February 17, 2017

Ski to success: How little Vermont stays on top of the winter industry

The Sunburst Six luxury lift at Okemo. Photo by Karen Lorentz

The Sunburst Six luxury lift at Okemo. Photo by Karen Lorentz

By Karen D. Lorentz
Correspondent

Vermont ranks as the No. 1 ski state in the East, and most years third in the nation — behind Colorado and California but ahead of Utah — in annual skier visits.

That successful track record, based on data compiled by the National Ski Areas Association’s annual Kottke Report, springs from a combination of terrain, diversity, history and innovation, industry executives agree.

“Vermont has about the same number of ski areas as New Hampshire but does twice its annual visits; it does three times Maine’s visits,” said Parker Riehle, president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association. “New York has 51 ski areas, but only a few are major players.”

Noting the role that terrain plays, Riehle said, “Vermont has 10 mountains with a 2,000-or-greater-foot vertical drop, which is more than New York, New Hampshire, and Maine areas have combined.”

Chris Nyberg, a 40-year industry veteran (including five years managing Killington), who is now a strategic planning consultant, praised Vermont’s 7,291 acres of trails. “Some are big mountains with long continuous runs and six are renowned for their high elevations. There’s interesting terrain and in many cases areas offer the ‘money pitch’ — that’s the pitch that people feel good about how they are skiing; too steep and they are uncomfortable, too flat and (they’re) bored. The money grade is the sweet spot in the bell curve,” he said, indicating that the terrain niche each area has appeals to its clientele.

Riehle and Nyberg see the diversity of mountains and amenities as another key factor. They range from small community gems to year-round destination resorts and provide something for all skiers.

Vermont’s success as a ski state impacts the state’s economy and “is particularly significant given that direct winter spending represents $900 million in Vermont with 12,000 people employed during winter and an average of 4.1 million skier visits each year,” Riehle said.

Vacation home ownership plays a significant role at some areas because it engenders loyalty and commitment, Riehle added. Okemo inaugurated mountainside housing in 1961 as a way to build a loyal base of ski families and now ranks as a mega resort thanks to what is arguably the most on-mountain and trailside housing in Vermont.

Nyberg praised Vermont’s abundance of accommodations, saying that it helps explain Vermont’s edge over New Hampshire.

Season passes also play a role, Riehle said, noting the “diversity of products for various ages” and the fact that “they are important to down-country markets.”

The Hermitage Club at Haystack and Plymouth Notch Area further enhance Vermont’s diversity as private areas appealing to skiers who pay a membership fee for uncrowded slopes.

History matters

Nyberg sees Vermont’s ski history as a major factor in its success. Mentioning the first rope tow in Woodstock (1934) and that town’s importance as the cradle of winter sports, he said the state’s “long history has percolated to Vermont’s big mountains.”

Four-year old Evelyn was taught to ski by her dad in Cochran's Ski Tot program, where many new, local skiers are introduced to the sport. Photo by Jason Lorentz

Four-year old Evelyn was taught to ski by her dad in Cochran’s Ski Tot program, where many new, local skiers are introduced to the sport. Photo by Jason Lorentz

Rick Spear, president of lift manufacturer Leitner-Poma of America, lauded “Vermont’s long ski-racing tradition, from ski teams to clubs to academies.” He was most impressed to see 30,000 attendees at the Women’s World Cup at Killington, observing that the state’s ski clubs, academies and teams “were all there.”

“Vermont is really where it all started when you talk about the numerous launch-point inventions and innovations for skiing. … Despite over 100 ski areas having come and gone, several of the first ski areas from the 1930s have survived and still operate today — Stowe, Suicide Six, Pico, Northeast Slopes, and Bromley. With that history, it’s that mystique and romance of Vermont’s ski area heritage that forms an indelible part of the state’s winter brand that has never been matched by ski states in the northeast, Riehle said.

Innovation

Vermont ski areas have been at the forefront of ski industry innovation and technology, from inventing the ticket wicket to developing the graduated length method (an innovative teaching and learning technique that helped fuel the 1960s ski boom) to pioneering snowboarding, which revitalized the ski industry thanks to the efforts of entrepreneurs like Jake Burton Carpenter, who gave us Burton boards.

While not invented in Vermont, snowmaking was “revolutionized” here and the state had more snowmaking than out west until the 1990s, Nyberg said. The K-2000 and K-3000 snowguns (developed at Killington in the 1980s) played a key role in preparing the World Cup course, he noted, explaining their usefulness during instances of marginal early-season temperatures.

“The Vermont Tramway Board (a division of the Department of Labor that oversees lift operations) has always been very pragmatic while keeping safety foremost. When I made application for the first hydraulic tension system to replace the concrete blocks (that previously anchored lift cables) in 1978 at Suicide Six, the board let me do it,” Spear said. “They worked with you,” he said, noting that all lifts now use hydraulic tension.

“The role of innovation and technology has been absolutely crucial to the success of the ski industry and the ultimate measure of our success, the customer experience,” Riehle added.

Agreeing that terrain, diversity, history and innovation are “how someone in the industry would view Vermont’s key points of distinction,” James Chung, president of Reach Advisors and a ski area consultant, said vacation home ownership and the Vermont brand are most significant from a consumer perspective.

“The number of skiers is actually flat or declining across most of the country. While there are fewer skiers, there’s also an audience of vacation homeowners making a greater commitment to spend more days — and money — skiing.”

Noting “wealth growth has been particularly strong in the NYC metro area and in Boston,” (which are Vermont’s major markets), Chung said, “Vermont has a big advantage that it hasn’t fully tapped yet.”

Acknowledging the role of terrain and diversity, Chung said, “Among eastern states, Vermont is known for the bigger mountains and charming towns that aren’t as prevalent in other states.”

However, he added, “In my work, we like to push the concept of ‘brand’ beyond just ‘mystique’ or ‘coolness.’ Instead, we try to quantify brand value. In other words, what’s the premium a consumer is willing to spend (in either time or money) versus an equivalent or easier-to-buy option?

“Do consumers place the same value on maple syrup from New Hampshire or New York? No.

“Are consumers more excited to tell others that they are spending a weekend or buying a vacation home up north in New York, New Hampshire, or Vermont? For that question, Vermont possesses more brand value,” Chung said. “In the end, the Vermont brand rocks.”

 

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