Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Quintessential Ski Couple

Al Raine and Nancy Greene Raine at Sun Peaks
(Photo by Nathan Froese/Courtesy Sun Peaks Resort)
Al Raine, a former ski racer, coach and resort hotel entrepreneur, has been Mayor of Sun Peaks Resort, near Kamloops, British Columbia since 2010. And yet back in his gung-ho ski racing youth his parents were anxious that he might never find a ‘real job’.

His introduction to skiing was in his preteen years at Mt Seymour in North Vancouver and he went on to ski at Mt Baker where his childhood mentors were Al Menzies and Franz Gabl. During the 1960s, Al lived and ski raced in Badgastein, Austria where he learned German. A trilingual coach, Al rose rapidly through the ranks from club level, to division and, ultimately, to the national team. He was Head Coach and Program Director for the Canadian ski team from 1968-73.

(Photo by Royce Sihlis/Courtesy of Sun Peaks Resort)
In 1974 he turned to the ski industry, working first as BC’s Provincial Ski Coordinator where he authored BC’s successful Commercial Ski Alpine Policy and served as the provincially appointed councilor on Whistler’s Municipal Council between 1975-80. He went on to become the Executive Director for the Whistler Resort Association from 1980-82. Winter wanderlust sent him on sabbatical to Switzerland with his family from 1983-85. And, on his return to Canada, he brought progressive European inspirations to hotel projects he developed and managed, first in Whistler and then in Sun Peaks between 1985 and 2010. In 1988 Raine was inducted into the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame.

Sun Peaks Resort at night by Adam Stein
(Courtesy of Sun Peaks Resort)
During his phenomenal fifty-year career he has noticed major changes in the focus and infrastructure of the ski industry. “From 1950 to the 1960s skiing was a small family of people, smaller ski areas and everyone knew everybody who skied,” Raine recounts. By the 1970s Canadian skiing had become “chic”, he says, with more expensive, bigger and more commodious resorts: “By the 80s and 90s, resorts were full service and skiers were no longer hard core ‘mountain people’ except for the minority.” This is when resorts started to focus on a wider range of facilities and amenities to make skiing a comfortable winter vacation for everyone. Raine says resorts began to improve access, lifts, grooming, and ski equipment to reflect this softer trend.

The roads were made wide enough for
sleigh rides right through town
(Photo by Adam Stein/Courtesy of Sun Peaks Resort)
Nowadays, as Mayor of Sun Peaks, Raine is committed to providing a positive experience for everyone in town. “As their council, we do what is necessary to improve the resort for those who live, work, and visit Sun Peaks,” he explains.

Ironically, the resort he moved from is Sun Peaks’ main rival in attracting destination skiers. “The major competition for Sun Peaks is Whistler in the long haul markets and Okanagan ski areas in the regional market. But we focus mainly on improving our product and service and not on what the other resorts are doing,” says Raine.

His format for a great ski vacation follows the 6, 8 and 10 rule: “Winter sports today cater to the masses and it is much more than just the sport, we are in the entertainment business and there are only six hours of skiing, eight hours of sleeping and rest and 10 hours - or the biggest part of the day - is spent eating, socializing, relaxing, enjoying friends etc. These 10 hours of fun with friends and family are a very important part of our business today.”

Ski School treats
(Photo by Adam Stein/Courtesy of Sun Peaks Resort)
And Sun Peaks has certainly cornered the market on après ski entertainments. As well as having lovely, alpine architecture and décor throughout the easily walkable resort, it has a full menu of activities including bungee trampoline, cat trax groomer rides, dog sled tours, horse drawn sleigh rides, fondue dinner with torchlight descent, snow limo, snowmobile tours, snowshoeing, tube park, pro-photographer shoots, first tracks breakfast, resort transit, a wide array of accommodation and eateries and spas, as well as the more traditional ice skating and ice hockey. “In the old days, skiing and ice skating were about the only activities happening in winter,” says Raine. “Today there is a ton of competition for the entertainment activities, indoor tennis, fitness halls, basketball, volleyball, professional sports watching, badminton, squash etc., mostly easy and relatively inexpensive to access.”

