By Karen D. Lorentz
There’s never been a better time to introduce someone to skiing or snowboarding.
January is Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month, and there are special packages — $49 for lift ticket, lesson, equipment rental — available at 12 Vermont mountains that make learning a steal.
It’s not just the good price. Instructors have been trained with new ideas about how to teach first-timers in a friendly and helpful way that focuses on them having a good experience. There is better equipment and specially groomed beginner slopes that make learning easier and more fun.
“It’s important to attract new skiers and riders to the sport. We have great teaching terrain, wonderful professional instructors, and the most modern rental gear available. When we combine that with an attractive price point and the strong Ski Vermont brand, we have a very good chance of making that first on-snow experience a positive one that will be followed by many more,” said Okemo spokesperson Bonnie MacPherson.
MacPherson was alluding to one of the biggest challenges the ski industry faces — a high dropout rate for first-timers and the need to replace baby boomers, who fueled snow sports growth but are now aging out.
Mary Jo Tarello, who heads up the national Learn to Ski/Snowboard Month and Bring-A-Friend campaigns, notes the program was an offshoot of the National Ski Areas Association model for growth plan a few years ago, which resulted from an industry study showing new skiers and snowboarders are needed to sustain the industry. In 2010, NSAA determined that improving the conversion rate of first-timers to repeat participants from 15 to 25 percent would maintain the nation’s skier visits.
Since the first January 2009 event, 750,000 child and adult January learn-to lessons have been given. The record year saw 135,000 lessons, Tarello said.
“Getting people to take lessons is one thing, but addressing the needs of beginners requires a different mindset,” Tarello stressed. Acknowledging a high newcomer dropout rate, she said further efforts include websites (www.skiandsnowboardmonth.org) and ongoing programs that address impediments like costs and constraints on free time. Even the messages given to newcomers are being addressed, she said, referencing a study that shows that white Americans, who largely constitute the snow sports population, will decrease from 85 to 43 percent of the U.S. population by 2060.
“With a large percentage of the skiing and snowboarding demographic continuing to age out, Ski Vermont’s learn-to programs are critically important to the vitality and future sustainability of the sport,” said Vermont Ski Areas Association President Parker Riehle. “It takes two millennials to replace each boomer, given that boomers ski twice as much and spend more.
“This is particularly significant given that direct winter spending represents $900 million in Vermont, with 12,000 winter employees and an average of 4.1 million skier visits per year. Winter spending comprises over one-third of Vermont’s crucial tourism economy, so it’s more important than ever to bring new skiers and riders to the sports through our learn-to efforts to ensure the future of this major sector of the Vermont economy,” Riehle said.
There is also a focus on youth. “All fifth graders can ski or ride for free at Alpine and Nordic resorts. It’s the perfect age to get kids on snow and engage their families as well,” Riehle said, noting efforts like the 5th Grade Passport program.
Tarello praised VSAA for its programs that run all season long, noting there are “more than most states offer on a statewide basis” and that the state has long been a forerunner in learn-to efforts.
“It’s true that Ski Vermont (the statewide brand promoted by VSAA) was at the forefront of the January Learn-to-Ski and Snowboard Month push in the early 2000s, with other initiatives developed along the way,” Riehle said.
VSAA’s new Take 3 Pass program allows an eligible first-timer to take three beginner ski or snowboard lessons at a package price of $129 each (skivermont.com/take-3). Additionally, the first 100 people to bring a friend to Take 3 will receive two lift tickets to a Vermont area and are entered to win a two-night ski-and-stay package.
Sugarbush spokesperson Candace White said making the learning process simple and affordable is vitally important to the industry. With three lessons people get to feel comfortable on skis or a board, and “the free pass is a way to encourage them to continue practicing their new sport so they want to keep at it, and graduate to becoming a dedicated skier or snowboarder in the future,” she said.
Killington won the national Conversion Cup Challenge in 2015 — the year it beat its previous 35 percent conversion rate, with 98 percent of Discovery participants completing the program and 96 percent reporting being likely to continue to ski or ride. Additionally, 71 percent of participants returned for additional days, and 94 percent purchased boots/poles, clothing, or accessories.
Asked to share the Discovery Program, Killington did so, resulting in many similar Elan, Rossignol, and Burton programs nationwide. The sharing of successful retention efforts has “major value for all ski areas and the future of snow sports,” said Killington’s Rob Megnin.
Killington also pioneered a four-day Discovery Program for adults in 2014 that has become so popular its Burton Snowboard Discovery packages ($379) are sold out for this season.
Terrain-based learning is another way that areas engage newcomers. Killington, Bromley, and Jay Peak offer the specially built terrain features that assist learners by naturally controlling their speed while facilitating the movements needed to steer and control their equipment.
Bromley’s Get Skiing and Snowboarding program features a $99 package extendable to two or three days for ages 13 and up. A new Discover Skiing and Snowboarding Service in the Learning Zone is designed to “serve never-evers who purchase a lift ticket and rentals but not a lesson,” said spokesperson Janessa Purney. The Zone provides terrain-based learning features numbered according to a suggested order of progression, and each has a description of how to use the feature. Additionally, instructors are there to offer tips and pointers if a learner would like more guidance.
A sample of learn-to-ski deals
— Bolton Valley offers a Learn to Love It program for ages 13 and up. Participants get any three days of lessons, lift tickets and rentals for $149. Upon completion of the third lesson, they receive a card for 50 percent off lift tickets, rentals and lessons for the remainder of the season. (www.boltonvalley.com)
— Bromley’s Get Skiing and Snowboarding program features a $99 package extendable to two or three days for ages 13 and up. (www.bromley.com)
— Okemo’s ongoing First Tracks learning package is offered daily for first-time skiers and snowboarders age 7 and older. (www.okemo.com)
— Killington offers a season-long one-day learn-to program ($135) and 2-day ($225) with third day free. A $79 Learn-to-Ski or Ride Program is available to active duty, retired and honorably discharged members of the U.S. military. (www.killington.com)
— Smuggler’s Notch First-Timer package for ages 5 through adult is $99 and is valid for up to three days. Vermont resident package is $59. (www.smuggs.com).
— Stowe offers the $49 package to ages 3 and up. (www.stowe.com)
— Sugarbush’s First-Timer-to-Life-Timer Program (ages 13 up) offers three lessons, rentals, and lift ticket plus a free season pass to those completing the lesson. If started in January, the $49 first-time lesson brings the total cost down from $280 to $224. (www.sugarbush.com)