When it comes to designing terrain and the learning experience, resorts have finally started thinking about beginners, with the idea of getting them to keep coming back.
Few activities look as enticing as skiing — think of those images of devotees effortlessly tracing elegant arcs on the snow or gliding through fairy-tale powder — it’s part sport, part tourism brochure. But let’s face it: Skiing is not kind to beginners, especially adult ones.
“When people new to the sport think of skiing or snowboarding, they have this image of being basically intermediate pretty quickly,” said Christine Baker, vice president of mountain sports at Big Sky in Montana. “They picture a bluebird day, they picture themselves skiing or riding independently without an instructor in a short amount of time. And there’s a bit of a gap between that expectation and the reality that it is a sport where you need to learn some basic skills. And that can take a little bit longer than expected.”
If you take up, say, tennis, you are likely to spend some quality hours whacking balls onto neighboring courts but you are also likely to have fun fairly quickly. The learning curve is even faster for tennis’s young cousin, pickleball.
With skiing, you have to somehow squeeze your feet into stiff, heavy boots, and then attach planks to your legs and then … go down a hill? And it’s freezing?
The punchline is that on top of it all, you are going to fall, which is not necessarily anybody’s idea of a good time.
More ideas to embrace the cold:
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The Quiet Thrill of Winter Wildlife Viewing: In Colorado’s Rockies, birds and other animals stand out against the snow, and even if you can’t see them, their tracks let you know they’re around.
At a Club Med Ski Resort, Learning to Love the Apéro: Will the company’s all-inclusive approach work in the North American market? An avid skier puts Québec’s Massif de Charlevoix to the test.
Taking Back the Mountains: Big resorts are crowded, pricey and exclusive. But some skiers and snowboarders are trying to reclaim their sports by building a culture that is more inclusive and sustainable.
Making the Slopes Fun From Day 1: When it comes to designing terrain and the learning experience, resorts have finally started thinking about beginners.
Faster Rides, Shorter Waits: New Ski Lifts Changing U.S. Slopes This Winter: A flurry of construction at major ski resorts has led to a high number of notable new chairlifts and gondolas opening this season.
The pandemic, which had many people looking to get outdoors, sent many of them to the mountains: The National Ski Areas Association reported record numbers at its member resorts for the 2021-2022 season. And now, how to keep them coming back?
That was the question put to Joe Hession, the founder and chief executive of SNOW Operating, a company that helps ski resorts improve their visitor experiences. “We did a study to basically find out that in order to make people come skiing and snowboarding a second time, we have to make it more fun,” he said, laughing. “That’s pathetic, but that’s what we came up with.”
In practice, that has meant changing how snowsports are taught, and giving beginners and intermediates terrain that approximates the top-of-the-mountain playgrounds enjoyed by more experienced skiers.
Learning to glide
For decades, ski instruction in the United States was influenced by the Austrian model, brought over by immigrants in the 1930s and ’40s. “I think every ski school was built on the idea that we’re going to give you a bunch of defensive maneuvers to help you have control, and that’s going to set you up to eventually learn the skills to be able to ski,” Mr. Hession said.
He recalled the dreary old days when getting on snow would involve putting on one ski and walking in a circle with it. Now, he said, “instead of learning how to stop, you’re learning how to glide.”
In place of the old methods, SNOW Operating has helped develop terrain-based learning, which gives never-evers, as newbies are called, a feel for the unique sensation of being on snow. That technique has been adopted at mountains around the country — you can find terrain-based learning at resorts as varied as Killington, in Vermont; Aspen Snowmass in Colorado; Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia; and Mr. Hession’s own New Jersey properties, Mountain Creek and the indoor skiing and snowboarding park Big Snow American Dream, in a mall off Interstate 95.
Students start on flats where they learn how to click into their skis or strap onto a board, figure out the correct stance and get used to balancing on snow. Then they move on to a gentle incline ending in another flat area that provides a natural stop. They make their way through rollers and bank turns, and eventually reach a so-called perfect slope where they can put together everything they have learned in this nonthreatening environment.
