Tuesday, January 26, 2016

X-citing, X-treme, X-travagant: The X Games

Andrew Gauthier
Launched in 1995 in Newport, Rhode Island, the X Games is an extreme sports competition encompassing skateboarding and motocross and, since 1997, winter sports including snowboarding, skiing and snowmobiling. It acts as an incubator for the latest, hip sports both for summer and winter.

Targeting Generations X and Y, the annual X Games competitions are put on by American sports broadcaster ESPN and also shown on ABC Sports. Since 2002, the winter event has been held at Aspen’s Buttermilk ski hill. The Summer X Games moved from Los Angeles to Austin, Texas in 2014.

Chris Schuster, President & Founder of the Association of Freeskiing Professionals (AFP), provides the management team for X Games under his company Event Production Specialists (EPS Events). Based in North Lake Tahoe, Andrew Gauthier is AFP’s Marketing & World Tour Manager.As a member of the EPS team, we manage all sports and competition at X-Games. We are responsible for coordinating between ESPN Live TV, the athletes, the judges, hospitality, medical, and the course builders,” says Gauthier. “As a crucial pivot point for these events to occur, we ensure that the timing, the safety, the competition process are all aligned. Furthermore, we also are responsible for coordinating athlete practices for each discipline.”

Executive Director for AFP, Eric Zerrenner, was originally looking for a couple of interns from Sierra Nevada College to do the work that Gauthier now does. At the time Gauthier was evaluating different marketing coordinator roles, going through interviews at various resorts such as Sugar Bowl, Kirkwood, Squaw Valley, and Northstar while finishing his MBA. When he saw the request for interns for AFP he came up with a novel idea. “The job description was extensive, but I thought two or three internships could potentially add up to one job,” Gauthier explains. After some negotiations, Gauthier’s new role was created.

Marketing and sales are his chief areas, with a wide involvement in sponsorships and partnerships, social media strategy, event promotion, athlete membership drives, and also basic video editing for exclusive AFP content. The AFP World Tour is another of his responsibilities. “I accept and review all event sanctioning applications, update athlete rankings with new event results and manage the AFP judging program,” he explains. This includes procurement, education and scheduling for all AFP Certified Judges. Along side Jeff Schmuck (Managing Editor of @SBCSkier Mag), he also manages all event media and content on afpworldtour.com and is responsible for athlete communications. Gauthier creates and distributes all formal AFP documentation, manages the inventory logistics including banners, signage, cameras, equipment etc. And he distributes and analyzes post-season surveys to both athletes and event organizers. Ironically, he also gets to manage new interns from Sierra Nevada College.

Despite this taxing tally of tasks, Gauthier thrives on the scope, the deadlines and the competitive nature of his work. And, it’s also a pretty glamorous job. Travelling to the premier North American ski resorts, he meets the world’s top freeskiing and snowboarding athletes. “It is difficult to pinpoint one star struck moment,” he says. “However, I believe when I finished my last powder run at
Whistler at the 2013/14 AFP World Championships, myself, Mike Atkinson, and Chris Schuster (ski sport organizer for Winter X Games) popped out of our bindings and there was none other than Mike Douglas. Basically, he was the leader of the Canadian Air Force, creator of the D-Spin and just a huge freeski star. We had lunch soon after with the AFP team, Mike, and Jeff Schmuck. What a day that was!”

The position comes with other perks, too, particularly living the winter sports lifestyle. “I did not grow up a skier, racer, or competitor. It was the environment, community and the people that attracted me to the winter industry. My love for skiing and snowboarding came later,” Gauthier says.

When it comes to marketing, AFP and the X Games are heavily weighted towards social media and online advertising. “In the past, many marketing campaigns have focused on product. Today we see many brands moving away from product-focused content and more towards entertainment and building a personality of their brand,” Gauthier explains. “See Salomon Freeski TV, The North Face’s The Rise, and Atomic’s recent video series, all live on You Tube. In addition, you find many brands have a dedicated online theater, if you will, to present this content. What’s particularly interesting here is that this is the most difficult type of campaign to track back to the bottom line, yet companies continue to invest.” 

Eric Zerrenner
Gauthier’s boss, Eric Zerrenner says content is king these days: “Brands - both hard goods and soft goods - are looking to create their own, unique content. Typically this has resulted in brands looking to their sponsored athletes to provide them with this content - whether it's action footage at a comp, lifestyle footage from the offseason, training, or travels or general free skiing content. Because of social media, and the scope and immediate reach via those channels, brands are able to tap into an athlete’s audience to help them get their brand/marketing message out to a relevant and receptive audience.” 

