Little Ski Areas Working Together to Find Solutions to Big Business
Ski Areas In Decline
For thirty years there has been a trend in the ski industry in America, ski areas are closing. In 1985 there were 727 ski areas open for business. Last season only 468 opened to skiers and riders. Many of the large resorts have consolidated under mega managers. Too many small resorts have simply gone away. A 2015 article in The Huffington Post stated “much like megastores have replaced small independent retailers, mega-resorts forced out the little guys.”
Of the ski areas that are left, well over half are barely making it or destined to fail. At last year’s Snow Industries America trade show, ski industry veteran Bill Jensen said that 150 ski areas are in their sunset period and likely to fail. He described 150 more as “survivor” status, just barely getting by. Jensen is more than an expert. He spent 11 years as an executive with Vail resorts, was the CEO of mega-manager Intrawest for 8 years, and is currently a partner and CEO at Telluride, Colorado.
However, many ski areas are working together to create solutions that look a lot like the big players, but with an independent, community feel.
Big Solutions to Big Business
The Mountain Playground Group is “a consortium of like-minded community and independent ski areas that work together to reduce expenses while increasing efficiencies and profits as well as bringing marketing and additional exposure.” So, what the heck does that mean? CEO of the Mountain Rider’s Alliance Jamie Schectman says that the group is using innovation to create a solution. “We are identifying cost cutting areas, looking into insurance captives, we’ve partnered with an app company to create push notifications, and one of our ski areas is going to become a laboratory for a new snow retention concept. As we grow and bring awareness to the consortium, new opportunities are presenting themselves.” These are the kind of strategies that the big ski areas employ, but implemented with a distinct attention to the community feel of the ski areas in the group.
One of the big problems facing small ski areas is access to capital. The big resorts have vast resources for infrastructure improvements. Mega managers with a dozen large ski areas can easily negotiate volume
discounts with equipment manufacturers. Small ski areas often need just a snowmobile or a new engine for the rope tow. By working together, they are able to communicate needs and time purchases to take advantage of the group’s purchasing power.
And the group doesn’t stop there. They encourage improvements that help fix energy costs and reduce their carbon footprints. One MPG member, Mt Abram in Maine, became the first ski area in America to install airless snowmaking guns and installed an 803 panel solar array that is supplying 70% of their power.
Getting the word out
Big resorts spend millions on marketing to attract visitors to their mountains. From national TV campaigns to expensive online banners, they have the resources to get the word out. By selling big ticket items like lift tickets and lodging the big resorts have driven up the cost of online advertising. Ad servers like Google charge advertisers based on how profitable a click could be. At the big resorts that can be very profitable indeed and a small ski area just can’t compete. In fact, many small community hills have no marketing budget at all. By sharing practices and resources they are able to get more effective marketing strategies at a fraction of the cost.
So, what is the message that the group is trying to convey?
Dave Scanlan, MRA co-founder and general manager at Mt Abram says they are trying to “reach those that are looking for a smaller, cooler, funky down home vibe but with dependable skiing.” Chris Allen is the general manager at Bald Mountain, ID and says “we have all the terrain that you can find on a big mountain, it’s just smaller.” Phoenix Mountain Ski Area in British Columbia calls itself “The Best Little Mountain in BC!!”
In other words, community ski hills have some really great skiing!
The little ski areas are more than just fun places to ski. They provide a place for small communities to gather and recreate. They provide a place for families on a budget to learn the sport. While lift tickets at many mega resorts will eclipse $175 this season, the most expensive lift ticket within the Mountain Playground Group is $55.
The Mountain Playground Card
One of the most exciting features of the group for skiers is the Mountain Playground Card.
Big resort managers offer passes that are good at all of the resorts they own. They are passes designed to get skiers to stay loyal to one group. It’s big money when you own the mountains. The mega managers own the lodging, the restaurants, the bars and the coffee shops. They provide endless opportunities for spending.
The little resorts don’t have those benefits. They are in small communities where they provide local jobs and support local business. The Mountain Playground Card is their answer to big pass programs, but with a very big difference. Instead of creating a program that keeps customers away from the competition, they embrace the partnership and encourage visits to other small areas.
Part discount card and part badge of honor, the card is supported and accepted at 9 small ski areas (7 in the US and 2 in Canada) with more expected to join throughout the season. The card entitles holders to amazing discounts at member areas. Discounted lift tickets, two for ones and even free skiing are all among the benefits. The deep value for the $29 cost of the card is a sign that the ski areas are excited to be working together. The card also comes with over 20 brand discounts on everything from gear to lodging. This level of benefits is just as attractive as the passes offered by the big boys, at a fraction of the cost. Holders of the card are just as excited to show their support of the independents as they are for the great benefits.
Being Good Neighbors
For a ski area, being a part of the Mountain Playground Group is more than a discount card and buying power. Each area is screened before joining to ensure that they meet the group’s “primary tenets of community stewardship, environmental sustainability and excellent guest services.” This solution helps elevate business practices and ensure a great customer experience.
As big business continues to dominate the ski industry the little players have found big solutions to stay viable. By reducing costs and increasing visibility they not only remain viable in a business sense, they also preserve an authentic Winter experience and make it accessible to many more families and users that don’t have the big money for a mega resort.