Denver’s Ruby Hill Rail delivers snowboarding to city shreds for free.
Photo: David Watson – www.watsonphoto.com
In an era fraught with economic, societal, and demographic upheaval, the power of the shred seems to be waning. The number of snowboarders in the U.S. has steadily decreased since 2004. The demographics of the sport do not accurately reflect the face of our nation’s population. Snowboarding is incredibly cost prohibitive in a time bordering on double-digit unemployment.
While the forces of macro level evil seem stacked against the sport, snowboarders are a creative, passionate lot that thrive on being told they can’t do something. The industry is increasingly kicking into gear to ensure its own vitality in years to come and indoctrinate a new generation with the power of powder using the formula of expose – convert – retain to fill the ranks of snowboarding’s future with lifelong riders.
In order to create a movement, you must first create desire, but even more basic is defining whom you are trying to reach. There are a variety of inspirations to get into the sport, and RRC Associates, a market research firm, has put together a list of categories that new recruits generally fall in. “There are three key motivations,” says RRC Associates Director Nate Fristoe. “Probably 45 percent have what we’d call an adventure seeking mind set. They’re in it for the thrill. They’re intrinsically motivated, they like the challenge, they like being outdoors. They’re kind of our slam-dunk market. Then you‘ve got 26 percent that are in it for social reasons. They most closely align with the culture of snowboarding. They’re looking for an activity that will help them build social bonds. The third motivation includes emerging markets, which is sort of code for minorities, and situational factors. Ask them why they’re here and they say they just want to try something different or there was a special offer.”
Exposure to snowboarding is the first step in creating the desire for any of these groups, and its revelation is rapidly increasing thanks in part to everything from commercials, to video games, to cereal boxes. Nationally broadcast events like the Winter Dew Tour, Olympics, and X Games help fire up potential riders by getting the sport in front of them, and core brands and shops play a major role by creating a local buzz and spreading the word in both endemic and non-endemic channels. “The idea is finding and building onramps,” says Quiksilver Communications Director Joshua Katz of how his company works to bring new riders into the fold. “Things like That’s It, That’s All, and the ways we adapt those stories so they can be accessible to less of an enthusiast audience, without watering down the nature of the event or program…help build onramps for broader audiences outside our core world,”
The next step in the equation is inspiring beginners to get on the hill, and this requires tailoring the message and medium used to reach them, often by age. “A lot of trial is actually happening in the early 20’s,” explains Fristoe. “Folks are coming out there because their family didn’t support participation as a kid. Their income levels finally reach a point where they want to try it. The other significant group is kids. If we get those kids nine and under, again that’s the slam-dunk. We tend to hold on to them for life.”
A growing number of shops are refining their message to capitalize on these groups, and the Internet is a great way to target new riders from both these sectors. Buysnow.com’s Ryan Kearns says that the best way to reach kids is through Internet word searches, parents that ride, and pricing.
Fristoe continues, stating; “the other factor the industry is struggling with is trying to get the Gen-X’s back into the sport. A lot of them that used to be core participants have dropped out for a variety of reasons, but as their kids get to the age to learn, we start to recapture that group.”
One no brainer is to span these categories and appeal to entire families. Thirteen years ago, Colorado Ski Country USA (CSCUSA), an organization that promotes Colorado’s ski resorts, introduced its 5th Grade Passport Program, which allows the state’s fifth graders to ride for free at member resorts. Since the program started, more than 200,000 kids have signed up, it has expanded to include a 6th grade program, and just about every other ski area association from Canada to Pennsylvania has emulated it.
The beauty of the program is that it not only exposes kids to riding, but also parents that range from avid riders to first timers. “It’s a big motivator for families to go skiing and riding together as was part of the goal from the beginning,” says CSCUSA PR Director Jennifer Rudolph. “After one child goes through the 5th and 6th grade program, they are usually followed by their siblings. Many families couple the 5th and 6th grade passes with [other deals] and the whole family skis together economically.”
Urban parks are also a great way to make the sport more accessible and are popping up around the world. From year-round indoor hills in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and blueprints in North America, to seasonal parks like Toronto’s Ripley’s Urban Rail Park and Denver’s Ruby Hill Rail Park, these projects develop awareness for a population that may not consider snowboarding to be an option.
“We bring the mountain to the kids so that they can love and learn a sport,” touts Denver Parks & Recreation Supervisor of Outdoor Recreation Tim Hutchens of Ruby Hill, which offers free riding, lessons, and gear to Denver’s urban youth in the heart of the city. The goal of Ruby Hill, 35 percent of whose users are beginners, is “to promote the sport and give the knowledge, the skill, the desire to want to do it because it’s down the street from their house.”
