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Kindling a passion for the mountains

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The North American ski industry is launching a new initiative to "share the passion of the mountains" with children, prompted by some cold, hard numbers.

A recent study commissioned by the Snowsports Industries of America, an association of equipment manufacturers and apparel makers, found that the lifetime "value" of a skier who begins skiing at the age of 25 is $14,466, whereas the value of a skier who begins at age 10 is $52,024. Presented with the possibility of nearly quadrupling their return by getting more children into skiing and snowboarding, the industry is taking note.

"We know our organization has not prospered in the last few years, it’s kind of stagnated. And it’s probably our own fault," Craig Cook, president of Travel Organizers, a Colorado tour company, said while in Whistler two weeks ago for the Ski Tour Operators Association meeting.

Skitops, a non-profit trade group of travel companies specializing in ski tours, is just one of the players in the new campaign to turn children on to skiing and boarding. Ski resorts, equipment manufacturers, instructors, skiing and snowboarding publications, video producers and ski show promoters are all represented in the effort.

"It’s so critical it’s not just us as tour operators doing it, it’s the tour operators together with the suppliers, the property management companies, transportation companies, the airlines, it’s Colorado Ski Country USA, it’s the Utah association, it’s the handicap ski association – it’s everybody working together towards a common goal instead of each trying to do our little individual thing," Cook said.

In recent years the ski industry has launched several attempts to boost the number of people coming into the sport, but most efforts have been piecemeal and not well co-ordinated throughout the industry. Snowboarding provided a shot in the arm in the last decade, despite early attempts by some resorts to ban the sport. But the growth of snowboarding hasn’t made up for the ageing baby boomer population that is getting out of skiing. Several studies have shown that the absolute number of North Americans participating in alpine skiing and/or snowboarding has remained stagnant for nearly 20 years. The pie hasn’t gotten any bigger.

Five years ago the member resorts of Colorado Ski Country USA launched the Grade 5 ski program, based on studies which found that people who learn to ski or ride at 10 years of age are most likely to make the sport a lifetime activity. Under the program, each participating ski area makes available three free day passes to each Grade 5 student. Twelve states in the U.S. now have Grade 5 ski pass programs. Canadian ski areas have had a similar program for the past four years.

The new SIA study, in addition to quantifying the value of children, found that 45 per cent of parents with children would ski more if it were "easier to include children."

A survey by Skitops released at the organization’s meeting in Whistler confirmed that while business to Whistler was good again this winter and Colorado tours rebounded somewhat after two poor seasons, family winter vacations in general seem to be on a downward spiral.

Bruce Rosard, co-chairman of the Skitops Industry Vision Committee, notes that the cost of skiing, widely touted as the reason for the sport's lack of growth, is not a significant barrier to participation. More important are social and logistical issues, which respondents in the SIA study cited as "nobody to go with," "not fun unless good (proficient in technique)," and "hard to learn."

In recent years, the industry has made strides in developing user-friendly equipment and in teaching people to ski and snowboard more quickly than in the past. The new shaped or parabolic skis are shorter and much easier to turn, and instructors can actually get beginners to negotiate lower intermediate slopes on their first day. High-speed lifts have also made skiing easier. But industry studies show the public is still largely unfamiliar with the recent advances in technology.

"It's not exactly rocket science," says Rosard, who is also president of Moguls Ski & Snowboard Tours based in Boulder, Colorado. "The earlier people learn to ski or snowboard, the better they become. The better they become the more they ski and snowboard."

The targets of the new grassroots campaign are children and youth from ages 6 to 18.

"Our focus in sharing our collective passion for the mountains is to emphasize fun, recreation, education, physical fitness, the environment and personal growth," says Rosard.

Part of the effort will involve compiling and promoting the existing programs of the industry. For example, many ski areas offer free or low-cost skiing and boarding for children 12 and under, free or inexpensive lessons and gear rentals, and other perks such as free lodging for youngsters who are accompanied by parents.

"But it has been difficult for us working individually to get the message out to the public at large," says John Morgan, co-chairman of the committee and national sales manager of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming.

"There’s programs already out there for kids, but people don’t know about them," echoed Cook. "So we’re trying to educate people, we’re also trying to add to what those programs are, add to the excitement of that. Get the kids in younger, perpetuate the industry.

"Then the second phase of it is between ourselves, between the suppliers and tour operators, to get us all working together for a common good, instead of each of us doing our own individual thing," Cook said.

And the message has to reach urban city centres, not just the local, usually rural, communities surrounding ski areas.

The Skitops Industry Vision Committee hopes to enlist the voluntary help of athletes, ski and snowboarding instructors, resort marketers, travel planners and "virtually anyone who has a stake in snow sports" to become mentors and motivators with schools, churches, synagogues, public recreation centres, and various youth organizations.

Concurrently, the task force intends to develop a Web site listing children's programs, events and special offers aimed at enticing kids and families to share the joys of winter in the high country. The working name of the effort is "Mountain Clubs."

In addition to Skitops, organizations participating in the effort include the SIA, the National Ski Area Association, Professional Ski Instructors of America, The Skiing Company (which publishes SKI, Skiing, Freeze and Transworld Snowboarding), Ski Area Management magazine, Snow Monsters (a video company), Mountain Travel Symposium, EM&M Consumer Ski Shows, BEWI Consumer Ski Shows and Ski Maine for Kids.

The program was introduced at the SIA conference in Las Vegas in March and at the Skitops conference in Whistler last month. It will be presented at the NSAA conference in May.

Rosard emphasized that this isn't a one-shot, quick-fix attempt.

"It's a two- to three-year project at a minimum just to get it started. We can't re-invent the sport and the industry overnight. We need continuity and long-term commitments."

But he hopes that the first elements of the campaign can be rolled out in time for the next ski season, which will get extra attention from the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.

"We need to leverage the visibility of skiers such as (1998 freestyle Gold Medalist) Jonny Moseley, who really connects with children," Rosard said.