These kinds of facilities also facilitate four-seasons’ functionality which Raine considers vital for the future success of Sun Peaks, and ski resorts in general. “Resorts must diversify during the winter months and for the off season,” says Raine. “The best resorts in the future will be those that have strong winter and summer seasons, better value for money and better staff and services. The economics of resort operations change when you have year round revenues and stable committed year round staff.”

Nancy Greene Raine
(Photo by Adam Stein/Courtesy of Sun Peaks Resort)
His love of skiing is reflected by his career path but, when asked what the perks of his job are, he says “I met my partner for life.” This is Nancy Greene Raine who as Nancy Greene is known to millions of ski fans for her illustrious career in ski racing. She was top racer for Canada throughout the 1960s, winning Olympic gold and silver in 1968 and notching up 13 World Cup victories (still a Canadian record), and 17 Canadian Championship titles. She then went on to become the mother of team ski racing for children all over Canada when the Nancy Greene Ski League spread across the country on the tailcoats of her 1968 successes. Interestingly, Al Raine, then the Southern Ontario Coach, proposed the League and asked Nancy to endorse it the year prior to her Olympic medals. Greene is still Honourary Chairman of the League and in 1999 she was named Canada’s female athlete of the century.

Nowadays, her roles include Director of Skiing at Sun Peaks, Chancellor Emerita of Thompson Rivers University and also, since Jan 2009, Senator for British Columbia in the Government of Canada. And she still finds time to guide people around the mountain, working for the Sun Peaks Resort Corporation as well as Tourism Sun Peaks. "My situation is pretty unique, and I am very much part of a team,” she says. "I've never considered what I do as a 'job' - certainly I don't have a job description. I just use my initiative to promote Sun Peaks as best I can, and to be out on the slopes connecting with our guests every chance I get.”

An amazing skier, Nancy Greene Raine
still guides and hosts on the slopes
of Sun Peaks
(Photo by Paul Morrison/
Courtesy of Sun Peaks Resort)
As well as her value in celebrity endorsement, her interaction with tourists helps garner valuable feedback to resort management. And being able to ski with Nancy Greene is an added “wow factor” for visiting media and travel industry personnel as well as resort guests, as Nancy skis with them daily when she is at home.

For many years she partnered with Raine in the building and running of Nancy Greene’s Cahilty Lodge at Sun Peaks. “We have sold the hotel management company to former staff, but still assist with hosting,” she says. “Everything I have been able to do in ski tourism has been alongside Al." The two were married a year after Greene retired from ski racing at the age of 24.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Year Round Dream Skiing

Gerry Winchester on Snowbird's groomers 

Word of mouth, a website presence and a high return rate have been the driving forces behind a North/South American tour operator’s success. Gerry Winchester, originally from Alberta, Canada, relocated DreamSki Adventures, his boutique ski guiding business to Chile in 2010.

Established in Banff in 2004, the head office is now in Santiago with tours taking place in the USA, Japan and South America. The company offers all-inclusive guided resort-based tour packages which follow the best snow conditions. “The customers set up their own flights and we look after all the rest from the time we pick them up at the airport until we return them to the airport,” says Winchester. “The DreamSki concept is to take small groups on traveling ski tours that go where there is more snow and less people because that’s what I like and what they are looking for, too.”

Groups of around 10 skiers – average age 40-60 - spend each day with two guides, visiting three to five resorts, based on weather and snow conditions, during their trip. “We’re unique as far as the South American market is concerned. My guys are guides as well as high level trained instructors and offer ski improvement throughout the tour,” he explains. The idea is to blend tuition with practice, while exploring different segments of each resort, until the new movement or feeling becomes an intrinsic part of the skiers’ muscle memory. “This method can really change your skiing and you have fun doing it,” Winchester adds. “It’s instruction with lots of guided mileage because for adults it takes lot of repetition for new messages to stick as opposed to the younger mind.”

