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  • Ed Fletcher /

    On a weekday afternoon at Squaw Valley before the Christmas storms, skiers and snowboarders had little competition for the chairlifts. Among the issues affecting winter recreational sports cited by a retailing group: Baby boomers are aging out of downhill skiing, and they aren't being replaced by as many younger skiers.

  • Ed Fletcher /

    John Oliver, 5, left, successfully skis through a plastic hoop at Squaw Valley's ski school. Resorts promote package deals that offer lessons, a lift ticket and gear rental in an effort to transform beginners into competent skiers – and return customers.

Ski industry aims to lure novices with deals

Published: Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013 - 3:59 pm

As his son practiced turning his tiny skis under the close instruction of professionals at Squaw Valley Ski Resort, Scott Oliver stood watch – conflicted.

On one hand, he wanted to pass on his passion for skiing. On the other hand, he was still smarting over the bill.

"They ask why skier numbers are dropping off: Who can afford to do this?" asked Oliver, who lives in Palo Alto.

While ski resorts often tout increases in skier and snowboarder visits, data provided by equipment retailers paint a different picture. Their data show a 7.6 percent decrease in the number of Americans skiing and snowboarding from 2001 to 2011.

The leaders within the winter sports industry say they are responding, but critics wonder whether they are doing enough.

"It costs $90 to go skiing on a single-day lift ticket," said Jamie Schectman, chief executive officer of the Mountain Rider's Alliance. The amenities arms race between corporate-owned resorts pushes lift ticket prices too high, said Schectman, whose group is seeking funding to create a collective of back-to-basics resorts.

"It's too much. A lot of the big resorts have lost focus," he said.

On a day with less than ideal conditions, Oliver decided to cheer on his kids rather than hit the slopes himself. Once he added up the costs of lessons, lift tickets, lodging and food for his family of four and their nanny, the trip was "ridiculously expensive," Oliver said.

Resorts – such as Squaw Valley – point out the great deals to be had by buying a season pass. But before people are willing to plunk down hundreds of dollars, they need to become competent skiers or boarders.

To bring more people into winter sports, resorts and equipment-makers are backing marketing efforts aimed at quickly turning beginners into capable skiers or boarders.

The industry-backed "Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month" (January) pushes new participants to take professional lessons, rather than learning from friends or family. The companion "Bring a Friend" program offers giveaways for people who persuade a friend to enroll in ski or snowboard lessons.

Halfway up the mountain at Squaw Valley, Megan Lipinski, of Coronado, braced for another snowboard run. Her apprehension was evident. Under the instruction of her boyfriend, it was her first time snowboarding. The day – with gusty winds that shut down several lifts – was not going well.

"Taking a lesson from a professional is the way to go," said Troy Hawks, a spokesman for the National Ski Areas Association. "A lesson from a parent or boyfriend most often results in disaster."

"If we can get these beginners to stick with it long enough to become intermediate, they become core participants," Hawks said.

Squaw ski school boss Elianne Furtney said it's easier, safer and less stressful on everyone to learn from professionals.

Some area resorts are offering "loss leader" deals to get beginners on the mountain.

Beginner packages on Jan. 12 and 26 at Squaw Valley and Jan. 13 and 27 at Alpine Meadows offer a lift ticket, a lesson and gear rental at $39.

Homewood offers a similar $44 deal for beginners through Feb. 14, excluding weekends and holidays.

Larry Weindruch, president of the National Ski and Snowboard Retailers Association, said the mission is critical for the future of the sport.

"Everybody that has a stake in this industry is doing what it can to attract more people to the sport," Weindruch said. "For years and years downhill skiing was dependent on baby boomers, and we're all getting older. They are aging out at a faster rate than new people are coming in."

Kelly Davis, director of research for SnowSports Industries America, struck a less dire tone. She noted that early snow across the country is helping sales rebound from last year's horrible numbers.

Snow helps, but there is nothing like having snow sports on national television, she said, to give the sport a boost. Davis was also envious of the bump a recent blockbuster movie gave to archery.

"We want to keep snow sports in the mainstream public eye. It would great to have a hit movie that featured snow sport. I wish we had a 'Hunger Games.' "

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