Going through the terrain-based-learning zone at Big Sky last season, I found it impossible to pick up speed — which was exactly the point. I felt very connected to my skis, which were reacting to the terrain almost on their own, leaving me to focus on my stance and positioning.
Bring the fun to the newbies
On a sunny morning at McCoy Park, a new 250-acre expansion at the Beaver Creek resort in Colorado that opened last season, bounties revealed themselves at every turn. The wide trails were perfectly groomed and deliciously underpopulated, while enticing glades beckoned. Big deal, you might think, that sounds like a regular ski experience.
But there was a big difference: The area was created specifically for beginner and intermediate skiers and riders.
“What’s nice about McCoy Park is that it’s designed around calm, mellow skiing, but you still have that feeling of adventure,” said John Plack, the senior manager of communications for Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek. “It’s easy to get your skis or snowboard under you and feel like you’re progressing. If you are new to tree-skiing, you can experience what navigating through them would be without the commitment of a full gladed run or feeling that you’re in over your head — you can dip in and out.”
Since beginner runs often are near the bottom at most resorts, it can take a while for learners to discover the breathtaking Alpine views and higher-altitude snow quality that are an essential part of the sport’s appeal. Beaver Creek already had a beginner area near its peak with the 11,440-foot-high Red Buffalo Park, but McCoy Park, which has unimpeded views of the Sawatch Range, adds even more variety with the kind of bowl skiing that’s usually reserved for advanced skiers. Not only is it hard to get lost since the runs funnel down to the base, but you can’t make a wrong turn and end up in a pickle since all 17 trails are green or blue, meaning they are suitable for beginners and intermediates.
“When beginner skiers or snowboarders go to McCoy Park, they have the full mountain experience,” Mr. Plack said. “They’re like, ‘I need to do more of this!’”
McCoy Park is only one of the mid- to high-elevation zones that resorts are creating to make sure beginners and intermediates have a good time and become repeat customers. This season, Steamboat in Colorado is opening a learning area, Greenhorn Ranch, at the mid-station of the new Wild Blue gondola. Also in Colorado, Copper Mountain has been fine-tuning its Western Territory, where the runs off the Timberline and Lumberjack lifts are all green and blue. Copper Mountain benefits from a geological quirk that had concentrated most of the gentle terrain on its west side, but the resort has also given nature a bit of a push, cutting, for example, gently graded trails to bypass flat traverses that were proving problematic for newcomers. It has also strategically improved its amenities.
“There are food and bathrooms in those areas, so newer skiers don’t have to travel as far to use them,” Todd Casey, a Copper ski instructor and staff trainer, said. “Experts are going to be like, ‘I’m just going to ski down to the bottom, use the facilities and be gone again.’ But that could be an hour’s journey for beginners, so we try to make sure we have those options available for them on the mountain.”
Rethinking the base map
Many resorts have grown in a haphazard way over the decades: adding a lift here, a dining hut there. Now, many try to think more holistically and integrate the various parts of their operations as smoothly as possible. While smaller hills still kick it old school — and that is a big part of their charm — many of the bigger resorts are putting a lot of thought, effort and money into making the process more user-friendly, especially for those new to snow.
So the bus from the parking lot now stops near the rental shop, “and then the ski-school meeting area is close to that,” Mr. Casey said. “We try to walk beginners through the process from the rental shop on: If they signed up for a lesson, we try to put an instructor in the shop while they get their gear.”
Employees, from ski instructors to the groomers who run the big machinery, also need to be on the same wavelength to maximize their efforts and make sure, for example, that areas favored by beginner lessons are well groomed. “Ski instructors love to talk to people, that’s what they do for a living, but cat operators don’t like to talk — that’s why they work in the middle of the night by themselves,” Mr. Hession said. “So a lot of the work we do is helping people listen and talk to each other.”
The payoff is to make newcomers understand that snow sports can be a lifelong pleasure, and one of the rare pastimes that can be enjoyed by many generations together. “It is so critical that we make our processes easier to navigate and that we stay patient,” said Adrienne Saia Isaac, the director of marketing and communications for the National Ski Areas Association. “We were all new at something at one point!”
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