Gerry Winchester ploughing the pow at Snowbird, Utah
During northern hemisphere winter, DreamSki runs tours to Utah, Southwest Colorado, Montana and Wyoming and to Chile and Argentina in southern winter/northern summer. Since 2010 Japan has been added to the January schedule in the eternal quest for more powder, less people. “Japan has only just started to come into North American consciousness,” Winchester says. But he started researching the Japanese ski areas back in 2008 just as the economic crisis hit the West. He found that Australian skiers had been exploring Japan since around 2000, particularly Hokkaido due to a substantial snow record.

Winchester started out as a professional engineer in oil rich Alberta. During that time he indulged his passion for skiing by teaching part time during evenings. “I finally pulled the plug on my engineering and went to the mountains for a season in Banff to teach for Club Ski, a three-day instructing and guiding program for tourists,” he says. The fledgling company initially operated in Chile during the Canadian summer and then added tours in Canada during the winter due to the popular DreamSki format in Chile. “I was going back and forth for around six or seven years, swapping hemispheres,” says Winchester.

His experiences working for Club Ski at Ski Big 3 resorts - Lake Louise, Sunshine and MtNorquay - were the basis for DreamSki Adventures. “Club Ski’s a very popular program, with around 99 percent Brits,” he says. “And so, using that data base, I started my own business and from there it spread by word of mouth.” He also promoted DreamSki at ski shows in London, Birmingham, Calgary and Toronto in 2006 and 2007 to give the business a kick start. “Since then we have a high rate of return clients, and success with word of mouth and our web presence,” he adds.

Gerry Winchester cat-skiing at Grand Targhee, Wyoming
DreamSki customers are generally empty nesters, child-free couples or single travelers.  “They tend to be working professionals who aren’t encumbered by growing families and, as they are signing up for a group program, everybody tends to be very likeminded and sociable,” says Winchester. This social element of the skiing makes the program easier to implement and more enjoyable for the clients and for the guides. But it is primarily adventure and new frontiers that both customers and guides are seeking. “It’s something different that we are all after. Our destinations are unique,” Winchester explains. “Japan has other guided tours but our ski improvement and combination with powder skiing and travel and the experience element make us different.”

The tours are not just about the skiing, however. There is also an emphasis on the unique nature of each location. “Chile’s great: wine is a big part of the culture,” says Winchester. “We travel to the central valley to visit vineyards and have wine tastings. We show some of the culture while getting in lots of ski days.”

Gerry Winchester
DreamSki mainly attracts experienced skiers varying in ability level from intermediate to advanced and expert. The intermediates, mostly British and Australian, can join tours rated for them in the hope of improving sufficiently to enjoy the powder on that tour and subsequent trips. “We have one lady who is about to set the record at nine tours with us,” says Winchester. “Her feedback from her first one - the Chile tour - reinvigorated her interest in skiing as she improved her technique to the point where she was enjoying the sport in an entirely new way.” Occasionally a snowboarder will book a trip but the majority of clients are dedicated skiers. DreamSki’s edge, says Winchester, is having guides who really enjoy working with people. “Other companies often employ guides who are former patrollers, lone wolf types, who don’t offer the same social aspect or that extra support on the hill. We’re student-centered rather than teacher-centered like European models.”

In terms of marketing, social media is a new priority for DreamSki Adventures. Blogging has been a useful tool, with new content, rather than interaction, being the main thrust. “It’s hard to track results from the blog but basically it’s for Google. We’re still working on a wider social media presence but haven’t put a lot of effort into that yet because we concentrate so much on word of mouth publicizing.”

