For several years now people in the ski industry have been going to Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains to see the future of the ski industry.
There, just a 90-minute drive from downtown Los Angeles, you can see from the Mohave Desert to the Pacific Ocean, and between the two live 15 to 18 million people.
But as remarkable as the city’s sprawl is the activity at Mountain High, a tiny, 220-acre ski area. Less than a decade ago it was doing only 182,000 skier days annually. Then Mountain High began changing. It hopped on the Internet bandwagon. It began operating lifts from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. It sells lift access in four-hour blocks, and also in vertical feet.
Now, with virtually no hotels or lodges nearby, Mountain High averages 500,000 users annually, or about one-quarter of what Whistler-Blackcomb does on an annual basis.
Such small ski areas, called beginner portals, are holding their own, sometimes even thriving, from New York to Colorado to California. Instead of closing, as was the trend for two decades, small ski areas are being refurbished and new ski areas are opening.
"We have taken a long, hard look at the entry-level experience during the last three or four years," explains National Ski Areas Association president Michael Berry. "What has been re-emphasized is a part of the experience that ski area managers call essential: "time well spent with family and friends," he says.
At Mountain High, the context is friends, not family. There, the ski area successfully integrated itself into L.A.’s skateboard and surf cultures. From skateboard and surfboards, it’s an easy step onto snowboards. Whereas most skiers learn while as family members, this transition on boards is in the company of peers.
About 80 to 85 per cent of Mountain High’s patrons are on snowboards. Snowboards are not merely tolerated; they’re the meal ticket.
The marketing mechanism was casual but deliberate. Employees spend a lot of time in the beach and skateboard cultures of L.A., sponsoring surfing and skateboard events. Also, the staff at Mountain High mirrors potential customers. About 40 per cent are Hispanic, Asian or something other than blue-eyed and white.
The ethnicities are somewhat beside the point, says Karl Kapuscinski, general manager. The point is the culture of board sports. "Snowboarding crosses cultural boundaries. Skiing has a perception of being lily white, expensive, something the elites do," he explains.
"Do we spend a lot of time marketing to ethnic groups? No, we don’t," says Kapuscinski. "We spend a lot of time involved in the lives of the skateboarding communities, at the surfing events, as sponsors at other events. We are seen as big partners. Then, in winter, it’s our turn to be front and centre."
At Mountain High, they began with the general thought that they had to try in a real sense to be part of the same culture as their customers, says Kapuscinski. They cater to mostly 14- to 23-year-olds, and although they try not to offend those who are 45 or 55 or older, they’re not trying to be everything to everybody. And the result is that they are "to a degree more of a scene than a resort," he says.
Can these kids on boards at Mountain High matter much to destination resorts? Kapuscinski isn’t sure a similar resort would work, even close to Denver. But he has no doubts that his customers today will, in time, be customers at Tahoe and Mammoth and, later in life, in Utah and Colorado.
"Most of them are pretty sharp kids, albeit dressed a bit differently than you and I. Someday, they will carry on their passion, just as those after World War II and into the 1980s carried on a passion for skiing," adds Kapuscinski. "But make no mistake – their passion is not for skis, but for boards."
Partly because of this demographic bulge at small ski areas such as Mountain High, executives at major resorts in Colorado and elsewhere are projecting growth in years ahead.
But one of the key questions has been whether skiing and snowboarding today have that hard-to-quantify "buzz," the "cool" that was so evident 35 years ago in the skiing world.
Mountain High’s Kapuscinski remembers 25 years ago, in Vermont, when he was a freestyle competitor and skiing was a "scene."
In California, it’s a scene again.
"The good old days are now," he says.