Ski industry bon voyage?
What do the ski resort and the cruise line industries have in common? Answer: both are in the transportation business. Ski resorts provide uphill transportation. Cruise ships provide water transportation. And, both are in the vacation business. But the similarities don’t end there.
Once the ship sets sail, it becomes the universe within which whatever is going to happen will take place. In large measure, a ski resort ministers to a captive audience as well. The ski resort has boundaries within which it determines when its guests may go uphill and when not.
A cruise ship offers necessities such as food and shelter plus a dazzling array of amenities. A ski resort and its associated lodging facilities, bars and restaurants have the opportunity to do the same thing.
Of course, there are many differences as well. The ship’s captain has much better control over those under his command. The crew cannot just leave. Pity the ski resort that must recruit and train new staff each season and then watch them dribble away as the season draws to a close.
But the cruise line industry understands something many ski resorts have either forgotten or never understood. I’m talking about the concept of the seamless, no-hassle vacation experience.
Unfortunately, some ski resorts think they are in the hoop-making business. Apart from necessary skiing safety rules, ski areas make all kinds of ever-changing rules regarding parking, the bus system, hours of operation of food and beverage facilities, etc.
Take parking. Needed construction often causes the parking lots to be rearranged or closed or new ones opened. About the time the guests learn the systems, they are changed. The park-and-ride bus service is suspended on weekdays, but runs on weekends or not at all.
Favorite watering holes or dining places change their hours or shut down completely. Certain ski lifts operate on some days and not others. Without warning, entire mountains are roped off and inaccessible. In other words, the basic necessities of parking, bus service, food and drink, terrain and uphill transportation are in a constant state of flux.
The guest is forced to jump through a new set of hoops each day. Only after much careful study is the ski resort guest protected from unwanted surprises. No wonder the ski industry has one ski boot in the economic grave.
By contrast, the cruise line industry is booming. Why? Because cruising has become a seamless, no-hoops vacation experience. Deciding which dining venue or which entrée to eat or early show versus late show or which shore excursion to take are about the only decisions to be made. Other than the mandatory lifeboat drill, their guests do pretty much what they want, when they want.
The cruise lines looked at the graying of America and saw a gold mine. By contrast, the ski resorts seem to have written off the most affluent segment of our population in order to pander to the least affluent demographic that doesn’t even ski. It rides snowboards and, by and large, doesn’t share the same set of values and esthetics as the older skiers who set off the skiing boom in the 1950s.
The shaped ski, glucosamine chondroitin and groomed slopes make it possible for the most affluent demographic to continue to ski into their 80s. A few ski areas, like Stein Eriksen’s Deer Valley, retain the traditional ski resort ambience. But many have lost touch with the golden days when apres ski took place around cozy fireplaces where guests wearing Nordic sweaters sipped hot mulled wine and spoke to each other in complete sentences while someone played Cole Porter in the background.
Times change and those golden days will probably not return. But, for the ski resort industry to survive, it must learn how to create, to the degree possible, the same kind of no-hoops-to-jump-through vacation experience provided by the cruise lines. Otherwise, it may be ski industry bon voyage.
William Hamilton, a nationally syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today, has been skiing for 33 years.
©2001. William Hamilton.