Are we killing ski culture...one beginner program at a time?
OK, I’ll admit, that headline is a bit click-baity, but like a decades-long snowplow, snowsports’ slow and painful slide into declining participation rates has been difficult for me to watch. And while the industry’s 19-year rallying cry to recruit and retain more new participants has stemmed the bleeding, the numbers refuse to climb. I think it’s time to start asking ourselves why.
It all started around 2000, when we began hearing the warnings about the health of our industry. The US' National Ski Area Association (NSAA) had engaged in a research project, and the results of the data were alarming. The growth in our sports was not just stagnating, but potentially flatlining. Participation levels were declining, resort businesses were suffering, and while snowboarding and freeskiing provided a bump, they did not inject the sufficient lifeblood the industry was hoping for. So, the NSAA got busy, and in that year, the organization created its Model for Growth.
This model characterized mountain sports participation in a graphically disturbing way. I once heard it described as a “meat grinder”. It told us that annually, the industry was gaining only 8% of its total participants through beginners, and of those, 83% were dropping out almost immediately. It was an unthinkable and alarming statistic, and it was obvious that the survival of our sport depended on us rectifying a system into which we pumped thousands of new participants each year, only to lose the majority of them after their initial trial. We analyzed this, we understood it, and as both an industry, and as individual resorts, we began a decades-long effort to operationally stop the bleeding.
Resorts created a slew of operational and marketing initiatives, programs and strategies that would help us successfully attract, convert and retain these beginners. We addressed every pain point we could identify—from supplying them with sufficient information before arriving at our resorts, improving our Learning Centers, our rental processes, adding language diversity in our instruction and guest service operations, and even changing up our lunch options for broader appeal.
Over at the NSAA, organizers were creating programs like Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month, they got involved in programs like PHIT America, to encourage youth to get off the couch, and they embarked on campaigns to convince kids, teens, and young adults that “cold was cool”. We introduced the 5th-grade passport, which allowed fifth graders to ski for free, but then almost immediately added 6th graders, 4th graders, and even third graders to the list of potential new participants that we could attract with free skiing. We followed up ski giveaways for kids with discounting and eventual give-aways on lessons. We experimented with Bring a Friend for Free programs and finally Ski, Rent and Learn for free days that were intended to remove every possible barrier to entry. The results: in some cases impressive, in others mediocre, but in the end it’s hard to ignore the data. Two decades later, our participation levels continue to be discouragingly and stubbornly flat.
It took me several years to question our efforts, but recently, I returned to the Model to look at the opportunities we have for impacting growth in other areas of our business. The answer was embarrassingly obvious because, like any good marketer, I abide by the mantra, “fish where the fish are.” In our industry, the “fish” exist at the “core” where 65% of our best, most loyal and committed customers live, and disturbingly, where we also see almost a full third of them exit each year. This realization got me thinking about “repatriating the core,” an idea that elicited some strong reactions from my industry peers. I heard, “The core is the core because they already know us and love us.” “We don’t need to talk to them, we need to talk to those who don’t...there’s millions of them”. I also heard several smart people say, “we are marketing to our core. Look at all the amazing pass product opportunities that are being marketed to the most avid skiers and riders.” There’s arguably never been a better time to be a core skier or snowboarder, because Ikon and Epic and the likes are battling it out for the hearts and wallets of skiers, and the multi-day, multi-resort skier is winning.
But before we pat ourselves on the back, it’s worth considering the net effect of relying on pass product marketing as our strategy for engaging core customers. Without delivering more people into the top of the funnel, this type of low funnel marketing with pass products is simply serving to cycle existing customers down around the bottom and shuffle market share around between camps. We are not growing the pie, or at least not much.
What we need to do now is acknowledge that growing the pie happens at the top of the funnel where we speak to skiers and riders who are dreaming about our sports and are looking for inspiration and belonging. This is the place that builds their affection and connection with what we do and reaffirms and aligns their values and beliefs with ours. It’s the place where affiliation is created, where our tribe is built, and where they celebrate and attach themselves. This is where our culture is created...the same culture that attaches our core to us.
In our collective race to make mountain sports more accessible, put “heads in beds” and “bums on lifts” we’ve necessarily had to widen our target market. For the past couple of decades, we have positioned skiing and snowboarding as something for everyone, and in the process we’ve begun to ignore the importance of our culture to our best customers. We’ve stopped inspiring them, celebrating them, and thanking them for being part of our tribe. We worried that our sports were too hard, too risky, and too exposed to the elements, so we focused on making them look the opposite. The problem is: our core customers like the challenge, they thrive on the risk and they love snow. We stripped away the very things our core celebrate. And slowly, but surely, we’ve taken away all the things that they use to attach themselves to us emotionally.
While that’s a hard thing to realize, especially as a marketer who makes a living in outdoor sport, the good news is that I don’t think it’s too late to reverse the effects of this tunnel vision. I do think, however, that we need to break this philosophy that to market to the core somehow betrays our goal to grow it from the never-evers. That’s a ridiculous idea, and we need only look at how virtually every other sport engages with their core, building a culture that attracts, converts and retains core customers. We can see that it is possible to do both, and do it in a way that is inspiring.
It takes only a small bit of research to realize that virtually every other sport on the planet markets to its core first and foremost. None are dumbing down their sports, stripping away the culture, making them seem more accessible, or giving them away for free.
Let’s take a quick look at a few examples.
The NBA knows that they have a better chance of grooming an NBA fan out of a player, so they have myriad initiatives for growing the sport. This ad for their youth development league essentially talks to the kids they want to convert into their best customers. Take a watch and pay attention to the way they approach it. Look at the level of play. The aspirational quality of the environment, the presence of NBA pros. Do you see what I mean? There were no beginners in there struggling. They didn’t ban scenes of high performance, like dunking. They marketed to the relative newcomer to the sport with the potential of basketball greatness.
Now let’s look at the sport that strikes fear into the heart of resort operators and skiing parents everywhere: soccer. Take a look at this video to see how Major League Soccer is growing its base. You’ll see the focus on accessibility and inclusivity, but not by dumbing things down; rather by extending an invitation to soccer as if it were a party.
If you think the NBA and MLS are too “big league” for comparison to skiing and snowboarding, then take a look at how Skateboarding is engaging their core...even the very young. It’s fun, rebellious, hard driving and inspiring.
They managed to create an inspirational piece for all levels while still inviting the newcomer. The fact that they used footage of a 5 year old placed at the top of the ramp confirms their desire to demonstrate excitement and potential to all ages.
And if we really want to be inspired, check out the “fastest growing sport in America” to see what we might learn from E-Sports. Their teaser for their second season has a rock star vibe that no kid can resist.
Without exception, all of these sports (which the mountain resort industry is competing with!) are attracting participation by upholding their ideals. They’re celebrating the spectacles of their sports, the aspirational qualities inherent to their field of play, and the prowess of their professionals. They’re showcasing the potential of participation to inspire. Perhaps most crucially, they aren’t trying to lower the bar to entry so low as to eliminate any question of “could I do it”. I believe that those examples are where we need to get to as an industry. We need to start engaging our core skiers and riders, but we also need to start engaging our never-evers the way esports speaks to basement dwelling teenage boys. They know their best customers; they understand what makes them tick, how to motivate them, and how to lure them back again and again, creating a community that not only welcomes them but secures them. They don’t do it with 25% off lessons ads. They also don’t do it by positioning the sport as accessible to everyone. They play to expertise, inspiration, aspiration, and heroes. This is where we need to take our cues from.