When you’re around Jamie Schectman, it’s best to avoid the “R” word. You know, as in “Resort.”
Schectman, the co-founder of Mountain Rider’s Alliance (along with Dave Scanlan and Shanie Matthews), is a man with a mission.
His goal is ensure that independent ski areas can continue to operate as ski areas, as opposed to large real estate developments and (his words) winter “theme parks.”
Founded in 2010, the first test for Mountain Rider’s Alliance (MRA) came when they partnered with Mt. Abram, Maine. Under MRA’s leadership, Mt. Abram installed energy-efficient E/V chargers and received a government grant for solar panels. Currently, Mt. Abram produces about 70% of its annual energy consumption. And, it continues to offer skiing and riding to the local community on 51 trails over 560 acres.
In 2013, Mountain Rider’s Alliance partnered with Mt. Ashland, Oregon. A small not-for-profit ski area, MRA helped Mt. Ashland reposition their brand within the Northwest market, establish a regional transportation program to get skiers and riders to the mountain and create more community excitement and buzz (a live music series was a big part of this).
Best Practices, Multiplied
Schectman and his partners are an unlikely mix of ski bums and savvy entrepreneurs.
Working with Mt. Abram and Mt. Ashland convinced them that best practices could be developed, shared and duplicated amongst independent ski areas.
So in January 2016, MRA announced the creation of the Mountain Playground Group.
A consortium of eight ski areas in the US and Canada, one part of this effort is a multi-mountain pass product, the Mountain Playground Card.
The MPG card offers lift ticket discounts and deals on lodging and gear from companies like Wagner Custom Skis, Coalition Snow and Krimson Klover.
While offering a pass product is an important way to capture consumer attention and drive traffic to the participating resorts, the real work of the Mountain Playground Group is behind the scenes.
In banding together, participating ski areas share ideas and combine resources to maximize their effectiveness in areas such as marketing, sustainability, summer operations, employee retention and all the other nuts and bolts of ski area management.
Caroline Sherrer is the general manager at Mount Timothy Ski Area in British Columbia. A ski industry veteran with management experience at resorts such as Steamboat, Telluride and Keystone, Sherrer was used to working with large staffs and lots of resources. More of a “one woman show” at Mount Timothy, she believes the Mountain Playground Group is an opportunity to get support from people and organizations with whom she would otherwise have no connection.
“After hearing some of the other operators speak about their challenges and obstacles I felt better just knowing other ski areas our size face the same problems. It can feel very isolating at times when you are in a small organization out and away from others…Having the additional support of Jamie and his team makes the difference.”
Likewise, Austin Hart, the owner and operator of Beartooth Basin, a summer-only ski area in Wyoming, finds great benefit connecting with other MPG members.
Writing last spring, Hart shared this with me.
“In the few months since the genesis of the MPG we’ve had collective discussions on the challenges and the issues each ski hill faces, which has resulted in positive feedback and solutions we plan to employ at each respective ski operation. Although each ski area in the MPG is unique and different, we share common goals and a mission to keep small community-based ski areas alive.”
Ski Area Life or Death
Since the 1980s, roughly 33% of independent ski areas have gone out of business and industry experts suspect that close to 150 more ski areas are at significant risk, according to Schectman.
While the challenges these ski areas face can be unique, they are also strikingly similar.
All ski areas (and resorts – yes, the “R” word) are facing less consistent snow and weather patterns as a result of climate change. As baby boomers have aged and dropped out of snowsports, ski areas and resorts are scrambling to attract new people to winter sports.
Maintaining safe and efficient infrastructure is another challenge and one that brings rising expenses at a time when revenues are likely falling. And while larger resorts can rely on consolidation and access to investment capital, smaller ski areas must be creative and cost-efficient just to survive.
By joining the Mountain Playground Group, member resorts are betting that they will be stronger and more sustainable together than they are apart.
Here’s Austin Hart from Beartooth Basin again.
“The importance of the MPG mission seems to resonate with a lot of people that love sliding downhill on snow, possibly because most folks’ ski experiences are rooted in the simplicity of the sport.
“The MPG presents a wave of positive energy that is important to the future of the sport: being sustainable, practical and affordable is the best gateway to attract visitors that don’t fit into upper-tier demographics targeted by larger corporate ski resorts.”
Affordable, local ski areas offer a remedy to this. And once new skiers and riders are hooked, they’re usually hooked for life.
Strength in numbers: it’s not a new idea, but it just may save the “mom and pop” ski industry.
The Mountain Playground Group includes:
- Arctic Valley Ski Area, Alaska,
- Bald Mountain Ski Area, Idaho,
- Beartooth Basin Summer Ski Area, Wyoming,
- Elk Ridge Ski and Outdoor Recreation Area, Arizona,
- Hurricane Ridge, Washington (in Olympic National Park),
- Mt. Abram, Maine,
- Mt. Timothy, BC, and
- Phoenix Mountain, BC.
For $29 you can get a lot of skiing, a lot of savings and feel good about supporting community-based skiing now and into the future.
- Mountain Rider’s Alliance Brings a New Vision to Ski Resorts, September 4, 2012.
- Why People Try Skiing and Why They Stop Skiing, September 12, 2016.
- Ski Resort Marketing: NSAA Awards for 2016, August 1, 2016.
- Ski Resort Marketing: The Best of the Best for 2015, July 20, 2015.
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