SAM Magazine—Nashville, Tenn., May 24, 2022—The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) held its annual in-person national convention for the first time since 2019, and more than 870 ski area operators, industry suppliers, Association representatives and others from the mountain resort industry came for the event in Nashville, Tennessee, May 12-15, 2022.Attendees were treated to a full schedule of educational sessions, speakers, awards, trade show and networking opportunities at Music City.
NSAA CEO Kelly Pawlak kicked off the opening general session on Friday morning with the news that ski areas in the United States welcomed a record 61 million skier visits over the past of the 2021-22 winter season, a remarkable feat considering the erratic snowfall and ubiquitous staff. challenges faced by operators from coast to coast.
The Friday morning general session also saw the 2020 NSAA Lifetime Achievement Award winners – Peak Resorts founder Tim Boyd and former Snow Time Inc. VP and COO Eric Flynn – properly celebrated in front of their peers. Each credited their teams and others in the industry for much of their success. “It’s the great players that make the coaches look good,” Boyd said.
Friday afternoon’s general session featured the presentation of the 2021 Lifetime Achievement Awards to industry luminary Bill Jensen and longtime Sun Valley, Idaho President and CEO Tim Silva. Both also thanked the thousands of people they had worked with throughout their careers. Jensen, further, credited SAT founder David Rowan and former SKI editor John Fry as having had a strong philosophical influence on him. “This business is all about people,” Jensen said.
Jensen, Silva, Boyd and Flynn were joined by 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award winner Win Smith on stage for a panel titled “A Lifetime of Leadership” moderated by Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher. Among the talking points were the current economic landscape and how rising inflation compares to the stagflation days of the 1970s and 1980s. Boyd, in particular, speculated that things were going to get worse and warned the public to cling to a difficult road.
Saturday’s highly anticipated final general session kicked off with Vail Resorts CEO Kirsten Lynch presenting her predecessor Rob Katz for the NSAA Industry Impact Award. “He made us better human beings. …world class is not for the faint of heart,” Lynch said.
Katz started off humorously after stepping onto the podium, joking that he left Lynch in a great position for a perfect season (she took over in November 2021). He also touched on the elephant in the room: the well-documented overcrowding issues at Vail Resorts properties and the discounted Epic Pass.
“There hasn’t been a bigger story in the last year than, ‘we’re growing too much; there are too many people on the mountain; this pass is too cheap. Come on, he said, let’s not kid ourselves that bringing new people into the sport is a bad thing.
(Some shared with SAT after the presentation that the growth in sales of an inexpensive subscription product is not necessarily correlated with the growth of new participants, who are apparently less likely to invest in a pre-season purchase than regular participants or even occasional. Another comment shared with SAM editors was that crowded images did not serve the industry well in attracting new entrants or returning entrants.)
Following Katz’s acceptance, 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award winner Win Smith was eloquently introduced by his 12-year-old granddaughter, Madyn Disabato. Smith went on to explain how his ownership of Sugarbush, Vermont came about, from leadership and his decision to sell Sugarbush to Alterra Mountain Company in 2019. He said he was optimistic about the future, but that ” one of our biggest threats is complacency,” as well as the climate, and he implored the public to advocate for climate reform.
A CEO panel followed, moderated by Ski California President Michael Reitzell, which included: Amber Broadaway, Solitude, Utah; Andrew Halmi, Mount Pleasant of Edinboro, Pennsylvania; John Melcher, Crystal Mountain, Michigan; Jay Scambio, Boyne Resorts; and Tara Schoedinger, Crested Butte, Colo. .” She explores a four-day workweek at Solitude, a model that has been successful in other industries.
As always, the breakout sessions covered a variety of topics ranging from technology and marketing to risk management, climate change, guest capacity, and more.
On the technology front, a panel that included Snow Partners CEO Joe Hession, Blue Mountain, Pa. Chairman Barb Green, and Perfect North Slopes, Ind. GM Jonathan Davis, and was moderated by Casey Parliament d ‘InTouch Elevate, shared approaches to technology adoption in respective holdings. Embracing live chat to communicate with customers, the importance of reviewing your processes – and engaging with staff – to inform technical decisions, and not drowning in data were among the topics covered. .
In an example of a traditional mode of marketing communications that could be making a comeback, during the “Data Driven Marketing” session, Alterra Mountain Company CRM Marketing Manager Molly Holmes extolled the value of direct mail as a way to reach customers effectively.
Capacity management was another hot topic in conversations around the halls and in sessions throughout the show. The session titled “Space Isn’t the Problem: Modern Tools and Solutions for Capacity Management” – presented by Claire Humber and Kent Sharp from SE Group, Brad Wilson from Bogus Basin, Idaho, Alan Hereroth from Arapahoe Basin, Colorado, and Greg Pack of Mt. Hood Meadows, Ore.—digged into the subject.
The main message shared by presenters is that data is key to understanding how well our models are working. Every station manager on the panel said they had turned away customers this winter and they were all faced with the question: how do we grow while preserving the customer experience? Honest communication during peak days was key to managing customer expectations, they said. Additionally, panelists said they were adding more beginner land and reintroducing higher value products to support growth after removing many over the past two years.
The conversation turned to how we measure our success and where and how to grow. It was suggested that skier visits should not be the only metric we use to measure growth; The total population of skiers as well as tracking NPS scores were other data points that the panelists said could be useful in measuring growth.
Some questions remain. Are fewer visits and more revenue the Holy Grail? SAT asked if anyone tracks the number of beginner or non-practising skiers/boarders who have purchased passes or tickets over the past two years. While none have this data at their fingertips, it may be the kind of data we need to manage capacity while continuing to grow.
The existential threat of climate change was a prominent topic throughout the convention, with sessions on how to reduce wildfire risk, strengthen our climate advocacy, and a discussion with the Deputy Chief of the US Forest Service, Chris French, on the challenges facing the agency and how additional resources and working with the ski industry will help improve the agency’s effectiveness.
A trade show reception on Friday and a lunch at the show on Saturday provided the conference’s 375 vendors with venue and networking opportunities for nearly 500 station staff.
The annual NSAA Awards for Marketing, Safety, Conversion and Sustainability were presented at a well-produced event inside the CMA Theater at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Snowbasin, Utah, won the coveted Conversion Cup; Alta Ski Area, Utah, won the Golden Eagle Award for Environmental Excellence; Jay Peak, Vermont, won Best Overall Marketing; and Gore Mountain, NY, won the award for Best Overall Safety Program. See all the winners here.
The ongoing pandemic continues to present challenges for large-scale events. According to the NSAA, several attendees reported positive Covid tests in the days during and after the convention. In response, the NSAA said it would continue to follow science and adhere to local regulations at all of its event sites, and maintain its flexible cancellation policy for attendees.
Overall, attendees were excited to once again come together in person, with many resorts bringing large contingents to the show, not just top executives. It was great to see that the National Convention and other similar events provide invaluable educational and networking opportunities that Resort Team Members of all levels can benefit from. The wide array of attendees was reflected in a new Next Generation of Leaders event and social events, which featured many delicious Nashville fried specialties. All were well attended.
*Photos courtesy of NSAA by Malcolm Seamans
**Photo provided by Dave Gibson of Propeller Mediaworks