Media, both traditional and especially social media are paramount, says Zerrenner: “As the main source for competitive freeskiing, we want to be as informative as possible about the competitions, courses, athletes and results. If we're not able to be at an event - or even at every competition at an event - social media provides instant access. We rely on this information to keeps us informed and current on what's happening within our sport and culture.”

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Never too young!

Fergus Hudson, aged 3, in Verbier 
Having started skiing myself at the ripe old age of 12, I was determined to get my kids dashing downhill as early as possible. The oldest didn’t really take to it until five but the youngest was desperate to start by three. They are both now accomplished skiers, having gone through the Nancy Greene League racing program at Mt Norquay, followed by Lake Louise’s all-mountain teenage courses.

Louise and Rupert Hudson, aged 3, in
So, at what age should kids really start to ski or snowboard? Nancy Greene Raine, Director of Skiing at Sun Peaks, says while there’s no right age, children can start skiing as soon as they walk confidently. “Our sons' first skiing was down our driveway at age two. And my mother said that she figured I had mastered my skis, probably at age three, when I could come through the back porch, across the kitchen and into the bathroom, go to the toilet, and go back outside again, all without taking off my skis!”

Colin Borrow, Snow Sports Director, Marmot Basin – and father of four - says all children are different. “Three to four years on average is a good age to start skiing. Like skiing, snowboarding depends on the child but in general six years would be a good time to start. Snowboarding requires a little more balance and strength when getting started.” Borrow says on-mountain daycare is vital for when children get tired, cold or hungry.

Young snowboarder at Sunshine Village
Limiting outdoor time is crucial, too. “With a three to five-year-old, one to two hours is as much as the average child can take - with the exception of my second, a skiing machine, who cried when the lifts stopped,” says Borrow. For kids who really feel the cold, the spring is a great time to start them off. 

Marmot Basin
Although parent-led instruction can work well, nothing beats the professional tactics of the Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance and Canadian Association of SnowboardInstructors. “We train instructors to not only teach children through demonstration, explanation, and activities/games but also in a team environment. Children can encourage and support each other, they will believe it’s possible if their peers can do it,” Borrow explains. Typical games include ‘red light, green light’ for braking practice and skiing with hands on knees to prevent sitting back.

For those anxious to give two-year-olds the wintersport bug, Lake Louise’s SnowSchool Director, Kevin Eaton has sound advice: “The term ‘skiing’ is loose at this age. Plastic skis on regular snow boots could be their first experience.” Father of two sons himself, Eaton says parents need to keep expectations low and stay positive. “Attention spans are short, mixing up activities and changing the focus will help keep smiles on their faces,” he adds.

Lake Louise has made it easier for kids to start early with its investment in Riglet Parks for youth snowboarding. “Riglet parks are super small terrain features that help facilitate learning quickly and increase the fun factor. Special leashes attach to the boards so you can pull riders standing up and they get the feeling of riding quicker,” Eaton explains. He recommends multi-week courses to learn the intricacies of the sport.

Sunshine's Tiny Tigers - Courtesy of Sunshine Village
Free passes are another inducement to start young. “Lots of ski areas offer free passes to children under 5 or 6 years old,” says Stewart Laver, Director of Snow Sport for Sunshine Village Ski & Snowboard Resort. Because of the more onerous balance issues with snowboarding, Sunshine instructors usually start kids on skis first. “It’s a statistical fact that if you learn to ski or snowboard before the age of ten, you’ll likely achieve an advanced skill level in your lifetime and will ski or snowboard at least off and on throughout your life,” says Laver, who explains that adult learners will probably only achieve an intermediate level. His own children started very young, especially his first daughter at around two. “It was usually more about being out with her parents, and getting a treat in the daylodge than it was about becoming a great skier.” He recommends the sport as a fun family activity where the kids can emulate the adults. Before they even hit the slopes, children can have fun at home putting on the boots and walking around them, getting used to the feeling ready for the snow.

Courtesy of Sunshine Village
Once at the ski hill, it’s all a question of planning, says Laver. He maintains that first impressions are important and parents should stay calm to keep it fun. He recommends layer dressing with plenty of pit stops to keep warm. And to reward the kids: “Let’s face it, food and drink are part of the snow sports experience and so you should make sure you have good food and a warm drink to give to a child as a reward for getting out there and sliding around.”

