Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort (LVSSR) dumped the traditional ski school model for the second season in a row last year, offering its guests instead the chance to work one-on-one with an instructor — for free. In so doing the resort went from serving 2,200 resort visitors per season to 18,000 in one year, bucking the industry status quo model of shoe horning skiers into set lesson groups that can cost upwards of $200 dollars per day.
And although 2013/14 was its worst snowfall year on record, LVSSR’s ski school had its biggest year in the resort’s 52-year history; and is on track to beat that this season.
The program is called Complementary Coaching, and LVSSR has seen more than a 50 percent increase in private lesson sales as a result. Its per-visit ski school yield is up 30 percent and youth program enrollment is up seven times over 2011. Multi-week programs are sold out.
Ski school is typically one of the top three revenue centers for a ski resort, having shifted from mom and pop ski schools to a single, resort-operated model over the last 30 years. The motivation behind LVSSR’s “sampling ski-school” approach was not to generate more revenue, however.
“We believe the industry has migrated too far to one direction where ski school is looked at solely as a revenue center. As an industry we’ve lost sight of what our true mission is: to create lifelong skiers and snowboarders,” said Kevin Stickelman, LVSSR’s president and general manager, who along with Dan Hooper, director of skier/rider services, and Chris Lange, director of ski school, make up the brains behind the unique complimentary coaching service.
Another benefit: lift ticket usage went up 50 percent; meaning people are actually staying at the resort and on snow longer. The resort does still offer a traditional full-day kids lesson, and those numbers have gone up as well.
Through its research, LVSSR found that its guests didn’t want long structured group lessons. Guests wanted the freedom to decide when they arrived at the resort, whom they worked with, and when they wanted to learn. As often happens, people were trying to self teach, parents were trying to teach their kids, and spouses and friends were trying to teach one another. “In those scenarios, people left the hill unhappy,” said Stickelman. “They didn’t have fun, so they didn’t come back. If we are doing this to create lifelong skiers and riders, we had to change the model.”
“We were trying to internally identify hurdles to driving skier visits. And as everyone in the industry is beginning to recognize, if we aren’t creating the next generation of skiers, in a tradeoff for higher margins, that’s not a sustainable model,” Stickelman said. So far, LVSSR’s gamble has paid off both in profitability and in returning skiers. “We’re casting a wider net. We’re getting more people involved in the sport, more families involved in the sport, more younger families involved in the sport.”
LVSSR said it is the only ski area in the U.S. to offer unlimited free coaching to its guests. Arapahoe Basin in Colorado and Perfect North Slopes in Ohio have both offered a free lesson or a free run with an instructor to new skiers. But will others take note of this unusual strategy in the most unlikely of places? Let’s hope we have plenty of snow this season to find out.
The resort is located about an hour from downtown Las Vegas and typically runs lifts from Thanksgiving to early April, weather depending. It is operated by Powdr Corp., in partnership with the Forest Service. LVSSR sits at 8,510 feet at its base, has an average snowfall of 212 inches, and 445 skiable acres of terrain (195 acres served by four lifts).