Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Building the mountain brand

48 Straight events highlight co-founder?s greater goal

Express Staff Writer

Kipp Nelson

"We want to create something that reflects our mountain culture and who we are," said Kipp Nelson, co-founder of 48 Straight and the winter event formerly known as the Honda Ski Tour.

For Nelson, the ski and snowboard competitions, concerts and other cultural activities that will take place this weekend are merely the capstone example of what he is trying to accomplish.

"We're headed towards a brand that people identify and connect to the mountains," Nelson said.

This overarching goal is the result of a personal passion, rather than the business acumen garnered from Nelson's decade-long stint as a trader with the internationally renowned investment bank Goldman Sachs.

"The background is autobiographical," Nelson said of the venture he began last year with long-time friend and fellow Ketchum resident Steve Brown. "I was that guy riding the bus from San Francisco to Tahoe to ski on the weekends."

Now he is reveling in the chance to help foster and increase the opportunities available to those who share his passion.

"Just because a guy's in a cubicle doesn't mean he doesn't identify with the mountains," Nelson said.

While there are a number of brands, such as Patagonia or Burton, that capitalize on this lifestyle, Nelson said he wanted to flip this business model on its head, promoting the mountains rather than a specific product.

"We're trying to address the people who say, 'Show me you get the mountains—don't just try to sell me a jacket,'" Nelson said.

And this demonstration includes everything from a battle between the world's best skiercross racers to three days of environmental symposiums to a performance by the politically charged musician Michael Franti.

"This is designed to include everyone," Nelson said. "If my mother comes and isn't interested in a rock 'n' roll concert, she can go see the Company of Fools perform a play or spend Friday night on the gallery walk."

Nelson likened 48 Straight to Chautauqua, an adult education movement in the beginning of the 20th century in which assemblies of speakers, teachers, musicians and entertainers would travel and provide cultural activities in communities where they otherwise weren't available.

A former college ski racer and board member of the United States Ski and Snowboard Association, Nelson said the rather limited number of high-profile ski events in the United States are made for a TV audience, rather than on-site spectators.

"We want to show not only the competitions, but also these kick-ass resorts and events," Nelson said.

While this year's event will have a total of five hours of television coverage, Nelson said it will take more than TV to attract people to the 48 Straight locations and, as importantly, to build the brand.

"We want to do perennial events for which people block off their calendars," Nelson said. "A lot of people are desperate to get to the mountains and we want them to choose to spend time with us during these events."

As means to that end, 48 Straight is waging on the popularity and fan base of well-known musical acts, such as Franti, which will help introduce more people to mountain towns such as Ketchum.

Once the brand is established, Nelson said, the organization could head in a number of directions, perhaps offering everything from travel services to clothing.

In the meantime, however, they are concentrating on making sure that what they've built thus far is sustainable. Although 48 Straight is still in the red, Nelson said they already have far more sponsorship revenue than in the inaugural year.

"Our goal is to break even by the end of next year," Nelson said. "For the first couple years, we just have to spend some money to put on a great show and see what works. Hopefully, in the end, we'll be the only brand that personifies what the mountains are all about."

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