News Column

Ski-Resort Industry Looks to Broaden Ethnic Scope

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The Denver City Council's push to infuse ethnic diversity into Intrawest's contract for the operation of Winter Park ski area could force the hand of a largely white industry.

"There's a clear need for resorts to offer programs that are targeted toward that specific segment of the marketplace, and it's a segment that has gone virtually untapped in light of its growing population," said Rob Perlman, president of Colorado Ski Country.

Untapped? More like ignored, says Charles Smith.

Smith has spent the past 30 years ferrying Denver's inner-city kids up to the snowy slopes. As a two-term president of Slippers-N-Sliders Ski Club, Smith, a ski instructor at Loveland, has taught thousands of city kids how to ski. Then he's watched them forget all about it.

"We have been very unsuccessful in soliciting sponsors at our fundraising events," says Smith, whose program takes city kids camping, skiing and hiking. "It's like we are being ignored."

The Denver City Council is hoping to end that. By forcing Intrawest to include affirmative-action language in its contract to operate Winter Park, the council could help nudge a resort industry that has slowly recognized the potential business found in minority skiers.

"For me, this is smart business. Every other part of corporate America has realized the growth potential in terms of revenue of working with a diverse population," says Denver City Councilwoman Deborah Ortega, who is spearheading an effort to install diversity-awareness language in the pending contract with Intrawest.

Nationwide, 89 percent of skiers and snowboarders in 2000-2001 were white. In the Rocky Mountains, 91 percent of skiers were white, according to the first-ever ethnic analysis of skiers in the annual demographic study of 2000-2001 wintertime resort visitors by the National Ski Areas Association.

The country's minority population is 25 percent, and in metro Denver, the minority population is almost 30 percent.

A quick glance through any ski-related magazine reveals a dearth of minority faces. Sunburned is about as colored as skin gets in the ski mags.

Resort industry leaders have long recognized the potential of minority guests and have spent at least five years widening the welcome mat. But the recognition has yet to take the form of action, and minority skiers remain absent at most ski hills, according to the NSAA study.

"Talk to a lot of people in the Hispanic community and there's a feeling that there is a smugness in the ski industry that says to the Hispanic community and other communities of color, `You're not welcome here.'" said Sal Gomez, chairman of the Denver Hispanic Chamber.

That may change soon, with Derek Parra, Vonetta Flowers and Jennifer Rodriguez filling much-needed roles as minority snow-sport heroes. All three grabbed medals at the 2002 Winter Games.

"That was great. So great," says Audrey Taylor, executive secretary of the National Brotherhood of Skiers, which represents 15,000 skiers and rallies as many as 6,000 skiers for annual meetings. "I think there is a degree to which we've been ignored. There are thousands of minority skiers out there who I don't think the resorts are recognizing and trying to get their business."

Vail Resorts, which has hosted the National Brotherhood of Skiers at Vail and Keystone, is negotiating a partnership with the group to host future rallies. The company's 21st annual Ski Fiesta this spring at Breckenridge was the country's largest fundraising ski event for Hispanics.

"Among several initiatives targeting people of color, we have forged partnerships with several important minority affinity groups as a way to introduce more people to skiing and snowboarding at our resorts," says Vail Resorts spokeswoman Kelly Ladyga. "We believe it is important to develop long-term relationships with these groups and their members, and hopefully, as a result, we are attracting more lifelong participants to our sports."

The echo boom generation, about the same size as the parent baby boom generation, promises the same growth cycle that the post-WWII boomers provided skiing. But the similarity between the echo boomers and baby boomers ends in numbers. The youthful generation that resort operators hope will carry skiing back into days of actual growth is a melting pot.

"We are very, very aware that the next generation is going to be much more diverse than the generation that grew skiing in the '50s, '60s and '70s," said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association.

The model for growth for ski areas looking to expand their customer base by reaching out to minorities is, without question, Mountain High resort in Southern California.

Last season was the worst ever for snowfall at Mountain High. But the resort boasted 522,000 visits, its second best showing ever and an incredible 25 percent increase from the previous season. In 1997, the resort logged fewer than 160,000 visits.

The tremendous growth is credited to the resort's aggressive minority outreach marketing strategies, which pushed Mountain High into ethnically diverse communities in Southern California, where whites are the minority.

Mountain High was touted on Japanese and Korean radio and in Asian newspapers. The resort aired commercials on hip-hop radio stations and targeted young Asians, Hispanics and blacks. Ski lift tickets were sold at 400 grocery stores across Southern California, with directions printed on the back.

The resort plugged gear deals and price deals and an innovative, $99 learn-to-ski-in-three-days program in dozens of diverse markets. Its web site hosted chat forums, and chatters were rewarded with parties at the ski hill.

And they printed ads showing minority snowboarders ripping. More than 98 percent of the 100,000 new guests that showed up at Mountain High's slopes last season strapped on a snowboard.

"The overall media helped us by integrating our sport into the lifestyle of young Americans," says Brad Wilson, the former head of marketing for Mountain High who helped the resort become the envy of resorts coast to coast. "The young in these ethnic cultures feel like they are part of the deal. They are Americans, and they want to learn to snowboard or ski."

"They see the images of ethnic people on snowboards, and they see they can do it," says Wilson, who is now plying his marketing skills at Dodge Ridge ski resort, a couple of hours from San Francisco. "It doesn't have the barriers that alpine skiing had in the 1970s, when it was Hans and Hans teaching ski school." On any given Saturday at Mountain High, the on-slope population practically mirrors the racial mix in Southern California, where half the population is Hispanic.

While the resort aims directly at ethnic minorities, its marketing really targets today's increasingly diverse young adult population, says John McColly, Mountain High's head of marketing.

"I remember three years ago, sitting in a NSAA meeting, and they were telling resort operators `Here's how you get the baby boomers back,'" McColly says. "I was thinking, `That is not where your market is. Your market is youth."' Just as they recognize the need to attract minorities, resort leaders across the country are working hard to garner youthful loyalty and groom the vacationing skiers of tomorrow.

But tapping into today's youth world can be tricky. Today's teens are particularly savvy, and marketing needs to speak the right language, use the right music and generally address the right lifestyle. With the younger set, marketing needs to aim at the hip and cool more than a specific ethnicity.

Recent ads by Breckenridge resort tried to do just that but ended up offending traditional markets. And resorts owe an eternal debt of gratitude to the life-long skiers who expanded the sport of skiing 30 years ago and are fueling resort real estate revenues today.

"You need to be very careful with how you initially appeal to the younger groups," says Nolan Rosall, president of RRC Associates, which tallies annual demographic surveys for the NSAA and charted ethnic participation in snow sports for the 2000-2001 study. "But if you don't find ways to appeal to that group directly, in the long term you will lose your market."

Appealing to both youth and minorities goes well beyond tossing a couple of edgy ads into the marketplace, says Rosall, who has watched changing ski demographics for decades.

In addition to following Mountain High's lead by including minorities in advertising, promoting skiing in ethnic media, touting diversity on resort web sites and hiring minorities throughout the resort, Charles Smith has a new suggestion.

"Our biggest obstacle is transportation," he says, describing the difficulty in getting kids whose parents don't ski up to the hills. "If they ever want to go on their own, somebody has got to get them up there."

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