Winter Resorts and Snowboarding; Why Does It Seem Like an Arranged Marriage?

The Medici family of Italy rose to commercial prominence during the renaissance at least partly because of their ability to make or receive payments in widely dispersed geographic locations. Lacking a wire transfer system, they arranged marriages between family members and other prominent merchants in commercial centers that gave them the ability to move money or goods through somebody they could trust. There was no love lost, but the commercial opportunities were too good to pass up.

 Sound a little like winter resorts and snowboarding?   The antagonism of past years has largely evaporated. We don’t have complete enthusiasm, but it seems like we’ve at least worked our way past grudging acceptance. We’re certainly a long way from understanding. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t have had Animal foisted on us as a mascot.
 
At the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) last May, the moderator asked the panel of four CEOs of major resorts, “What about snowboarding?” There was a pause before Adam Aron, CEO of Vail and, interestingly enough, a newcomer to the winter sports business said something like, “It’s here, it’s not going away, that’s it.”   There was another pause before the conversations moved on, with what I thought was palpable relief, to another subject. 
 
Is this any way to treat the sport that represents 17% of lift tickets, is growing rapidly, and, frankly, has saved your posterior quarter while skiing has stagnated?
 
Maybe. There’s a couple of things that may explain this can’t live with us, can’t live without us attitude and behavior.
 
Legitimate Lifestyle Differences
 
The NSAA meeting was my first exposure to a ski industry gathering. Those of you in snowboarding who have never been to one should try it. It really brings home the differences between the two sports. It was more subdued than a snowboard gathering, dress was more conservative (tuckers in button down shirts) and the average age, higher. The number of relationships that went back thirty plus years seemed astounding. The meeting was about business and, for better or worse, the passion and concern for the sport that has been so common in snowboarding was less obvious. A number of ski industry veterans commented on that fact with concern.
 
I had a good time and don’t make the above comments as a criticism, but as a statement of obvious differences. Skiing use to be a lifestyle but now it’s a sport. Snowboarding is still closely associated with participant lifestyle choices in music, clothing, culture, and other sports.  Skiing and snowboarding are of different generations, with different participant concerns and focuses at their different stages of life. It’s not good or bad. It just is.
 
These generational differences go a long way towards explaining why the resorts want the snowboarders’ money, but would just as soon we all took up skiing. We share sliding down a hill, and not much else. Really catering to snowboarding requires that the skiing establishment develop a commitment to lifestyle activities they aren’t attracted to and don’t understand.
 
Remember, this isn’t about finger pointing or right/wrong. We’ve just got groups of people with different life experiences who are at different stages of their life.
 
Financial Realities
 
If you take the time to read through the stock offering prospectuses of Vail Resorts and Intrawest Corporation from earlier this year, you’ll quickly realize that there’s a lot more to their business visions than selling lift tickets. It’s not enough, and it’s not accurate, to say simply that they are in the skiing business, or even the resort management business. It’s closer to the mark to say they are in the business of maximizing asset utilization, but I think a better way to put it is that they are in the theme park business.
 
Yup- just like Disneyland.
 
Walt Disney and successors have spent and are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on castles, monorails, fancy roller coasters, hotels and retail space. Their ongoing maintenance and operating expenses are big numbers. Even if they shut the parks down, interest expense and depreciation by itself would be a huge financial burden.
 
Disney’s revenue in the year ended September 30, 1996 was 18.7 billion dollars. Depreciation expense by itself was 3.94 billion. They had long term debt of over $12 billion on which they have to pay interest. Not all of that is associated with the theme parks, but you get the picture.
 
So how are they going to cover all those expenses and make a buck? By keeping those assets busy. They don’t want you to come for a day and go on a few rides. They want you to come for a least a week, stay in their hotels, eat their food, shop in their stores, play a round on their golf course and ride all the park attractions. And it would be nice if you got there via an airline they have a deal with. Keep those assets busy and hear the cash register go ca-ching!
 
Now, check out this nice juicy quote from Vail’s prospectus.
 
While lift ticket sales….have grown each year over the past ten years, revenues from other sources have grown at a much faster rate and, as a result, have increased as a percentage of Resort Revenue from 36% in fiscal 1985 to 51% in fiscal 1996.
 
The Company’s focus on developing a comprehensive destination resort experience has also allowed it to attract a diverse quest population with an attractive demographic and economic profile, including a significant number of affluent and family-oriented destination guests, who tend to generate higher and more diversified revenues per guest than day skiers from local population centers. While the Company’s Resort Revenue per skier day is currently among the highest in the industry, management believes that the Company currently captures less than 20% of the total vacation expenditures of an average destination guest at its resorts. Vail Resorts’ business strategy is not only to increase skier days and guest visits but also to increase Resort Revenue per skier day by capturing a higher percentage of the total spending by its year round destination and day guests, by continuing to expand the range and enhance the quality of activities and services offered by the Company.
 
Intrawest says much the same thing.
 
Intrawest’s operating strategy is to link the staged modernization and expansion of mountain facilities at its resorts with the controlled development of four-season resort villages focused on high occupancy accommodations.
 
I think it’s a hell of a good strategy, and if I were CEO of a large mountain (not winter!) resort, I’d do the same thing.
 
I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t like snowboarders. I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t want them on my mountain. I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t like/understand/participate in their activities and life style. I’d do it because it made business sense and my first responsibility was to my shareholders or myself as the owner. I’d believe that right now I can attract more destination guests and make more money on a golf course than a skate board park, because the people who golf have more money than the people who skate. That’s just the way it is.
 
But it won’t always be. And so the mountain resort community has to deal with a bit of a conundrum that I think explains their sometimes schizophrenic approach to snowboarding. The larger resort’s strategies seem to require them to focus on the current generation of skiers. Given that this group is constant to shrinking in numbers, skier days can only be increased by taking market share from other mountains. This explains some of the consolidation pressure in winter resorts, but it also represents a marketing opportunity for some smaller mountains (Hey-I think I feel another article coming on!).
 
But those skiers are going to get old and, someday, stop skiing. So are current snowboarders, but not so soon. How do resorts that have to rely on the current skiing generation to achieve their strategic and financial goals keep a growing and important minority of their customers happy?
 
Do they need to do very much at all? Will snowboarders turn into their parents, have similar disposable incomes, and want the same facilities and amenities their parents wanted by the time they are the destination decision makers? Don’t laugh; it’s been known to happen. I wonder if Nike will come out with an adult diaper someday (Just do it?).
 
Maybe snowboarding and snowsboarders need to take the time to understand the ski industry that we wish they would take to understand us. Betcha there’s some business opportunities there somewhere.