News from the North; Lessons for the Snowboard Industry from Canadian Resorts

Last April, I headed to Tremblant for the Canadian Ski Council’s annual symposium on the state of the Canadian resort industry. Naturally, my naïve anticipation of great snowboarding had nothing to do with my decision to go.

Groomed hardpack with mud and rocks sticking through on narrow runs wasn’t what I’d expected. Thanks El Nino. At least it motivated me to go to most of the seminars and presentations. Nor did I miss a single dinner or cocktail party. I’ll be there again next year even if the snow conditions are lousy.
 
One of the presentations I attended was by a gentleman named Richard Basford of Integrated Marketing Strategies. He’d conducted for the Canadian Ski Council their annual Skier/Snowboarder survey and was presenting the preliminary results. Here’s some selected survey results that really jumped out at me.
 
First, Richard said that about 20 percent of the Canadian resorts’ winter visitors were snowboarders. No big surprise there. Then he announced that out of 4,293 responses, only 7 percent considered themselves beginners as skiers (three times skiing or less) and 9 percent considered themselves novices. That’s a total of 16% of the survey that’s just starting to ski. 
 
Now, the numbers for snowboarding were, respectively, 36 percent and 17 percent, for a total of 53 percent who are starting to snowboard.
 
Only fifteen percent of skiers have been skiing for two years or less. The number is 69 percent for snowboarders!
 
Go back and read that again, please. It’s okay- I can wait.
 
By the way, I’m pretty certain that a similar situation exists in the United States. Jim Springs of Leisure Trends presented some numbers at the SIA show in Las Vegas this year that supports that conclusion.
 
I looked around the room at the group of Canadian resort managers and owners who were attending the presentation. They were all sitting there calmly. Nobody asked a question, fainted, said “Oh dear!” or anything. I wondered if they were all hopelessly hung over from the previous evening’s business meetings. Some of them were definitely moving, so they weren’t all dead.
 
If you put a frog in cold water and raise the temperature slowly they say he’ll boil calmly to death rather than jump out. That same type of behavior-denial and perseverance during a period of change- seems to be going on in the winter sports industry right now.
 
For me, that stark, black and white survey was kind of an epiphany.
 
If the number of people starting to ski is relatively low, the drop out rate among beginners is high,and the number of existing skiers is declining due to aging, how many skiers will there be in ten years? In twenty? On the other hand, the percentage of snowboarders new to the sport is high. I’ll bet that the drop out rate is lower than skiing. I’m confident we aren’t starting to retire from snowboarding because of age. Snowboarding is growing, though not as fast as it use to.
 
But snowboarding is only twenty percent of the total. For every twenty snowboarders, there are still eighty skiers. It’s not clear to me that the industry can rely on the growth of snowboarding to make up for the decline in skiing, assuming current trends continue.
 
Somewhere in the bowels of some ski manufacturer or resort group the trends I’ve alluded to have been more thoroughly quantified and analyzed. In a more formal and systematic way, they have reached the same conclusions I’ve reached. That’s why there’s a proposal for the resorts and manufacturers to fund a three-year, $57 million promotional campaign. That’s why summer activities, tubing and mini skis are being embraced and promoted. That’s why individual resorts are upgrading facilities and creating more terrain even as, overall, their financial condition is not improving.
 
What are the implications for the snowboard industry? Two main ones, I think.
 
First, while much of the expected consolidation, measured by number of brands, may be behind us, competitive conditions are still very difficult. The brands may be gone, but most of the production capacity, with its need to keep producing something, still exists. If ski companies can’t make money selling skis (one projection is for pre season ski orders for 1998-99 to be down ten percent or more) they are going to continue to flock to the growing sport of snowboarding.
 
The evolution of the snowboard industry from its entrepreneurial roots as a distinct sport and market to a part of the winter sports industry is already being confirmed by the market segmentation that is occurring. There’s no longer a bias against snowboards made by ski companies and, with the exception of Burton, the success of every independent snow board company seems to be an uphill battle. More and more boards are sold by large companies to which snowboarding is just one of a number of product lines.
 
This industry evolution is consistent with most business theories that suggest you must either compete on price, as a volume producer, or by defining a market niche that will allow you to sustain your competitive position even though you’re more expensive. But the explosion of quality product at lower and lower prices has made it tough to be a traditional niche player. If everybody’s product quality and pricing is basically pretty comparable, that leaves marketing as the primary way to differentiate your brand. 
 
The second implication for the snowboard industry is that what the resorts are doing matters. We’re past the point where just the fact that they let us on the lift is enough.
 
Resort shops are charging manufacturers for space and displays like grocery stores charging for shelf space. Exclusive deals are being made to supply rental fleets- witness Rossignol and Intrawest. Joint promotional efforts are becoming more frequent. It seems like “resort marketing” should start to be a standard category in every snowboard company budget.
 
The Canadian Ski Council survey provided some additional statistics. They may be important as snowboard brands consider their marketing position given the increasing importance of resorts in building a brand. Sixty percent of resort visitors won’t be staying over night. Half expect to board/ski for only one day on a given trip. Seventy six percent live two or less hours from the mountains they visited.
 
Perhaps this says something about the location of the shops snowboard companies should focus on. Maybe there are products that can be developed just for the day boarder. Maybe we should be providing benches and lockers, or at least having banners, in the day lodges.
 
I’m beginning to believe that snowboard brands should be interested in building relationships with some local resorts and sharing information with them for the benefit both of the company and the resort. I’d try and use the resort’s perspective, and information they would hopefully share on the composition of their visitors, to help me differentiate my brand.
 
We’ve all talked about our period of consolidation ending. If that is measured by stabilization in the number of snowboard brands, we can expect to be there in less than a year. But the end of the brand consolidation should not be assumed to imply a return to a more rational competitive environment.
 
The snowboard industry is not the distinct industry it use to be. It’s part of the winter sports industry and subject more than ever to the trials and tribulations of the ski companies and resorts.
 

We can learn a lot by looking at who’s visiting resorts and what they are doing while they are there. Maybe we can even help the resorts deal with some of their own competitive issues