There has been much ringing of hands and gnashing of teeth around the subject of snowboard participation and what to do about it. Studies have been done and programs implemented. What has their impact been? Hard to know, because we don’t know what things would look like if they hadn’t happened.
SIA reports there were 17.1 million snowboard visits to U.S. resorts during the 2004-05 season. That number was 14.5 million in the 2014-15 season, down 15.2% over that period. Participation during this period peaked during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons at 18.9 million.
Talking about the 2014-15 season, SIA says the following:
“Overall, the participant base in snowboard grew from 7.3M to 7.6M with pronounced growth (16%) in the 17 and under age group for both boys and girls. However, the principal source of pain for snowboard is erosion (-12% since 2013/2014 and -23% since 2010/2011) of the participant base among both male and female participants age 18 to 24. Most other age categories for males and females have growing numbers of participants.”
No doubt we could use different starting points and numbers of years and arrive at different numbers. Last year’s results were encouraging, but I just can’t read too much into a single year’s results. I think it’s enough that we acknowledge that snowboard participation has generally declined over some period of years.
Oh, I guess we should list the usual reasons as a starting point. Weak economy, low incomes, too expensive, takes too long, climate change, video games, too many other choices. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some.
And of course, it’s not “cool” like it used to be. For more (most?) participants, it’s a sport, not a lifestyle. Maybe we can work on the cool thing a little, but the other issues we can’t influence (if you can, I’d like to hear from you. Hell, I’d like you to run for President).
What does the snowboard industry need to do differently? I’d like you to stop thinking of yourselves as being in just the snowboard industry. Here’s how and why.
What it Means to be a Snowboard Brand
If you’re a snowboarding brand, and position yourself as such, you have defined a limited market of target customers- people who snowboard. There’s nothing wrong with that positioning as long as it’s a positioning you actively chose and recognize the limitations of.
Tactically, many brands have spent time and money trying to sell snowboard related product- apparel, backpacks, various accessories- to people who didn’t snowboard by getting their brand to resonate with those non-participants. In a slow to no growth market, it’s either that or steal market share if you expect to grow. That works to a certain extent as long as you’re “cool.” Brands worked hard to try and expand beyond their snowboard franchise. Remember when Burton Snowboards changed its name to Burton? They were trying to reach a broader market, but were still known as a snowboard brand.
How do you keep the brand definition that defines you and, to some extent, insulates you from would be competitors and appeal to potential customers who don’t so much care about that brand definition? As I’ve put it, the further you get outside your traditional distribution, the less advantage you have. The new target customers may know your brand, but they won’t know your story and you lose your distinctiveness.
Everybody who is a “snowboarding brand” has this problem to a greater or lesser extent.
Active Outdoor and Year Around Mountain Resorts
As we realized that “action sports” really wasn’t an adequate description of our market anymore we started, or maybe I mean we should start, to think of ourselves as active outdoor brands. That’s an attractive characterization because it’s a much large market than snowboarding and offers a growth opportunity. But of course that growth opportunity comes with the problem I defined above in the discussion of what it means to be a snowboard brand.
All snowboard brands are already active outdoor brands, but most active outdoor brands are not snowboard brands. What can active outdoor brands that aren’t snowboard brands do that snowboard brands can’t do (yet)?
They can offer a wider variety of product and sell it year around. They have a bigger target audience and can select the parts of it they want to focus on. They can position their products to be used in a wider variety of experiences/adventures. They don’t have to require a big financial or time commitment to use their products (though they might). They have more distribution choices.
Well, that all sounds like stuff snowboard brands would like to do, but we haven’t had much success at it. Let’s see, where in our food chain are they trying to do this kind of stuff and how can we grab on to it?
How about at winter resorts? They’re kind of fundamental to snowboarding. Recently, those who can have been focusing on becoming year around resorts. Climate change, a better financial model (there’s nothing like year around cash flow), the general competitive and economic environment and a desire for growth requiring they reach new customers are among the factors motivating the evolution.
Those are all reasons for snowboard brands, as well as winter resorts, to want to be year around. Basically, winter resorts are trying to expand their active outdoor franchise from five or six to 12 months of the year just like I imagine snowboard brands would love to do.
This isn’t a new trend at winter resorts, but it’s gathered momentum in the last couple of years. Partly, that’s due to consolidation in the resort industry as well as the factors I mention above. I think it’s easier to migrate towards year around if you’re larger and have more terrain to work with. Also helps to have a strong balance sheet.
It may have been last century when I suggested that every snowboard brand should have a “resort relations” department, or at least a person. Could be time to refocus that department. Your friends at the winter resorts (some of which won’t be just “winter resorts” for long) are active outdoor brands trying to expand their franchises for the same reason snowboard brands would like to. How are they doing it? What makes winter customers come in the summer? What are their spending habits like? Here’s a question it would be good to know the answer to; do summer customers buy different products from the same brands? I imagine you can think of some others.
Maybe it’s time for a new approach. Can snowboard brands piggy back and work with current winter resorts as they transition to year round mountains? Is the correct group of target customers snow sliders who know your brand but need some new products as they come to their favorite mountain to do things besides slide down it? How big is the group of people who don’t snow slide, but are coming for other activities perhaps in other parts of the year and how can you reach them? Perhaps they are candidates for trying snowboarding.
As I see it, we’ve proven somewhat conclusively that snowboard brands (especially hard goods) don’t transition easily or quickly if at all into the broader active outdoor market. And while we may be pleasantly surprised, the conditions that have constrained snowboarding’s growth don’t seem likely to go away, and our ability to influence them is limited at best.
I’m suggesting an end run for snowboard brands to get into the broader market. Going straight at it hasn’t worked. Are there some mutually beneficial ways to partner with resorts to reach this new group of potential customers that may be prepared to hear your message and buy some new products from you, or to take up snowboarding? At the very least, resorts focusing on year around are identifying a group of customers that’s way more tightly targeted than “active outdoor.” They are already coming to the mountain.
As usual, I get to come at this from the 10,000 level and don’t have to do anything about it. I would make one suggestions; perhaps it’s worthy of a conversation at the SIA snow in Denver this January. If you’re a snowboard brand already thinking about this approach, I’d love to hear from you.