January 29, 2018

Ski groups are a growing portion of resort business

Racers await turns at the 70+ Ski Club NASTAR race at Okemo which saw 41 men and women race and a 90-year old take a Silver NASTAR pin. (Photo by Karen Lorentz)

 

LUDLOW — Alison Dvorak’s family averages six trips a year with a Norwich, Connecticut, ski club.

On Jan. 7, she found herself the trip leader and up at 4 a.m. to check in people loading a motor coach for a three-hour trip to Okemo. Arriving at 8:30 a.m., she visited the Group Sales Office to get lift tickets and maps while an Okemo staffer boarded the bus to greet guests, detail conditions and answer questions.

“Our trips are a great deal and less expensive than driving and much easier and more fun,” Dvorak said.

Each of the club’s day trips cost $65 per person for skiing and transportation. Muffins and coffee, cookies, movies, a drawing for a free trip, a stop for dinner, and meeting new people make the trips fun.

Annual dues are $25 for a family, making club trips “the best thing and doable for families and those without skiing partners to have a good time and ski. Plus we have a ski swap sale, weekend and weeklong trips, and appreciation days,” Dvorak said.

Ski clubs have long been a significant source of business for Vermont ski areas, and while most resorts keep visitation numbers close to the vest, they acknowledge groups are more diverse and the nature of group business has expanded, especially for destination areas that also host groups year-round. The minimum number of people to receive group discounts ranges from 15 to 25, and often increases with greater numbers participating.

The Norwich Club is a member of the Connecticut Ski Council, which has 44 member clubs and a total of 30,000 people, said President Jonathan Houck. CSC organizes a pre-buy ticket program for clubs, appreciation days, and several events.

By purchasing ski lift tickets in bulk in advance — $1.2 million worth this year — “the council passes on discounted prices to member clubs that make skiing very affordable,” Houck said, noting a great many of New England trips are taken to Vermont.

The council also arranges for participating ski areas to offer “appreciation” days with deeply discounted tickets available to club members.

CSC organizes a Snow Ball fundraiser, a race series, a free learn-to day for ages 5 to 18, and a three-day spring trip — this year to Okemo. Some 250 to 300 members usually attend, Houck said.

Each club offers trips that vary from New England day and overnight trips by motor coach or car to weeklong trips to Western ski areas and other countries.

In addition, there are 12 lodges owned by clubs in Vermont — five alone in Ludlow — with overnight cost of “$35 per person, tops” Houck said. Other benefits include discounts at shops, lodges, and other businesses.

The New Jersey Ski & Snowboard Council similarly offers members discounted lift tickets to Eastern ski areas, including nine in Vermont; council trips open to all council club members; and shared lodging at lodges in Vermont. The Hoboken (NJ) Ski Club recently tweeted weekend NJSSC Appreciation Days at Killington Fri. $47, Sat./Sun. $52; Pico: Fri. $37 Sat./Sun. $42; Okemo: Fri. $51, Sun $56; and Jay Peak: Sun $47.

With tickets nearing or topping $100 per day, the purchase power of councils is significant. The discounted costs of skiing combined with the camaraderie and social life make skiing and snowboarding convenient, affordable, and appealing for thousands on the East Coast, Houck noted.

Resort perspectives

BJ Donohue, sales director, said Okemo hosts bus groups, ski clubs, corporate groups, ski councils, and groups put together by tour operators, families, businesses and others. His staff handles everything from arrangements for day or overnight group trips to greeting group arrivals.

Group business extends to meals, lodgings, banquets, meetings, outings, and social events and is year-round now, not just in winter. Groups stay at the mountain, nearby, and at club lodges with some arriving by motor coach and others by car, Donohue said.

“Group sales contributes anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of our overall retail ticket sales,” said Jessica Sechler, Burke Mountain’s director of marketing and sales. “Group business helps to mitigate the up-and-down patterns of the day tripper.”

Sechler said Burke “primarily focused on capturing day groups” prior to the addition of the new slopeside Burke Hotel and Convention Center. Now Burke is seeing “a big boom in sales interests across all segments” and group business is becoming a more valuable and reliable source of income during the winter months.

While most groups come from Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Massachusetts, she noted hosting a ski club from King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, this season and seeing a growing interest in children’s birthday parties, family reunions, and even retirement and holiday parties.

“We have a high retention rate for groups, and we are always signing up new business. Group business plays a role in ticket sales, but it is more impactful in lodging and food and beverage,” Bolton Valley spokesman Josh Arneson said of the Bolton resort’s growth in winter group business.

“We see a good mixture of groups,” he added. “We have the traditional ski clubs and regional tour operators bringing adult and youth groups. We also have a few family reunion groups that return each year. Recently we have seen local organizations planning parties at Bolton Valley, sometimes for as many as 200 people. We’ve been hosting more corporate functions and parties, and these usually also include skiing for the guests.”

Also, the after-school program sees groups totaling about 2,000 students.

Killington and Pico also host overnight and day trips for groups from schools, colleges and clubs to tour operators, corporate outings, and reunions. They come from “all over New England, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Canada and the UK,” said Kristel Fillmore, explaining sales staff “go to trade shows and make client visits, calls, and presentations” to acquire group business.

“We do host bus groups which are mostly ski clubs for day trips,” Bromley marketing director Janessa Purney said, explaining that without their own hotel, overnight group business is not a significant percentage of group business.

While resorts routinely say families with kids represent the future of skiing, groups of all ages are important to Vermont’s ski business which sees direct winter spending of $900 million with 12,000 people employed.

Recently, 150 members and guests of the 70+ Ski Club, which has 4,000 members nationwide, stayed at Okemo for four days of skiing. Club leader Richard Lambert Jr., of Rhode Island, said 41 men and women participated in the club’s NASTAR race and a 90-year-old won NASTAR Silver.

A 93-year-old member from Arizona attended along with people from all over the East.

 

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