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

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