Winchester also employs agents, one web-based in Australia and others in the UK where his original customer pool was situated. “That’s where 90 percent of my market was and it was a fun market to work with,” he reflects. “Those guys are great in groups but, of course, after the 08/09 banking crisis, things backed off on the UK market a little bit and it’s been up and down since then to the point that it’s now the smaller portion of our clientele.” Nowadays the bulk of his clientele comes from Australia and Canada where the economies are more stable.

DreamSki group at Chapelco Ski Resort in Argentina's Patagonia region
Working with hotels in a variety of countries can be a challenge due to the small group sizes of 10 per tour. DreamSki endeavors to operate as a wholesaler with hotels but relationships differ from country to country and resort to resort. Chilean ski resorts are amenable to smaller groups but other destinations require a larger commitment for accommodation and lift passes. “In some places we actually buy tickets at the window, and other places we have wholesale contracts,” Winchester explains. The USA is the most accommodating in this respect.

Competition for DreamSki is limited due to the niche nature of the business. There are just two other rival companies in Chile whose focus is more backcountry skiing than resort-based guiding. Winchester does not trawl websites to keep his pricing and marketing competitive as he finds his product sells itself: “It’s been all kind of serendipitous. Because we’re so small and boutique, I just do my own thing and people seem to find me. That’s the benefit of the Internet.”

In terms of the future, Winchester doesn’t anticipate much growth in the North American ski industry, mainly due to prohibitive costs. “It’s becoming too elitist,” he maintains. “I grew up in Alberta where families just went skiing as a recreational thing. Now it’s much more expensive and the average family can’t introduce it to their kids as easily.” He’s also dismayed by the trend for corporate culture to take over from individual and independent management in ski areas throughout North America and, more recently, in South America. With Japan now fully discovered by Australian skiers and Chile and Argentina engulfed by the Brazilian market, Winchester sees the future for growth in skiing in places like Russia and Kashmir.

Valle Nevado Ski Resort, Chile

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Powder Matt: Social Media Maven

With Nakiska open, Fernie opening tomorrow, Kicking Horse kicking off with a bonus preview weekend Dec 6-7, and Kimberley following suit Dec 12, I thought it was a great time to introduce you to Resorts of the Canadian Rockies' bountiful blogger and masterly marketing VP, Powder Matt

Powder Matt in new glades at Kimberley Alpine Resort
When you think of ski resort personnel, you imagine them skiing into work each day, sitting in their desks in ski gear and zooming off for a powder rather than power lunch. This is not the case, though, for many corporate staff who work for the bigger ski areas. They are often based in major cities like Calgary or Denver, as far away from the action as most of their regional visitors.

As Senior Vice President, Marketing, Sales & Resort Experience, for Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, Matt Mosteller – aka Powder Matt – is one of these corporate commuters. “Most of us work here at RCR Calgary office work in a building that was originally a music store,” Mosteller says. “Now the only music that is played is the sound-track from the various Dylan Siggers and Kalum Ko videos that are sharing loads of powder skiing and snowboarding eye candy.”

Stoneham pipe (Photo by Olivier Croteau)
Don’t feel too sorry for powder lover and ski blogger, Mosteller though – his is a roving position and he gets plenty of time to plough the pow in the six resorts – Nakiska, Fernie, Kimberley, Kicking Horse, Stoneham and Mont Sainte Anne – under the RCR umbrella. To keep fit while at his Calgary desk, he bikes even in winter and sometimes skis to work.

Powder Matt’s love affair with skiing started at the age of four when he vowed to enjoy and share the incredible attributes of winter sports throughout his life. These attributes include everything from “the special bond, to the benefits of spending time outdoors, to the thrill of floating through fluffy weightless and effortless powder on a bluebird day in the Canadian Rockies.”

