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A guaranteed market for resorts

In this week’s Mountain News roundup of stories from other ski areas there is an article about how Vail Resorts is committing $600,000 over the next two years to a program designed to introduce minorities to snow sports.

In this week’s Mountain News roundup of stories from other ski areas there is an article about how Vail Resorts is committing $600,000 over the next two years to a program designed to introduce minorities to snow sports. In addition to the cash and in-kind packages aimed at minorities, Vail Resorts has agreed to put at least 10 minorities in front-line positions at each of its resorts, Heavenly in California and Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone in Colorado.

Roberto Moreno, a former instructor and patroller in Colorado who is working with Vail Resorts on the program, argues that if ski resorts are to thrive in the years ahead they must more aggressively reach out to minorities. If they don’t, Moreno says, ski resorts will come to resemble country clubs for the rich.

While Vail Resorts’ approach is welcome, it harkens back to a familiar problem for ski areas: the absolute number of skiers and boarders in North America hasn’t increased in more than a decade.

After the boom in snowboarding in the ’90s resuscitated a stodgy ski industry (that hadn’t anticipated snowboarding’s popularity) there have been many efforts to introduce skiing and boarding to new generations. The Grade 7 ski pass program, founded by Colorado ski areas and since embraced by virtually all ski areas across Canada, is one such effort. Alberta ski areas will introduce a new program this winter that links skiing with health in an attempt to fight child obesity. And while Canadians may look at target marketing to visible minorities as something Americans need to do, we shouldn’t be so smug as to believe all our institutions – including skiing and snowboarding – are equally welcoming to all people.

But Vail Resorts’ efforts are interesting in the context of the recent British Columbia task force on resort development and the provincial government’s plans to incorporate the task force’s recommendations in a new resort strategy. The question is: where will the people come from to fill all the new and expanded resorts the provincial government anticipates? Will they all be people who used to go to other parts of the world for resort vacations, or will we develop new resort vacationers here in B.C.?

A couple of points: It’s important to note that not all resorts are ski resorts, and also that the task force’s primary responsibility was to look at ways to streamline development of resorts, rather than fill them.

But getting back to the question of who will fill the beds at the new and expanded resorts in B.C., many people in the ski industry feel that British Columbia can compete with anyone, and if a concerted effort was made to go head-to-head with Colorado ski resorts B.C. could come out ahead. This may be true, but Colorado ski areas have already started to make a concerted effort to re-claim market share lost to B.C., Utah and other areas in recent years. B.C. resorts haven’t made that co-ordinated effort, yet. Moreover, for most North American vacationers B.C. is still in the far corner of the continent and, in the post-9/11 world, more difficult to reach than Colorado.

The provincial government, and most people in tourism, believe that interest in B.C. will grow in the years leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympics, and this will help fuel investment and growth in B.C. resorts and fill the new beds.

However, we also have to look beyond the growth curve that B.C. resorts anticipate over the next few years. For nearly two decades Whistler grew significantly each year. There was always something new to bring people back. Now Whistler is on the cusp of buildout and "newness" is less of a drawing card. At some point following 2010 B.C. and many B.C. resorts will reach that same state.

Vail Resorts is attempting to overcome a mature ski market by targeting minorities. B.C. resorts – skiing and others – and the province might also consider the French approach.

France, in its policy guiding ski resort development, requires a percentage of accommodation be affordable to low-income people. The premise is that skiing should be available to everyone, not just those who can pay top dollar. Perhaps guaranteeing a percentage of the accommodation built in B.C.’s new resorts for budget travellers would ensure that those resorts don’t have to reinvent themselves every time there’s a shift in the market or a hiccup in the economy.