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Alta States

From 'product' to 'neighbourhood' - Creating a mountain experience for 21st century customers



"The growth economy is failing. In other words, the quantitative expansion of the economic subsystem increases environmental and social costs faster than production benefits, making us poorer not richer..."

- Steady-State Economist Herman E. Daly


Stop for a moment. Read the above quote again. Only this time replace "economic subsystem" with "modern mountain resort." Does it make more sense now? To quote ol' Bobby Zimmerman, "these times they are a changing.'"

For 50 years, the ski business was all about surfing the economic breaker created by the baby boomer wave. Growth was everything. More was always better. More vertical, more lifts, more snowmaking, more grooming, more infrastructure, more management, more customers, more profit. It was almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy that way. As long as you didn't look back, the future looked amazingly bright.

It stood to reason though. For that particular half-century saw North America's ballooning middle class benefit from more free time and more disposable income than ever before (or since). And the numbers were indeed seductive - given the profligate birth rate of these post-war years, there were now millions of economically enfranchised families looking to recreate on a cold winter day. So why not take advantage of this phenomenon? Why not sell skiing to the masses?

Besides, the snow was free, wasn't it? And the hills - well, skiing was a heck of a lot better for the environment than logging or mining...

That way of thinking became so dominant in the industry that the young mountain professionals of the day accepted it without really questioning its premises. By the mid 1980s, it was gospel. In a Field of Dreams re-enactment, cutting-edge ski resort developers convinced themselves (and their investors) that as long as they could make on-mountain operations easy and accessible and modern and safe - read more urban - then the customers would be happy to just keep paying and paying and paying and paying...

Alas, nobody had bothered to take the sport's x-factor into account.

I know. I know. Tacky term. But I don't know what other word to use. Feel free to substitute "soul" or "heart" or "spirit" or "magic" or "history" or "culture" if it makes you feel better. After all, each of these words touches on some aspect of the non-rational elements of the snowsliding phenomenon.

Still following? What I'm talking about here is what I experienced at Whistler on Opening Day last week. Those who were on the mountain recognized it immediately. It was almost like a wink and a nod. This day, their face-splitting smiles were telling me, is what sliding on snow is all about.