A new era, or a return to old fashioned values?

The last half-century has seen a series of civil rights landmarks in the United States. From bus rides through Alabama towns to marches on the capital to de-segregating schools, minorities have won the right to take part in society on equal footing with the majority. Last weekend another barrier to equal opportunity fell, when the Aspen Skiing Company opened Aspen Mountain to snowboarders.

This comparison is not meant to demean or disparage the great work done by civil rights activists of the ’50s and ’60s, but in the relatively microscopic world of the ski and snowboard industry, the April 1 dawning of a new era at Aspen is important.

And as with some of the civil rights breakthroughs, it wasn’t done for entirely altruistic reasons.

A study done for the National Ski Areas Association, an American organization, predicted that 60 per cent of lift ticket sales to customers under age 35 will be to snowboarders by 2005. That tells you all you need to know about why the privately-owned Aspen Skiing Company decided to finally open up Aspen Mountain to boarders. However, there is more to the story. As explored elsewhere in this paper, the ski/snowboard industry has, in absolute numbers remained stagnant for the last two decades. There were 52.2 million customer visits to American ski resorts last winter, about the same as there was in the early ’70s. But slightly more than one quarter of those visits last year were made by boarders.

Aspen, as the grandfather of North American ski resorts, has always been particularly interesting to watch. In the last 15 years it has become the resort of choice for the well-to-do, and particularly appealing to Hollywood stars. Stretch limo Hummers, private jets and exclusive parties are all Aspen hallmarks.

Until it lifted its ban on snowboarders on April 1, Aspen Mountain was another exclusive enclave, the domain primarily of wealthy, ageing intermediate skiers. Opening the last of the Aspen Skiing Companies four mountains to boarders has angered many of those skiers. But the Aspen Skiing Company’s director of snowboarding told the Aspen Times he doesn’t expect a windfall of new business.

"The market we’re pulling from is relatively small – the affluent snowboarders," said Kevin Byford.

Concentrating on the affluent in general is a problem for Aspen, and it may be becoming a problem for Whistler. Aspen’s cache has been its exclusivity, but the number of people who can afford that exclusivity and are interested in skiing is declining. At the same time those people are getting older. Aspen is now – finally – initiating a marketing campaign to show the world that you don’t have to be rich to visit the Colorado town. It’s a 180-degree change from an earlier campaign that trumpeted Aspen Mountain’s uncrowded slopes.

But Aspen wasn’t always exclusive and the playground of the wealthy. In the ’60s and early ’70s skiing was a sport open to all who had the patience to learn how to stem-christie. Baby boomers made skiing popular, and for many Aspen was the place to ski.

But somewhere along the line things changed. The ski bums of the early ’70s and the peace-love-do-your-own-thing spirit gave way to a new ethic. And it was reflected in the expectations of the people who came to visit Aspen. As one long-time Aspen resident told the Aspen Times, "There was a different philosophy up until about 1981 or 1982. Visitors used to come here to be part of the overall community. Then people started coming that wanted separation of the classes. They didn’t want to sit down with us at the Jerome Bar, they wanted to go the Caribou Club."

Just as the ski bums challenged the status quo in the tiny ski world in the ’70s, snowboarders have challenged that order today. The end of the ban on boarding at Aspen Mountain was done for business reasons, but there is a social value in the decision as well.


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