Conversion Camp






2014 Conversion Camp Wrap Up

For the past decade, the mountain resort industry has circled around the trial and conversion quandary: How do we get more than 15 percent of those who try our sports to stick with them? The first annual Conversion Camp, Mar. 4-6 at Jiminy Peak, Mass., provided some answers. Resorts from across the continent gathered together to share ideas and programs that have moved the conversion needle considerably. The Camp, organized by SAM Magazine and Snow Operating LLC, hosted 90 attendees representing 32 resorts.

“Conversion Camp was a call to action,” says SAM publisher Olivia Rowan. “We’ve got a lot of new tools at our disposal that have seen some big successes—it’s just a matter of sharing these stories so the industry can continue to be viable and grow.”

Terrain-based learning (TBL), which is at the core of this success, is not some mere tweak of the traditional learning progression. As Joe Hession of Snow Operating said, tweaking existing systems often leads to only marginal improvement. To create major change, it’s necessary to imagine how an ideal program would look, and then work to bring reality as close to that as possible. That was the theme of the entire Camp.

The program kicked off with a presentation on and discussion of Killington’s groundbreaking free-skis offer to first-time skiers. The deal: complete four days of lessons, receive a free pair of Elan skis. Snowsports director Dave Beckwith and marketing chief Rob Megnin described how the program, limited to the first 400 persons to sign up and complete their package, was sold out by the first of the year. The two also charted the progress and subsequent visits of the 400, and demonstrated the program’s staying power.

From there, Snow Operating’s Joe Hession challenged the group with process mapping. Attendees mapped out the exact process and decisions newcomers face as they make their way from the parking lot to the hill. It was an eye-opening look at how complicated that process can be, and how it can be improved. Subsequent sessions showed how to measure the efficiency of this process, and set forth a method for improving it.

Keynote speaker and fun expert Nicole Lazzaro of XEODesign described the “four keys to fun” and explained how well TBL dovetails with those keys. Lazzaro had completed her own small experiment with TBL a week earlier, learning to snowboard at Sierra-at-Tahoe, where she had the chance to compare TBL to traditional lessons on consecutive days. The experience confirmed to her the benefits of TBL from the standpoint of learning through fun: on a scale of 1 to 10, she rated TBL an 11, and traditional teaching a 3.

The following morning gave everyone a chance to experience the revolutionary nature of TBL. Attendees were suited up in gear opposite to what they normally use (shredders went out on skis, skiers went out on boards). They were led through the gearing up process, the initial indoor coaching, and then onto the hill. Expert coaches led the group through a fun series of terrain features designed to teach sliders to stop, slide, turn and even unload from a lift without the usual painful falls and struggles.

In the afternoon, Bartosz Barczynski from Whistler Blackcomb reviewed the success of their Never Ever Days program. This unique package offers free all-day lift, rental (including apparel) and lessons on certain days—during slow periods—and saw a 30 percent conversion rate. The pros in charge of the lessons meet with the never-evers in the rental shop and guide them throughout the entire day. Once on hill, there is a maximum of four in each group. And the day didn’t stop at 2:30. Pros were given beer and ticket vouchers and encouraged to bring their charges to the base area watering hole for some apres unwinding. Over the past two and a half years, the program has cost Whistler about $50,000—but generated $360,000 in ticket, lodging, and other revenue. As Barczynski pointed out, the benefits will continue to accrue for years, too.

Ending the second day were two panels: the first featured five GMs from resorts who have succesfully instituted terrain-based learning—Brian Fairbank and Tyler Fairbank from The Fairbank Group; Cranmore’s Ben Wilcox; Bill Cairns from Bromley; and Charles Blier from Camelback. The second panel featured a more frontline crew: Pat Hession and Chris Hargrave from Snow Operating; Craig Cimmons from Jay Peak; Cranmore’s Karen Dolan; and Kevin Jordan from Snowmass. The two sessions provided a comprehensive look at how resorts can successfully implement improved beginner experiences from the top down. Management buy-in, everyone agreed, was paramount. Peeling back the layers, getting the grooming crew, the ski and ride school group, the terrain park crew, and marketing on the same page was also of significant importance. And, all of the panelists concurred that success with conversion is a resort-wide affair that requires all hands on deck.

The final morning focused on getting the other details right. One session focused on the importance of pre-visit and post-visit communications. Corey Ryan of Ryan Solutions demonstrated how to inform first-timers on what to expect and prepare them (as much as possible) for their first day, and also how to invite them back for future visits. This session concluded with Jiminy’s Mike van Eyck sharing results from their recent conversion survey conducted through Guest Research.

The participants in the rental roundtable noted that the widespread adoption of integrated ski/boot systems and rental-specific snowboards has completely revolutionized the rental process. Pre-set boot/binding systems free staff to spend more time on fitting boots and acclimating guests to the mountain experience. All agreed that ensuring first-timers have properly-fitted boots is the single greatest key to a good first day on snow, and boot fitting has become job #1 for rental shops. The use of foot-sizing tools, even removing the liners from kids’ boots to check fit more precisely, are among the steps that resorts are taking to improve fit for guests.

Head, Elan and Burton all offered an on-hill rental demo on the final day of camp allowing attendees to take advantage of having the whole team there to test the latest rental systems on snow.

In all, the Camp delivered a great number of ideas, quantified results, and a memorable on-snow experience.

Said one camper, “The entire camp—presenters, attendees and coaches—devoted three days to the one topic. The level of collaboration was amazing! The whole experience gave me a ton of ideas to bring home to my area and staff.”

Ultimately, the three-day Conversion Camp is just the start of the conversation. Attendees and presenters were brimming with ideas and enthusiasm that will give the entire industry a lot to work with to significantly improve the industry’s 15 percent converersion rate. Terrain-based instruction will almost surely continue to evolve, and perhaps even take major leaps forward. But it’s already revolutionizing the learning landscape.

Terrain-based learning and Conversion Camp will be explored further in the May 2014 issue of SAM. Many thanks to our Conversion Camp sponsors: Burton, Elan, Head, Pace Locker Solutions, Pepsi and Ryan Solutions.