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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of Nov 26 - Dec 2, 2003


New riders
reinvent skiing

Interest energizes stagnating sport

"Skiing, or snow sliding of any kind, does not really need rules, regulations, accepted technique or appropriate attire. Once that attitude became a reality, not a marketing slogan, a new generation signed on."


Express Staff Writer

The multibillion dollar U.S. ski industry is getting some help from young skiers and snowboarders, who have simultaneously reinvented the sport and pulled it out of a decade-long doldrums.

Following more than 10 years of stagnating skier visits, ski areas are finally showing vitality despite long-held fears that the sport’s aging core market and lack of new participants would eventually be its Achilles heel.

Because of burgeoning interest among young skiers and snowboarders, some long-needed snow and lift ticket and lodging discounts, ski resort visits throughout most of ski country during the 2002-2003 season broke records. Sun Valley, however, did not match the trend and posted its poorest season in six years.

According to the National Ski Areas Association, the U.S. ski industry recorded nearly 57.6 million visits last winter, up from 54.4 million the previous season. Sun Valley posted 367,631 skier days last year, about 9.5 percent fewer skiers than the previous year’s 405,700 skiers.

Sun Valley Co. officials credited marginal weather and the war in Iraq for the local downturn. But the fact remains that most U.S. ski areas did very well last year.

"In years past, skier visits hovered around 46 million in a poor season to 54 million in a good one," said National Ski Areas Association President Michael Berry. "Last season's numbers, which follow two other very strong seasons, re-emphasize that the industry is becoming more resilient and successfully attracting beginners, families and important youth markets with creative new programs."

While the number of skiers has flattened out, the number of snowboarders has grown. Last winter, snowboarders accounted for nearly 30 percent of all lift ticket sales nationwide and almost 50 percent in the Pacific Northwest.

At the same time, there has been an influx of young skiers who have been drawn to the sport because of the popularity of free riding—skiing the entire mountain without the structure of gates or the knee-friendly corduroy of groomed runs. Free riders are also drawn to riding in terrain parks that are modeled after skateboard parks.

Terrain parks—used by skiers and snowboarders—include features where the snow is shaped over humps and jumps that enable riders to become airborne and perform various gravity-defying stunts. Rails—used by skiers and snowboarders to slide while tetering—are also incorporated as features in terrain parks.

According to Ford Frick, managing director of BBC Research and Consulting in Denver and who authored a recent study called "The American Ski Industry—Alive, Well and Even Growing," kids who were bored with their parents’ sport took it upon themselves to reenergize skiing.

"The greatest concern for resorts was that skiing was traditionally a sport for baby boomers, and there was uncertainty as to whether or not their children would attach themselves to it," Frick told a New York City reporter. "What happened is that kids found their own way to interpret skiing. They reinvented it for themselves."

The impact of the new skiing style has been realized at large and small ski areas, alike.

According to the ski areas association, many small ski areas saw significant market share increases last year because of recently completed terrain parks. Ski areas do not need to be situated on large mountains to build a competitive terrain park, Frick pointed out.

Most every ski area in North America has taken steps to lure the youth market, and Sun Valley, a long-time holdout, is among them.

This winter, Sun Valley will unveil its new Superpipe, a world-class halfpipe that was built near the Warm Springs base of Bald Mountain over the summer.

Though local youth are clearly excited about the new half pipe, they continue to lament the absence of a local terrain park. On Saturday, Nov. 8, a group of local teens built terrain park-like features near the Warm Springs base of Bald Mountain.

After nailing a rail slide on a homemade rail, skier Cassidy O’Connor of Bellevue said that is the kind of riding local kids don’t get to do much unless they travel to other resorts.

"We really need a park," he said.

According to Frick’s study, the ski industry’s improving numbers, particularly during an economic recession, might not be as vexing as some believe.

"This story may be a simple one of an industry that stopped doing business as usual, listened to the market and responded in kind—a management change of heart accompanied by fortuitous improvements in ski technology," he wrote. "In essence, this is a case study in business back-to-basics, and a lesson in the value of listening well and simply giving the market what it wants."

Frick said the early-1990s were a time when snowboarding helped to change the image and, more importantly, attitude of snow sports. Though the snowboard infusion was first resisted by traditional skiers, it has grown to dominate the fashions, styles and attitudes of many snow sports participants.

Frick continued:

"The introduction of snowboarding, and the rapid rise in telemark skiing, free skiing and a number of other equipment variations, have been a breakthrough for the ski industry—not just because they drew a new generation of participants, but because they reminded an increasingly stodgy industry that ‘skiing’ was fundamentally about unstructured, outdoor recreation and the individual freedom and adventure that if offers.

"…Skiing, or snow sliding of any kind, does not really need rules, regulations, accepted technique or appropriate attire. Once that attitude became a reality, not a marketing slogan, a new generation signed on."



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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.