February 3, 2013

Skiing in Maine: By only thinking big, ski industry would go downhill

By John Christie

Many of us who love the sport of skiing have despaired over the past few decades about two interrelated phenomena: The decline in the number of available ski areas, especially the smaller, locally focused facilities; and the upward spiraling cost to participate as the remaining larger resorts compete with each other and attempt to make economic sense of a business model that has proven itself to be difficult to sustain.

click image to enlarge

Mt. Abram Ski Area is no Aspen but still is thriving, largely by operating on an economic model based on savvy marketing, affordable pricing and a customer-friendly staff. Other small and mid-sized ski areas would be well-advised to follow suit.

Photo Courtesy of Mt. Abram

For those of us who not only revel in the sheer joy that sliding down the side of a snow-covered mountain can provide, but have also had in our past some experience operating ski areas, there's a shared concern about where the sport and the business are headed.

In fact, given the reduction in ski areas nationwide by nearly 50 percent over the past 35 years from more than 700 to a number somewhat over 400, and the flattening out in the number of skiers participating each season (as well as a decline in the number of people taking up snowboarding from its peak a few short years ago), we've been asking ourselves where the future of the sport, and the business, might be headed.

I'm happy to say there's a new model that might just work, and we should all be proud that it's being tested right here in Maine.

And it's happening because of the vision, foresight and energy of two unique pioneers who have committed themselves to figuring out a way to provide accessible, affordable skiing and boarding at economically sustainable, environmentally friendly and community-focused areas.

One of them, Matt Hancock, an owner of Mt. Abram Ski Area since 2008, who has survived the loss of the area's base building in a 2011 fire, and a difficult and relatively snowless 2011-12 season, increased skier visits by a full 66 percent and nearly doubled his market share during his first three seasons of ownership through a combination of savvy marketing, customer-friendly pricing, and a staff committed to making the visitors feel both welcome and appreciated.

All this on an accessible mountain with some 1,150 vertical feet of skiing on 44 trails and eight hidden stashes that beckon you to explore.

As Matt told me recently, "My partner, Rob Lally, and I are committed to creating an environment that encourages a happy, healthy lifestyle where people can safely and economically enjoy a lifetime of skiing and riding fun ... at a low-density, unpretentious, economically sustainable area."

This year, Mt. Abram formalized a relationship with an energetic West Coast visionary with entrepreneurial blood coursing through his veins, Jamie Schectman, the CEO and co-founder of Mountain Riders Alliance (MRA), to test a new ski business model right here in Maine.

As Jamie succinctly elucidates his vision, "Let's leave the time-shares, fine dining and theme-park attractions to the mega-resorts and their $100 lift tickets, and restore the smaller ski hills so local folks can enjoy positive and affordable outdoor recreational activity in the wintertime. It's time to return the focus to the communities and recapture what contributed to the growth we experienced 30 and 40 years ago."

Simply stated, the MRA will be the vehicle through which smaller ski areas who share the same pricing and customer service philosophies, as well as environmentally sensitive and community-oriented development programs, can cooperatively market their facilities and share the knowledge and economic benefits of scale resulting from spreading the expense of common purchasing and other programs over multiple areas.

It's envisioned that the MRA will create a portfolio of small to mid-size ski areas that share the philosophy espoused by both that alliance and Mt. Abram, and could form part of a network of areas that would honor a common lift ticket for MRA member skiers and boarders. Reductions in food and merchandise could also be a benefit to members.

As a show of commitment, Schectman has relocated to Mt. Abram for the winter to help launch the program on the East Coast.

As he, Hancock and I recently cruised the well-covered and manicured trails at the area just east of Bethel on a bright January day, I felt I was in the company of kindred spirits who share my love for the sport and a commitment to figure out a way to introduce just as many people as possible to its wonders. And to keep them coming back.

The difference is that they're devoting their lives and their resources to do just that, while I happily become another beneficiary of their passion. My suspicion is that there'll be lots more of us in the seasons to come.

John Christie is a former ski racer and ski area manager and owner, a ski historian and member of the Maine Ski Hall of Fame. He and his son, Josh, write columns on alternating weeks. John can be reached at:

jchristie@fairpoint.net

 

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