One of the biggest untapped rider reservoirs is the growing array of minority populations. Roughly 25 percent of U.S. kindergarteners are now Hispanic, and census data released in March shows that by 2023 minorities will be the new majority in American schools. This is especially true in California and other areas in the Southwest where Hispanics already exceed non-Hispanic whites in pre-college schools, a demographic that makes up more than 42 percent of students. While this is the case, the National Sporting Goods Association reports that just 8 percent of snowboarders in 2007 were Hispanic and a mere 2 percent were African American.
“The only way for snowboarding to grow is in tandem with youth population trends,” says Juan Alberto Delaroca, president of Equipo Roca, a Latin youth marketing consultancy specializing in action sports. “Latinos represent the bulk of where things are heading. Reaching them has its challenges, but interest in the sport isn’t one of them. There is a lot of disposable income there, even in this financial downturn. You keep hearing about the rebound, and when it does happen, the multicultural youth segments will represent a new type of snowboard consumer. [We need to] focus on how we attract their business. It will cost a brand more money in the long run to not integrate a multicultural strategy. The population numbers speak for themselves, it’s staggering.”
Increasingly, companies and resorts are shifting gears and ramping up programs that do just this. “Caucasians are going to be the minority in this country and if we don’t start appealing to different nationalities now, we won’t have a customer base to pull from then,” says Mountain High Director of Marketing John McColly. Mountain High has begun a number of programs to appeal to minorities including advertising to different nationalities and providing an environment that matches its clientele by including ticket sellers that speak Chinese, instructors that speak Spanish, and guest service agents that speak Tagalog. In an industry that is traditionally 80 percent or more Caucasian, Mountain High’s customers have already become majority minority at 52 percent, including a 24 percent Asian population, 14 percent Hispanic, and 3 percent African American.
“We see a large Latino and African American population in many of the groups that we work with,” says Echo Mountain Sales Director Jess Harvat, whose Colorado resort works with Denver Public Schools and the Chill Foundation among others to bring groups to its slopes on a daily basis during the winter. “I think one reason is simply because a lot of the schools or groups we work with have large minority populations. We are also very active in these communities. We are members of the Denver Hispanic Chamber of Commerce amongst other networking organizations. I think these are populations that have been largely overlooked by many other ski areas.” The programs also seem to be effective for bringing in riders outside of the group trips as well. Revenue and visits have both climbed more than 10 percent this year at the park focused mountain located just 35 miles from downtown Denver.
Programs such as Echo’s, Chill, SOS, Snowdays, Stoked Mentoring, and a variety of other at-risk youth focused snowboarding organizations, are a great way to help individual kids, bring new riders into the sport, and concentrate on minority populations. However, one of the biggest criticisms is that they offer youth a taste of a lifestyle that is cost prohibitive and they can’t enjoy for the long haul, but these groups are increasingly exploring ways to give kids the means and tools to become life long shreds.
Over 70 percent of SOS’s participants are currently low-income, minority kids, but the program boasts a 62 percent retention rate and has more than 3,000 youth enrolled this year. “We needed to overcome the stigma that our kids, because they were low income, were not going to be lifetime skiers and snowboarders,” says SOS founder Arn Menconi. “From what we’ve heard, we’re the highest of anything in the sport.” SOS focuses on a multi-year program using both quality and quantity of time on the hill. “The longer they go, the more we break down whatever the need is to get them into the sport,” adds Menconi. “You’ve got to teach them to walk before they can run. Once they learn they get the equipment, we get them the season pass, and then they can go on their own.”
You Always Remember Your First – But Will There Be A Second?
The first day of riding is a right of passage. Everyone went through it and it was memorable for a number of reasons, most notably being out of your element, confused, and walking or hobbling away with a bruised body and ego. It’s a humbling, expensive hassle that weeds out nearly 85 percent of first time snowsliders that are lured to the slopes.
The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) and RRC Associates began a program called the Growth Model Initiative over a decade ago to address the problems of “trial and conversion” – getting people that come to the slopes to return. “The conversion rate for beginners is probably the stickiest issue,” says Fristoe. “Ten years ago we identified that about 15 percent…of people that try it go on to become core skiers or snowboarders. There were a number of different strategic initiatives we proposed to achieve growth. Collectively the industry has focused on the low hanging fruit by boosting participation levels of the core, and that’s fundamentally what has driven the record levels of participation over the past five years. The issue is, we haven’t really done much to move the bar as far as conversion. A lot of the growth that we’ve achieved is by tweaking our existing market. The real hard work is in boosting conversion up to our goal of 25 percent. Snowboarding is a difficult pursuit. It’s expensive, it’s geographically isolated; we’d be doing pretty well if we can achieve 25 percent.” This definitely seems to be a lofty goal. Since the program’s inception, the bar has been raised only one percent to 16.