Matt backcountry skiing in the Purcell Mountains
of British Columbia
After graduating from the University of Washington in English with a marketing focus, Mosteller majored in ski bumming throughout the mountains of Washington, Idaho, Colorado, Montana and his favorite destination, British Columbia. It was this ski resort internship that refined his philosophy on finding the perfect work/play mix: “Being a ski bum taught me many lessons in life - respect and treat everyone with kindness as you never know when you might need a place to stay or a meal,” he says. Lesson two was laugh lots and maintain a positive attitude in all relationships. “Also, build trust into everything you do - heck even ski bums can work at banks and you can’t if you make a mistake. Go ahead and give it a try - life is built on learning,” he adds. But most of all his mantra is to stay healthy, get outdoors as often as possible and experience nature. All these facets are intrinsic to a positive brand, he concludes.

He worked his way up the ski management ladder, starting first as ski school director at Whitefish, Montana in 1991, moving on to manager of guest experience and then relocating to Kimberley, BC, Canada to work as VP Marketing in the real estate division of RCR from 1998-2001.

Fernie Alpine Resort
These days he channels his love of the outdoors, humor, positivity and enthusiasm for skiing in his prolific use of social media. “Everything is social now - the critical aspect is being authentic, be creative, and share, share, share,” he explains. He warns against the possibility of over-promising and under-delivering, though, and is insistent on listening to and learning from guest experiences. “One of the key changes is the ability to really scan and aggregate the social intelligence and understand more about your brand’s klout, the behaviors of your guests and their interests,” he says. With RCR Mosteller uses Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and Flickr to disperse information and garner valuable feedback. And, as Powder Matt, he blogs regularly year round on mountain conditions, events, activities and fitness, linking with a veritable menu of social media including Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Google+, email, Reddit, Wordpress, Pinterest, Tumblr and StumbleUpon.

Will Smit at Kimberley Alpine Resort (Photo by Louise Hudson)
Mosteller says that social media is no longer just a simple update on snow reports or sharing web cam images. It has taken on the secondary role of guest relations. “It provides the critical immediate voice of customer which is so important to delivering service excellence,” he explains. “As the guest depends on real time updates to decide on where they are skiing, that day, next week or for their annual vacation, it plays a critical role in your communication plan and social media must be integrated into your marketing plan to really turn up the dial on effectiveness - depth, breadth and reach with the market.”

In order for social media to be consumed in a meaningful way, it has to be accurate, fun and, above all, an authentic voice. “We started one of the earliest blogs,, and it has really taken off both as a communication tool, so your more core guests have a place to get those nuggets of updates on summer capital work, or new trails etc, but also the vacation guests enjoy hearing the real grit and inspiration of real mountain town going-ons,” Mosteller explains.

Kicking Horse Alpine Resort
Mosteller’s positive philosophy extends to rival resorts which he sees as industry partners who work together to grow the sport rather than competition. The real challenges lie, he thinks, in global factors which are beyond the everyday remit of ski resort staff: “Airline capacity, exchange rates, and global unrest and how much things out of your control can have an effect on tourism,” he explains.
Mosteller’s job has included hosting the Hollywood cast of the blockbuster movie Inception at Nakiska Ski Resort where he skied with Leonardo DiCaprio’s crew. But he says all the wonderful people he gets to ski with are famous to him. For the future he recommends maintaining skiing’s original authenticity but at the same time leveraging the energy and innovation of the new people within the industry. Snowboarding has been a dynamic game changer, he says, stimulating ski companies to refine their products and positioning. “Now we see all mountain, freeski, big mountain, and ski touring all on a growth trend,” he adds.

Multi-tasking Mosteller is also a ski columnist for Canadian publications, an author - Adventurer's Guide to Living a Happy Life – and an outdoor adventurer: In January 2011 my wife and I competed in what some say is the world's toughest winter adventure race, "The Yukon Challenge" - over 1600 miles from Whitehorse to Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories with 10 events including snowshoeing, dog-sledding, running and climbing.”
"Snow celebrations happen regularly when you get up to 43 feet of snow- but they never lose their magic
at Fernie Alpine Resort," says Powder Matt