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Diversification in Ski Resorts

Check out my latest Dallas Morning News article at: 

Diversification is the key for ski resort hotels, according to Winter Sport Tourism co-author, Dr Simon Hudson.

Courtesy: Washington School House Hotel, Park City, Utah
Bang for Buck:
In an article for HotelExecutive.com, he explained how hotels in ski resorts are having to offer their guests more than just skiing and snowboarding these days in order to keep them satisfied.

Downhill Diversification:
Over the last decade or so, mountain resorts have made significant capital investments in developing alternative activities to downhill skiing and snowboarding. These activities range from the high-energy (like ice-skating, fat biking or snow-tubing) to the more passive (such as moonlit snowshoeing or hot air ballooning).

Downhill Demographics:
Three factors are driving this diversification of winter sports.  Firstly, an analysis of market trends suggests that an increasing percentage of those who take winter sport holidays on a regular basis do not ski at all.  Secondly, even avid skiers are typically skiing less. On average, they are somewhat older and new high-speed lifts enable a skier to attain his/her physical stamina quotient much more quickly. Lastly, climate change is having a negative impact on snowfall for many resorts, especially those at a low altitude. In fact, the National Resources Defense Council argues that without any intervention, winter temperatures are projected to rise an additional four to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, with subsequent decreases in snowfall amounts and shorter ski seasons. Given the predicted and increasingly serious effects of climate change after the 2050s, downhill skiing and snowboarding may become niche products in the second half of this century.

Whimsical Washington School House Hotel, Park City, Utah
Utah Trend-Setters:
On a recent visit to the ski areas of Utah, I was fortunate enough to stay at a couple of quality hotels responding to these trends,” says Hudson. “The first was Washington School House, in ParkCity, one of the town's newest luxury boutique hotels. The hotel’s website features 18 winter sport activities (see table below), ranging from the high-energy sports of bobsledding, ziplining, heli-sking and dogsledding to the more sedentary activities of yoga, hot-air ballooning and a therapeutic soak in ‘The Homestead Crater’ a 55-foot tall, beehive-shaped limestone rock that nature has hollowed out and filled with 90-96°F water.”

Winter Sports Activities at Washington School House in
Park City, Utah
(Source: Washingtonschoolhouse.com)
Ride in one- or two-person toboggans through the aspen glades on the coaster’s elevated track as it winds through nearly 4,000 feet of breathtaking curves, bends and loops
Bobsled Rides on “The Comet” at Utah Olympic Park
Ride with a trained pilot through 15 curves, reaching speeds up to 80 mph, and pulling close to 5Gs of force over the equivalent of a 40-story vertical drop
Cross country ski
Ski though Park City’s gorgeous tracks for one of the best workouts of your life – all skill levels welcome
A unique experience for you to play with the pups, learn how to drive the sled and spend the day experiencing an interactive family adventure
Fly fish
Fish on the Provo River, Weber River or other area streams and creeks on a custom, guided trip
The Park City Mountain Resort allows you to soar to new heights all winter long on this two-person ride full of fun for both kids and adults
Takes the advanced skier and snowboarder to new heights. Head into the mountain areas where you can ski and board in untouched snow, cutting through deep, fluffy, Utah powder
Historic Mountain Tours
Takes you through Park City’s intriguing mining town past with a complementary guided, historic, on-mountain tour of the Park City Mountain Resort
The Homestead Crater
A 55-foot tall, beehive-shaped limestone rock that nature has hollowed out and filled with 90-96°F water. Swim, scuba dive, snorkel or enjoy a therapeutic soak
Horseback ride
Ride through breathtaking scenery as you traverse through the pristine mountain terrain of Park City
Hot air ballooning
A thrilling experience that takes you a mile up in the sky for amazing views of Park City, the beautiful Wasatch and Uinta Mountains and Salt Lake City
Ice Skate
One of Park City’s two skating venues – a great way to enjoy time together off the slopes
A unique winter excursion and can be combined with special dinner experiences, even in a Viking Yurt, where the thrill of being the only ones dining on the top of the mountain is breathtaking
Experience unsurpassed views, unmatched scenery, the best snowmobiles, and professional guides committed to excellent experiences and your safety
Through the absolute stillness of the winter woods, whether you are looking for a scenic aerobic experience or just a peaceful escape
A downhill blast for the whole family, with lift-served tubing lanes and snowy play areas for the little ones
Invites you to explore the place where Olympic dreams came true in 2002 and are still motivating today's aspiring Olympians
A one-of-a-kind adventure off the ski hills, yoga paddleboarding or a yoga and snowshoeing trek is sure to entertain your adventurous spirit

