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Once outcasts on the slopes, snowboarders are accepted
Tuesday, 09 December 2003




It was only 10 years ago that ski area trade journals featured articles like "Managing the Conflict" and "When Skiers and Snowboarders Collide," explaining how to cope with the sometimes unwelcome onslaught of snowboarders.

How very quaint.

Over the past decade, what looked to some like an invading horde of rowdy head-bangers has morphed into a financial boon for the U.S. ski industry. And as this year's ski season gets under way, California resorts are courting snowboarders and other nontraditionalists like never before with lessons, newer and bigger terrain parks, and other inducements.

"There's no question that snowboarding has provided the industry a much-needed shot in the arm," said John Rice, general manager of the Sierra-at-Tahoe resort on Highway 50.

While skier visits to U.S. resorts dipped 18.1 percent to 40.6 million over the past decade, snowboarder visits surged 306 percent to 17.9 million, according to BBC Research and Consulting in Denver.

"It's where the growth in the industry is coming from," said Brad Wilson, a marketing director at Alpine Meadows.

Snowboarders now account for about 38 percent of customers at Sugar Bowl, said Greg Murtha, the resort's marketing director. To keep them coming, Sugar Bowl has built two roped-off terrain parks plus a 500-foot-long "superpipe," a concave ditch in which skiers can swoop up and down near-vertical walls 18 feet high.

"To remain competitive, Sugar Bowl has chosen to cater to these kids and make our product appealing to them," Murtha said.

Ski areas aren't the only ones reaping financial benefits from snowboarders. Equipment manufacturers have seen sales of snowboards, boots and bindings climb 49.5 percent to $244.8 million since 1998. During the same period, sales of traditional alpine ski gear fell 26.4 percent to $528.3 million, according to the trade group SnowSport Industries America.

Experts say both the decline in skiing and the rise in snowboarding represent a generational change as baby boomers slowly drift away from skiing for less strenuous pursuits.

"It's sore knees," said Ford Frick, the BBC Research analyst. "We're an aging population, and skiing gets increasingly difficult."

Their children, brought up with skateboards and the X Games, are embracing snowboarding and other snow sports that range from snow biking to performing tricks on twin-tipped skis.

The view from Rice's second-floor office at Sierra-at-Tahoe last month provided a glimpse of snowboarding's impact on the slopes. The sparse gathering of midweek customers was dominated by snowboarders braving misty conditions.

Rice estimates that in the early season -- when snow conditions aren't optimal -- more than 70 percent of his customers are snowboarders. Boarders often can strut their stuff in terrain parks, which are special areas filled with jumps, half-pipes and other features that are easier to cover with snow. In addition, the wide boards are easier to maneuver in heavy or wet snow than narrower skis.

But as recently as the mid-1990s, snowboarders were seen as sloppy ruffians, offensive if not dangerous to the strait-laced patrons of most resorts. Alpine Meadows banned boards from its slopes until 1996.

This is no fad

Rice, who built some of the first terrain parks as operations manager at Southern California's Snow Summit resort, recalled that in the late 1980s he had to convince management that snowboarders were clients worth pursuing.

Owners saw surfing and skateboarding as competitors to skiing, not as crossover sports, Rice said. And they thought snowboarding would be a fad, like ballet skiing in the early '70s.

Then there was the issue of safety. Purists argued that snowboarders couldn't control their boards well enough to avoid collisions. Boarders also were accused of ruining the rhythm of mogul fields and punching holes in the snow when pushing with their free foot across the flats. But most of those issues evaporated, Rice said, as skiers and snowboarders mingled more frequently.

"A new generation of participants ... reminded an increasingly stodgy industry that 'skiing' was fundamentally about unstructured outdoor recreation," wrote Frick, the BCC Research analyst, in a recent report.

"Much of the industry's recent success is the result of simple attitudinal transition from resistance to acceptance of change," he said.

Snowboarders have noticed the evolution.

"Years ago when you got on a chairlift with skiers, they were really quiet," as if they were uncomfortable with such a strange species, said Kevin Clark, who works in his father's snowboard shop, Clark's Snow Sports in Rancho Cordova. Now, he said, boarders are treated like anyone else.

The changes also are prompting resorts to open their wallets in attempts to attract more snowboarders. More than 80 percent of the nation's ski areas have terrain parks for snowboarders, and millions are spent improving and maintaining them each year.

To run a top-notch terrain park, a resort needs dedicated snowmaking equipment, $500,000 worth of grooming machines, $40,000 to $50,000 worth of metal grind rails and "fun boxes" for boarders to slide down and a staff to monitor the facility, said terrain park designer Josh Chauvet.

Chauvet is operations manager for Truckee-based Snowpark Technologies, which designs competitive venues for the X Games and other events and consults for ski areas. Snowpark was recently purchased by Booth Creek Ski Holdings, which owns six ski areas, including Sierra-at-Tahoe and Northstar-at-Tahoe.

"So many resorts offer terrain parks that you really need a good-quality one to stand out," Chauvet said. "It's a constant battle to keep the snow in good condition."

Booth Creek officials consider the money well spent. Forty-two percent of Northstar's customers are snowboarders. That figure climbs to 49 percent at Sierra-at-Tahoe, said Julie Maurer, Booth Creek's vice president of marketing.

And Booth Creek is hoping that as snowboarders age, they will remain loyal customers.

Not all the efforts aimed at wooing snowboarders are coming from ski resorts. A pair of entrepreneurs and investors are plunging more than $2.5 million into a South Lake Tahoe hotel called The Block and will market exclusively to snowboarders.

Catering to new generation

Launched by hotel veteran Liko Smith and Marc Frank Montoya, a top professional snowboarder, the Block will equip all its rooms with Xbox videogame consoles (more than 50 games available at the front desk), cordless phones so guests won't miss a call while lounging in the hot tub, CD players, snowboard storage and wireless Internet -- all at no extra charge.

It's even offering a free hangover kit: two Advil, a Bloody Mary and an oatmeal bar.

Smith said The Block, the result of combining and refurbishing the adjoining Lamplighter and Monte Carlo motels, also will have rooms sponsored and decorated by companies. The one he expects to be the most popular is sponsored by Vivid Video, which makes X-rated videos. Among the decorator touches will be a 56-inch high-definition TV and the kind of pole found in strip clubs.

"Snowboarders love porn," Smith said.

Montoya said he's envisioning The Block as a place for snowboarders to hang out after a day on the slopes.

"We're not going to be an uptight place," he said. "We'll let them party in any way they want. Treat them them with respect, they'll respect you."

If snowboaders miss the party message, the hotel brochure will reinforce it. On the cover are the words: "Chill@The Block. A case of beer and a pile of snowboard gear."

Number of alpine skiers and snowboarders


1995 2.2 million

2002 5.6 million

Alpine skiing

1996 10.5 million

2002 7.4 million

Snowboard visits as a percentage of total ski resort visits

1998-99 23.9%

1999-00 24.5%

2000-01 26.9%

2001-02 28.2%

2002-03 29.6%

Sales of snowboard and ski gear (Millions of dollars)


1998-99 $163.8

2002-03 $244.8

Alpine skiing

1998-99 $717.7

2002-03 $528.3

Source: SnowSports Industries America

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