big enough, potentially, to accommodate 600 children; built at a cost of US$17m (£10.5m) it was the biggest single investment ever at Snowmass, ski lifts apart.
The Treehouses's greatest asset is that everything a child needs – and everything that a parent needs for the child – can be found under one roof, including lift tickets (plus rental equipment for under-fives). And as any parent who has had to deliver kids of different ages to different locations at a resort knows, the fact that the Treehouse caters for children aged between seven weeks and seven years is a big attraction, too.
What the smallest kids get during the day is childcare, in the Treehouse and outside, where they are ferried around in bright-red, four-seater buggies. From the age of 30 months, skiing can be included in the day's activities. For older children the indoor facilities include the alpine climbing room, with its tricky ascents. The après ski scene is in the Eagle room, where children and parents can snack, play football and hockey games, and watch movies. Should the parents want to slip off for a quiet dinner, that's OK: the Treehouse stays open until 10pm.
It's good for kids. Sue Way, director of children's programmes at Snowmass, admits that "some kids are crying on the way in", but adds that "some are crying on the way out". It's good for parents, and it's good for the resort: putting a pre-school child into the Treehouse for a full day costs a not inconsiderable $149 (about £100 at tourist exchange rates).
ppp In the doldrums of recession, with new skiers hard to find, the ski business has to focus on raising more revenue from existing skiers. So for example a $20 add-on to the normal lift pass at the Colorado resort of Copper Mountain allows the pass-holder to jump the queue at the main lifts. There are bigger margins in retail, thanks to those skiers who will pay royally for premium skiwear and equipment, often merely on the grounds that "Chanel" or "Ferrari" is printed on it.
I am not sure, though, that the skiwear company Killy has got the right strategy for its £800 jacket, new for this season. It is called "Gold". The curious thing is that it comes only in black. Is this an example of "stealth wealth", or perverse proof that all that glisters isn't gold?
A much more ostentatiously bling thing is the Gold Ski Pass produced by the luxury jeweller Tiffany & Co for the US Ski and Snowboard Association. If I counted down the list at ussa.org accurately, it entitles the holder to ski at 257 different US resorts in the 2011/12 season (which, to get your money's worth, would involve skiing two almost every day through the winter). The pass costs $10,000 (£6,670) and only 400 will be offered. But contrary to appearances, it is not designed to make a fat profit. All of the revenue goes towards the cost of training the elite skiers and snowboarders of the US national team.
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