Why Isn’t Your Ski Resort Thriving?

Over the last few years I’ve noticed that the slopes have become less and less crowded which is good for the average skier/boarder but it’s bad for the industry when resorts close with plenty of snow left on the ground. What’s happening?

Pine Knob, view of "The Wall" from the base

By way of example let’s look at Pine Knob Ski Resort, in Clarkston, MI. I’m not singling them out; many of the problems & challenges they face as well as the potential solutions, should apply with equal force to other small ski areas throughout the Midwest in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, etc. and probably also in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Right now Pine Knob is closed.  Tentatively re-opening for the weekend, but judging by this week’s forecast, there is about an 10% chance that will happen. The other three ski areas nearby have already closed due to lack of snow. Pine Knob on the other hand has plenty of snow; closed because of poor turnout the last few weeks of the season they just can’t justify running the lifts when nobody is paying for lift tickets.

They could be open this week. Temperatures are good and it’s sunny today and hasn’t rained. It’s a capitalist’s wet dream: they have a monopoly since all their competition has called it quits. All the derelicts like me who are willing to pay for an evening session in spring slush who can’t ride at Alpine, Holly, or Brighton should be coming to Pine Knob tonight. But they can’t, because Pine Knob is closed.

So the problem is that people aren’t participating (at all, or as frequently).  But why aren’t people participating? There are a couple obvious reasons all of which contribute to some degree.

  1. Scheduling conflicts. These ski areas operate day & night sessions so even when you work 40 hours a week in a cube-farm you can get out & ride evenings with your homies. I do it all the time. This is probably not the problem.
  2. The sport is too expensive. OK fair enough. At $30-40 for a day pass plus rentals and food adds up quickly over the course of a season. Factor in buying your own snowboard or skis & all the necessary outerwear, and this could be a part of the problem*.
  3. They don’t know what they’re missing out on. Let’s just call this “marketing fail.”  This isn’t Field of Dreams and if you build it they aren’t just going to show up and shred.  That’s not how it works. If nobody knows about it, nobody is going to show up.

Write off the first problem.  Leave the second problem to the MBA’s it’s the age-old problem of business: maximize revenue/profit while remaining affordable.  I want to focus on the third issue because I think that’s where a business like Pine Knob or other local ski resorts might be able to get the most bang for the proverbial buck.

Believe it or not there are solutions which don’t require a billion dollars in capital investments.

Conditions are good, but nobody is riding. Why?

I bet a lot of people are staying home because they think that Pine Knob is closed, or that conditions suck. The other resorts are closed so this is reasonable to assume. However, everyone I’ve talked to suggests that there was plenty of snow there last weekend when Mt. Holly was soggy carpet, and conditions were good enough that kids were clearing 40-foot tables all day. But if nobody knows, then nobody goes, and they’re forced to shut down early and they just shake their heads wondering why nobody is showing up to ride.

Make it more fun

These small ski areas need to do more events & themes to engage their customers and bring people out to the slopes.

Do something crazy! Cannonsburg recently built a 70-foot step-up and had some pro skiers demo it. Or just read their normal park setup, complete with pics to prove it.

And it wouldn’t hurt to do a few free-for-all rail jams or something like that. Don’t wait for Rome SDS or Burton or Red Bull to come to you, take some initiative and set up your own events like the Otsego Club which did open jams every Friday night this winter.

Late season you need to do pond skims and barbecues and St. Patrick’s green beer stuff. So what if it’s half gaper sideshow? I’d rather deal with that than deal with lifts not operating when the snow is still on the ground.

And then you’ve gotta promote those events because events don’t promote themselves.

Obligatory “social media” plug: Communicate & interact with your customers

How many kids stayed home last week because they didn’t want to gamble with $30, assuming the terrain was garbage? How are we supposed to know? Or do they just expect all of us suckers to show up and pony up $40 for a lift ticket no matter what? It’s 2011 how do you think people are finding out about your resort? I can’t stress this enough (there are some very well-thought-out comments in this old post).

Pine Knob has a Facebook page but it hasn’t been updated since November.  Seriously. They aren’t on Twitter as far as I’m aware. No YouTube channel, etc. Their website like the rest of their local competitors hasn’t changed since 1999 complete with a lame redirect (seriously go look at it).

Pine Knob has no voice whatsoever. No way to reach out, communicate, or interact with their fans & customers.

They don’t post current pictures, videos or park updates.  I’d kill to see weekly pictures and updates of their terrain park setup. Instead, I have to rely on a handful of individuals on snowboardingforum.com to tell me what the conditions are like, what features were set up, whether the jump line is good.

Because Pine Knob doesn’t tell us what’s going on at their own damn mountain it’s like they don’t care if we show up or not. Well, there are people like me who do care, enough to get mad.  If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t have wasted the time to write this.

Summing it up

As a customer who rides frequently at Pine Knob this is hopefully constructive criticism. I’m not an expert but I’m also not a pitch man; not trying to sell a solution, not trying to sell my services. What I’ve talked about above should be a relatively low-cost experiment. Of course it is too late for this season, but maybe in the future they will act on it? Maybe they’re rolling naked in piles of cash, more likely business is down. Some experiments are going to work, and some will not, but you have to try them to find out and what I see is ski resorts doing the same dance year-in and year-out with predictable results.

Maybe this is just the angry ramblings of a lone snowboarder who always wishes for “just one more day” on the slopes, maybe there simply is nothing these ski areas can do to sustain operations beyond March 10 (although I’ve never seen them make an effort).

Because when I see slopes covered in snow and sun shining, I can’t help but think: they should be open. Or at the very least, they could turn on the lights & let us hike the terrain park.

*For now just understand that there are discount cards, ski-club programs, and vouchers programs for buy-one/get-one-free lift tickets that all these ski areas participate in, so if money is an issue there are ways around it

  1. Wow, good write up David. This is so huge. Why don’t any of the resorts do anything media wise. Why don’t they let us come and hike for 15 bucks. Why not use the snow until it is gone. Put it all in one big pile and make a huge wall or jump out of it.

    I think a lot of these resorts are tax write offs for a bigger business that we don’t even know about. Who are the owners by the way. Do they snowboard or ski? These old school acts need to stop.

    Great write up man. Lets keep this movement going!!

    • PK is owned by Alpine Valley Holding Co., which owns AV, Mt. Holly & Bittersweet in Michigan and Devil’s Head (WI) and Alpine valley (WI).

      Letting people hike is basically free for them, in terms of expenses. Sure, they need a few volunteer ski patrollers & maybe a handful of paid hourly employees & a manager for liability purposes, and it costs a few bucks to run the lights in the park for the evening, but that’s it.

      The media angle really bothers me because it is soooo inexpensive and easy to implement. It’s no guarantee and maybe it won’t work. But even if it doesn’t, it’s not like they have to spend $100,000 to try it, it’s chump change we’re talking about. It absolutely blew my mind to see that they hadn’t updated their FB page since the day the opened for the season back in November.

  2. I still like the idea of doing a sort of snowboarder strike. Guarantee we would make the news if a large group got together and just started hiking it lol.

    I’m one to talk though. It’s not likely that I will be able to attend that strike myself haha.

    Could get a lot of messages across to them.

  3. Pingback: The Shred is Dead in Southeast Michigan

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