Yoga Paddleboarding at the Homestead Crater
(courtesy: Washington School House Hotel)
Michael Gregory, General Manager at Washington School House, suggests that it is a general trend in the industry overall that the amount of people that are getting involved in skiing is declining: “So we want to be ahead of the curve and see that we provide options for the non-skiers.” Gregory says that most of the companies providing these alternative activities will reach out to him. “We do have packages where we do incorporate activities but in general we just want to let guests know of all the possibilities aside from skiing. A lot of the staff around the hotel are also very active, too, doing many of the activities that we are advertising, and that helps.” Gregory says that snowshoeing, in particular, has been really popular, as well as traditional mountain hiking. “Stand-up paddle-boarding in the Homestead Crater is very popular and also many families take kids out to the crater just to experience it. We also have snowmobiling expeditions just outside of town,” he adds. The average stay at the WashingtonSchool House is four nights in the winter, compared to two in the summer.  

Thirty Winter Wonders to explore with The Montage DeerValley, Utah
The second hotel Hudson visited that is diversifying its offerings to winter visitors was The Montage, Deer Valley. Here, alternatives to traditional downhill skiing run the gamut from cross-country skiing, snowcat and helicopter skiing, to snowshoeing, tubing, ice-skating, snowmobiling, dog sledding and train rides. For the 2014-15 winter season, The Montage produced a Winter Wonders guide with a full list of 30 activities in Park City that are ideal for non-skiers.  

Dan Howard, Director of Public Relations for the hotel at the time, said that the trend towards people engaging in activities outside of skiing inspired The Montage to issue this new brochure. “It’s very straightforward – we wanted to answer the question I would love to go to Deer Valley but I don’t ski’ – and now we have given them things to stay here for two weeks,” Howard explains. “We even offer a Montage to Moab day trip to hike and mountain bike, break up the ski trip and get a change of scene – it’s by private plane and so you get back to The Montage by dinner time. It’s only a 45-minute flight but it would be impossible to drive there and back in the same day.”

The Montage Deer Valley, Utah
In contrast to the Washington School House, The Montage organizes most of these activities itself from its Compass Sports shop. “We curate them for our Montage guests, ensuring first that there is a high standard of quality and level of service,” says Howard. The program of activities began in the summer, he adds, but they then began to realize that winter guests were also looking for variety. “We started to see that having all these things to do means the grandmother can come, and so, too, can the grandchildren. Multi-generational winter vacations are definitely on the up.”

Howard admits that winter vacations at The Montage are usually motivated by skiers but that many of these skiers would not bring the family without alternative activities. “We needed to have a program to show guests that they will be satisfied regardless of skiing. They have to know this in advance otherwise they wouldn’t risk bringing a family. They start to learn about all the options after a few visits.”

Spa at The Montage, Deer Valley, Utah
The spa at the hotel remains a key feature and attraction for the hotel. “It is the largest spa in Utah, and is a huge part of Montage culture,” says Howard. “Our associates really take the time to personalize the experience - no two spa treatments at The Montage are anything alike.” Howard says a very high percentage of guests use the spa. “We charge no daily fees as we want to encourage people to use it; imposing tall walls of cost discourages people. We have complimentary instructor-led classes every day to keep people in their health routines. We want people to leave feeling better than they came.”

And it’s not just the complimentary facilities, The Montage has also used prime hotel space to house the huge spa complex. “We have dedicated the heart of the hotel to the spa – that’s a commitment. Other hotels would have made that area into guest rooms. Most hotels tend to use unusable spaces for spas,” Howard says. The spa has a signature treatment called SURRENDER in which the first 45 minutes is a conversation between a dedicated therapist and the guest to review health, exercise, diet and hereditary factors prior to being prescribed with a specialized spa ‘diagnosis regimen’ that is specific to the guest. All of the notes are maintained in The Montage database so that guests traveling to other Montage properties can continue their spa routine without needing to repeat themselves or start from the beginning.

Bowling Alley at Montage Deer Valley, Utah
Both Gregory and Howard avow that, although it may be the winters that originally draw people to Utah, they often come back in the summer and fall in love with the area. In fact, some guests end up purchasing property at The Montage to experience the mountains all-year-round, and the hotel has a dedicated property sales and management team on site.  “We want our guests to feel so completely at home here that they ultimately want to buy a property in order to have more ‘Montage’ in their life”, says Howard. With all the activities going on in the area, they will certainly never get bored!