Carving a Niche

5 minute read
Bob Diddlebock

The U.S. ski industry should send a couple of season passes to downhiller Karen Harsch–gratis. The 38-year-old mother and ex–U.S. Ski Team member slaps on her sticks 50 times a season in Summit County, Colo., often bopping from Arapahoe Basin and Keystone to Copper Mountain and Breckenridge in a single week. Chances are her 6-year-old daughter will follow in her mother’s boot steps.

Well aware that the mountains are not exactly teeming with aficionados like Harsch — she and her family spend upwards of $5,000 a season schussing–the ski industry is investing a good deal to woo a long-underserved segment: women.

Whether it’s hosting women-only seminars and on-the-mountain clinics, tailoring ads to a woman’s sensibilities or designing stylish, high-performance equipment fitted to the female physique, many of the nation’s 478 ski resorts, as well as skimakers like Head and Rossignol, are doubling down to persuade newcomers and veterans to “touch more powder,” as the Swiss say, so the industry can touch more revenue.

At first glance, the raw numbers look good. Some 49% of last season’s record 59 million lift-ticket buyers were women–up 5% from the 2004-05 season, according to the National Ski Areas Association. And the total dollar sales of female-related ski goods has grown 64% since the 2001-02 season, says the Leisure Trends Group, a research firm based in Boulder, Colo., that tracks outdoor sports.

But the ski industry has been forced to face the cold reality that women’s commitment to a sport long dominated by men doesn’t run as deep as it could.

“I started to talk to women who were successful in every area of their lives, and they just couldn’t seem to get it when it came to skiing,” says Claudia Carbone, a Denver writer whose groundbreaking book Women Ski was first published in 1994. “It ran from skiing on poor equipment or equipment designed for the male body to classes taught by men who didn’t understand a woman’s approach to sports.”

Seeing aging baby boomers abandon the sport and the younger generation ignore it in the 1990s, a panicky ski industry finally realized that many women control the finances in families and relationships. Belatedly, if not reluctantly, skiing adopted the mantra “Whatever women want, women get.”

Colorado’s Keystone and California’s Heavenly in Lake Tahoe, among others, brought in professionals who understand that women learn better at their own pace in small, friendly groups; are more interested in technique than in speed; and mostly just want to have fun. As Carbone puts it, “Women prefer to dance with the mountain rather than attack it.”

Savvier resorts have since factored in spa jaunts, restaurant touring and ice skating, as well as amenities like first-class child care–whatever it takes to make a mountainside stay an experience instead of a mere visit.

This year’s venue at Heavenly, for example, will feature the Feb. 2-4 Her Turn Ski and Snowboard Clinic–baited with multiday family ski packages for as little as $1,300–while Breckenridge’s Park & Pipe Camps are expected to draw large crowds to the Colorado town in February and March. Virginia’s Wintergreen Resort puts together wine tours in the nearby Charlottesville area. Vermont’s Stowe Mountain Resort holds Wednesday ski clinics as part of its For Women, By Women series. And at Keystone, Betty Fest has become the industry’s best-known program for women. “We’re trying to appeal to a broad audience and be cognizant of today’s skier vs. the woman who skied 30 years ago,” says Sue Greene, 70, a retired IBM executive who runs Betty Fest.

Another issue involves equipment. About 10 years ago, it dawned on ski- and bootmakers that, because of their build, women need lighter, more flexible skis to carve turns, handle bumps and stave off fatigue, as well as boots that better conform to their soles, heels, ankles and calves. With that, a knot of female designers hit the workbench with one thought: the days of shortening a set of men’s skis, slapping some pink paint on them and palming them off on women were over. “We don’t design jockstraps, so why should men design women’s skis?” jokes Alison Gannett, a Head representative and ski designer in Crested Butte, Colo.

Proving that function and style can go hand in hand, Head, Rossignol and Dynastar have developed women’s skis (some with rhinestones and other flourishes) that run from a few hundred dollars up to $1,000. Today they account for about 10% of the total ski market. But manufacturers say that could very well jump to 50% in the next five years, considering two points: sales of women’s ski equipment climbed from $159 million during the 2004-05 season to $175 million last year–a 10% increase–while overall women’s ski-related sales jumped an impressive 18%, from $513.3 million to $605.2 million in the same period, according to the Leisure Trends Group. “We see all this happening because of women’s spending power,” says Julia Day, an analyst with the firm. “It’s not some blip on the retail radar screen. It’s a complete mind shift.”

The drive to draw more women hasn’t generated a blizzard of downhillers, resort executives admit. Rather, as marketing director Myra Foster at Stratton Mountain Resort in Vermont points out, “it’s more of an incremental push” complemented by initiatives like investing in bigger, faster chairlifts; refurbishing lodges and condos; and adding more luxurious amenities.

That makes sense to Harsch, who sells real estate when she’s not skiing: “It may have taken it a long time to figure it out, but I think the ski industry knows that if women go out on the hill and don’t like it, they’ll go ice skating or go to the beach or find something else to do.”

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