Skiing within your budget

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There’s a weird dichotomy in the way skiing markets itself. Our sport’s image is self-consciously elitist. Glitz, glam and bling. Celebrity athletes performing superhuman record-setting feats on the racecourse or off the cliff face. Resorts announcing multi-million-dollar (or half-billion-dollar) investments for ultra-modern conveyances, 300-hp snowcats, 200-room condo-hotels or Soviet-sized mountain restaurants. Super-cool tricked-out customers whisked by limo or other sweet ride to the $2-million “cabin” or $750-a-night suite. When the continent’s showcase resort announces an essentially non-functional lift to nowhere, the costliest ever built in North America, whatever must the everyday skier think but that this is an industry gripped by wretched excess?

Yet the industry becomes pugnaciously self-righteous—the indignation of the guilty mind, perhaps—when you suggest skiing is verging on the unaffordable, especially for younger families and those whom fortune or design has placed on a proletarian income stratum. Thankfully, many resort managers remain acutely aware that high cost is the key driver pushing young families out of skiing. To their great credit, they’re grappling with the challenge. They’re offering imaginative and clever yet practical and meaningful pricing plans that keep skiing within reach of typical families— all while still placating their companies’ profi t-hungry bean-counters.

Being without kids and blessed with friends residing in or boasting condos throughout ski country, my wife, Laurie, and I tend to be blasé about the costs of skiing. Two things got me thinking. First was when my pal Felix Defant, the indefatigably superlative ski-tuner who with son James and daughter Stacy runs Felix Ski Service in Calgary, remarked on the escalating costs of the local “Beer League” ski races. For years, they’d been the highlight of Felix’s winter weeknights. But now Felix, a superb technical skier and racing afi cionado, could no longer justify what amounted to a $35 per half-minute slalom run. “There are things about the cost of skiing nowadays that are just crazy,” he commented last season over some after-hours adult beverages.

Then, when Laurie and I spent the New Year’s period at Big White (and Silver Star), we heard resort managers referring constantly to the price issue. Everywhere were deals and breaks for skiing families. Our own hotel offered free accommodation to kids staying with parents. The next week, January “value season” would kick off and accommodations would fall to roughly half their peak rate. Later, during the spring break weeks from early March through season’s end—when prices zoom in more southerly climes—every adult paying for a hotel room and/or lift ticket could have one child stay and ski for free. There were also more circuitous savings routes: wielding a Costco card gets you similar lift ticket discounts to those mountain cards that many ski hills sell for $50-$80. Big White also takes the dynamics of family life into account. On Blockbuster Video Nights ski school staff supervise kids over a movie and pizza, so Mum and Dad can go off for an adult dinner.

Such moves must strike a culture steeped in celebrity worship as pedestrian. But they’re deliberate, says Mike Ballingall, Big White’s senior vice-president of sales and marketing. “Our owners are sensitive to the challenges and pricing of family ski vacations,” he says. “Being a ‘family friendly resort’ wasn’t considered sexy or edgy. But we provide high value and service to families on virtually every budget. We recognize that saving money goes beyond simply discounting lift tickets. It’s also about reducing the hassles that many skiing families might encounter, through everything from ski in/out accommodation to safe villages to ski instructors who specialize in teaching kids. This approach hasn’t hurt us with expert skiers, nor with teenagers, who after all still vacation with Mum and Dad.”

Other resorts have similar offerings. At Banff, Lake Louise, Fernie, Kimberley and Nakiska, early booking of a two-night/three-day getaway allows kids 12 and under to stay free. Resorts of the Canadian Rockies has teamed up with Husky Energy to create a “FunPass” offering winterlong free skiing for any Grade 2 pupil. Schools within a 50-km radius of those same mountains can get group lessons, rental gear and lift tickets for $25 per student. At Nakiska, skiing newbies (including grown-ups) on selected days get a lesson, lift ticket and rentals for $20.

Even Whistler-Blackcomb has taken steps by tweaking its marketing efforts from showing crazed big-mountain freeskiing, nightlife and hot tubs of a few years ago to a plethora of family offerings and deals. Last April I was about to buck up for an ordinary lift pass when the perky Central European ticket gal started extolling the virtues of the Edge Card. I ended up skiing for $49 per day instead of Whistler’s usual $85. That pushed the cost below next-tier resorts like Sunshine and Lake Louise—to at par with mere regional ski hills. Up on the mountain, I found breakfast sandwiches for $2.50—a far cry from my usual $10-$15 breakfast. These offerings prove budget-conscious and cash-strapped skiers remain a meaningful clientele at even the country’s highest-end resort—and management knows it.

The ski industry often puts its worst foot forward, marketing-wise. What other industry has fi xated its highest prices in the public imagination? Most people’s ready price benchmark is the single-day adult lift ticket price. A top line—the worst possible price—has become the comparison baseline. And so, the typical skier exclaims, “Holy spliff-tootin’ snowboarders! Sunny Redfi sh Kicking Bowl Peaklet is charging 75 bucks a day!” Talk about a systemic turn-off.

Other industries have masterfully managed to get the public thinking of their lowest price.Pull into a drive-thru and you don’t see the high price of the biggest, most expensive burger. Because if you added in all other items singly, then multiplied by your minivan’s population, you’d have a budget-busting experience. Instead the signage unerringly directs your eyes to the “value meal.”

Nearly everyone starts off low and gentle, then sells up. Any real estate developer with active brain cells ensures that billboards scream, “Wellequipped two-bedroom units from the low $200s!” rather than, “Stay away—unless you have $2 million for this turreted three-level monstrosity.” Same with cars, plasma TVs, air travel (like those $109 one-way fares that end up as a $400 credit card bill). Banks and mortgage companies draw you in with teaser rates. Advertised car lease payments aren’t based on the optioned-out version.

Skiing’s single-day ticket rate is terrible PR and wildly misleading. The typical ski resort’s “yield”—the actual average revenue per recorded skierday —is often barely half that published rate. The plethora of discounts, deals and angles—coupons redeemable at local retailers, wholesalers’ discounts, corporate passes, lower rates for kids, youths and seniors— makes sure of that. You’re almost a fool to walk up to the wicket and buy an undiscounted ticket. There’s an argument for simplifying this dizzying pricing. By untangling the discount web, resorts could drop their top price by 30-40 per cent while bringing their yield to nearly 100 per cent. Then at least the single-day rate would refl ect reality.

Skiing will always include elitist elements. How else to regard heli-skiing, five-star hotels and $400 dinners for two? Resorts and associated businesses will always try to maximize exposure to the wealthiest, freest-spending, highest-margin guests. But alongside them are myriad species of everyday folk—locals, regional visitors, casual skiers, dedicated but fi nancially stretched families, youths/students, the retired and semi-retired, and others. Many are just one negative experience away from giving up the sport forever. Conversely, every little break resorts can offer creates another reason to stick with it. It helps ensure skiing remains a popular pastime—or passion— accessible to nearly anyone.

George Koch
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