The physical aspects of learning are tough enough, but if you add in all the other factors, it’s easy to see why many people bail after the first day, and resorts, retailers, and manufacturers are progressively banding together to make the first day as easy as possible and help riders see the fun through the haze of hassles.
“It’s hard enough to get up to the mountain, especially if you have a family, and you go through the rental line and do all that,” says Burton Global Resort Director Jeff Boliba, whose company has been making a major investment in the sport through its Learn To Ride (LTR) program for years. “If you get out on the hill and your equipment’s not good and you’re in a giant group, good luck. I think that’s the turning point for the future. How do we address that first experience to where they can get through the rental process in a decent amount of time? Then when they actually get out on the snow for their first introduction, the instructor doesn’t have too many people that he can support everyone and make sure people aren’t bailing all over the place. As resorts continue to grow, their learning facilities need to grow and accommodate people, so when they do get up there, they learn, have a good experience, and come back.”
In addition to its LTR program, which is incorporated at over 160 resorts worldwide and uses beginner specific equipment, instructor training requirements, and class sizes, Burton launched a new teaching program this year at Northstar-at-Tahoe with the lofty goal of converting 100 percent of its participants. The new Burton Academy is a departure from normal teaching methods, which have primarily evolved from ski school programs, and focuses on our sport’s specific impediments using private, custom terrain features, beginner gear, and a private lodge.
“Most instructors give people a taste of snowboarding, but once they’re gone, they have a hard slam or can’t figure out the rest of it or don’t want to spend the money to go the distance. All these things come into play, and make it a real challenge,” explains Academy Director and Head Coach Chris Hargrave. “The new terrain based teaching methodology incorporates different terrain features to help people learn without fear and build confidence faster,” says Boliba. The features are designed to do the speed control and stopping for the rookies. “This allows the rider to focus on balance with both feet buckled within the first 5-10 minutes of the lesson,” adds Hargrave. “The rider learns to relax and move while sliding directly down the hill and gains confidence in themselves, their equipment, and the snow. Contained and controlled by moderate transition shapes, riders are exposed to the sensation of pressure build up and release, the feeling that makes snowboarding, surfing, and skating feel so awesome.”
One of the other major variables in the conversion equation is the equipment. Bad sizing and outdated, untuned gear combined with poor setups can hamper the fun factor as much as crowds and a well vacuumed wallet. An escalating number of companies are focusing on technologies that make riding easier and put fewer scorpions in the learning curve. Rockered boards, beveled bases, speed entry bindings, and Boa and Velcro boot closures are being driven down into rental lines to decrease the hassles.
“Our new rental board uses new materials and our patented tool-less mounting system,” states Northwave Team and Marketing Manager Desiree Moore. “Our rental Drake binding uses all new technology that’s shop tech and rental friendly, and can quickly be mounted without the hassles of tools to make the rental process more efficient.”
Retention – The Final Frontier
The final step in the equation, and arguably the easiest in the short term, is retaining the riders that make the move from experimentation to dedication. But retention is a tough beast to wrangle as it’s difficult to measure, and most resorts and organizations have a different standard of what it means to be retained and a true snowboarder. Does wearing this nametag mean you bought a pass this year, own a board, or just claim that you ride? You get the point.
Nate Fristoe defines retention as people that have “embraced the sport at some level and have moved to an intermediate phase of ability.” He says that snowsports are fairly solid on this front and maintain around 75 percent of their core on any given year.
There are a variety of reasons that the other 25 percent drops out, including lack of interest, age, physical limitations, and perhaps the biggest: economic constraints. Snowboarding is inherently expensive and can only be made so easy on the pocket. However, with the availability of cheap lift and lodging packages, off price gear, and the access to information that the Internet provides, turns are increasingly within reach.
“There’s not a lot we can do to make it tremendously more affordable,” says Fristoe. “Given some of the season pass deals that are out there, if you know what you’re doing, I think the sport is probably more affordable than it’s ever been.”
In an age of economic woes spiraling out of control, industry members need to fine-tune their efforts as pushers. Like anything that makes you ridiculously happy, snowboarding is addictive, and once you’re hooked you’ll find a way to support that habit come hell or high economic waters. That boils down to introducing new riders to the sport and creating relationships. “The bottom line is you can’t have retention if you don’t create long term relationships with the customer or the youth educational programs,” says Menconi. “It’s easy to get kids hooked, the problem that the industry faces is they have to work with and establish repeated relationships.”