Ski Blog... Been doing this since 2005!

« Suns Down Lakers in 5 (12) | Main | Changes in the Ski Industry »

May 05, 2007

Say Goodbye to Independent Ski Schools

Seattle Weekly has this article about local non-resort ski schools:

It sounds like the plot for a bad Jason London movie: A ski mogul with an eye on the bottom line takes over a local resort and cancels contracts with the community-based ski schools that have traditionally served the slopes, then asks the ski bums to join the corporate ranks. Lessons double in cost. Longtime skiers and snowboarders are outraged. The National Forest Service washes its hands of the matter. Will the underdog community schools yield to big business? Can snow-loving families afford the increased cost of lessons? Will the feds step in?...

In a letter sent two weeks ago to a handful of schools that have served the resort since its inception (Crystal refuses to comment on matters directly related to the decision), Kircher states that cutting ties is the result of tough times in the ski industry, with problems including increased fuel costs, lack of qualified staffing, low customer-retention rate, and erratic weather. Herein, Kircher writes: "In times like these we are forced to come up with new and creative ways to manage our business," later adding that the change, "[w]ill allow us to create standards of excellence based on specific skiing/riding models and customer service models." The letter concludes by inviting schools to "[b]ecome part of our family and share the Crystal Mountain experience," an offer the now-unemployed instructors took as an invitation to work for Crystal's in-house school...

For Kevin McCarthy, president of the White Pass ski area (located west of Yakima on Highway 12), which cut ties with its concession schools shortly before he started running things in the early '70s, consolidation is simply good business. "Why give business that's occurring on your property to someone else? You need every penny you can get. They're making a good call." he says.

It is akin to owning a movie theatre and letting someone set up a vending boot inside your theatre and sell popcorn and soda without giving you a cut. Resorts make a huge portion of their money (and an even larger portion of their profits) off of their ski school. Ski schools have little long term fixed assets associated with them meaning that most of their cost model is variable costs as opposed to fixed. This allows flexibility to increase or decrease costs according to demand. In short, this is a necessary and smart business decision, but it hurts locals that don't want to make the $9 an hour that most resorts pay their instructors.

Something that really bothers me though is this:

Further complicating matters is the fact that Crystal is located on government land and operates under a "special use permit" issued by the National Forest Service. In addition to a percentage of Crystal's profits going to the National Treasury, this means that the NFS has a significant say over business decisions that are made at Crystal and other local slopes, to the point that the resorts must seek approval for details as specific as the color and style of their buildings.

But in the case of the spurned schools, the NFS has chosen not to interfere. "Things we do have say over are safety and what kind of services are provided," says Washington's Forest Service director, Rob Iwamoto. "Obviously, ski school is one of those—but how business is arranged isn't one of those. In general, who provides [the ski-school service] is a business decision. We just expect a level of service to be provided. We are not there to micromanage a business."

You mean any time a business makes a decision that someone is unhappy about the government must choose whether to interfere or not? Well, it is on forest service land that the ski resort has a special use permit for. So surely the special use permit gives the government the right to choose whether to interfere with business operations. The article should have mentioned that the government also chooses not to interfere with ticket prices or food prices in the cafeterias. Typical Seattle type attitude. Before the government concerns themselves with local ski instructors, we need the government to choose to interfere with the price that I pay for a latte from SBC or Starbucks or choose to interfere with how much Windows or MS Office costs. (SBC, Starbucks, and Microsoft being Seattle based companies)

No, the only thing the government needs to choose to interfere with is the amount of THC that is soaking in to this man-ponytail wearing, latte sipping, Seattle based, hippy brain. Damn, dude, put on a flannel, put on some Pearl Jam, and either chain yourself to a tree or protest the World Bank's next conference bro. You gotta be somewhat objective and the use of a single word detracts from the point that the situation sucks for the folks involved. But no business has a "right" to exist. The government does not have an obligation to sit as the judge of which of the two competing business models should be allowed simply because the ski resort happens to be on public land.

Posted by Justin at May 5, 2007 08:34 AM


It will be interesting to see how this plays out for the next year at Crystal. Nationally there is a growing crisis better described as a lack of instructors. Even the ASEA is getting involved in the recruiting process now (see editorial "Professional Skier" Spring 2007 issue). I'm curious to see just how many will make the transition from independent to associated/corporate.

Most schools I've worked at require a previous season of work to establish a season pass. Unless an instructors external efforts get rolled over to the new school (and many of these instructors continue to truly love teaching), I don't see any compelling reason to join the other staff.

That leaves the question of interest, how will Crystal's on-site school handle the influx of new students that were previously handled by external schools? This is a make-it or break-it switch for them. Depending upon how they execute the plan this move could place Crystal into a situation where public opinion places them in a low or high regard for instruction.

Posted by: Oft-piste at May 7, 2007 02:59 PM

It is really tough to say how many people even will notice the shift in business models. Figure that new skiers will not notice anything and that only advanced skiers that continued to take lessons from private instructors will notice. I think this brings up the real point that most resorts can and will put just about anyone out there to do "Learn to Ski" lessons and there isn't a huge need for L1/L2/L3 certs to teach learn to ski. Especially smaller resorts. Folks don't go to smaller local resorts to get Level 10 lessons taught by a PSIA L3 certified instructor. They certainly do at Breck or Alta or Vail or Aspen, but most smaller resorts don't even have the territory to teach these lessons anyway.

My take on the industry is that we are seeing a real pinch where resorts are running short on pre-L1 and L1 folks that can do the basics, but unless they are upscale resorts, they don't see the need to keep L2/L3 folks around because they have to pay them more to teach--especially when most of the small resorts demand is at the L2S level. I don't think most consumers notice the difference between an L2/L3 certified instructor until they get to the advanced level (i.e. Jon over at MYsnowpro).

The bitch of it is that the seasoned instructors that are L2/L3 and teach at private schools make much better money than they will at corporate schools. I have a huge issue with the way these folks are paid and treated at most resorts anyway, but as soon as one of the expert instructors with 30 years experience leaves, they simply backfill with someone that is not yet L1 certified and have no incentive to move folks up.

Posted by: Justin at May 7, 2007 04:20 PM