Powder-Packed Meetings

There's no question about it: Participation in winter sports this year is up. Especially for extreme sports like snowboarding, which is beginning to outshine downhill skiing in popularity. John Briner, Telluride Ski & Snowboard School director in Colorado, sees a boost in snowboarding and a decline in skiing based on the higher demand for snowboarding lessons. But he guesses that the trend will reverse in two years: "With corporate groups there is more skiing, while maybe one or two participants will actually snowboard."

Says Julie Lynch, director of market research at SnowSports Industries America, "Ski participation has been fairly stable for the past ten years. But it does go slightly down each year. The reason is that baby boomers were the majority of the skiers, and now they are getting older. Plus more sports are being offered and the younger generation is into extreme snow sports."

According to the National Ski Areas Association's online media center, "U.S. ski resorts reported 57.3 million skier/snowboarder visits during the 2000-2001 season. Snowboarding continues to gain in popularity and has a healthy rate of growth. This season, snowboarding represented 28.3 percent of total skier/snowboarder visits." The National Sporting Goods Association reports that in the 2000 season, 7,392,000 people alpine-skied and 4,347,000 people snowboarded. And the National Ski & Snowboard Retailers Association recorded in the same period that 7.4 million people downhill-skied, or 3 percent of the U.S. population.

Snow Business

Marcela Bettis, director of sales & marketing for Vail Beaver Creek Properties in Colorado, says she has seen rising interest in winter sports this season among average travelers. "Because of the Olympics, skiing has become an activity for people to venture into. And I see more groups choosing a ski destination versus a warm-weather destination."

Amy Laing, owner of Hawthorne Meetings and Incentives in Minneapolis, intentionally booked a group at Vail Cascade Resort in Vail, Colorado, during the Olympics to increase the excitement for her attendees. Laing arranged lessons and private instructors for the 38 engineers. "I planned this meeting for six months knowing full well the Olympics would be going on while we were there," says Laing, and for attendees, that only enhanced the thrill of being on a snowy mountain and experiencing the rush that so many champions thrive on. Plus, everyone was able to watch the Olympics together, either at the bar or restaurant, while on their ski breaks.

The one place that has seen a spike in meetings interest is Utah. Dave Fields, a spokesman for Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort, believes that the rise is due to the television coverage from the Olympics. "Meeting planners will call us and say, 'We saw Utah in the Olympics and want to come out and have a meeting and ski,' " says Fields. "People see how exciting winter sports are, and are inspired to come out West and experience them."

Betsy Hilt, CAE, programs administrator for the Tennessee Bar Association, says "We are seriously considering Park City, Utah, for next year's program. We think it would be a good draw for people to have a trip to the site of the 2002 Olympics. Plus, Park City has done fairly well with attendance for other meetings."

Bettis, from Vail Beaver Creek Properties, even saw groups and travelers choosing her destination over Utah's Deer Valley primarily because of Utah's momentary lack of availability. "Due to compression, Beaver Creek has benefited from the overflow near the Olympic venues," explains Bettis.

Cynthia Key, managing director of Two Design Group, an event planning company based in Greenwich, Connecticut, wanted to hold a Royal Bank of Canada event at Deer Valley in Utah. She thought it would be exciting for people to experience some of the Olympic runs and the mini-bobsleds, but unfortunately the resort closed for the month of March to break everything down from the Olympics.

Key eventually took the Royal Bank of Canada event for 65 people to the Wyndham Peaks Resort in Telluride, Colorado, and says that the majority of the group chose skiing as their main activity.

Downhill's Upsides

The resort's ski school provided five instructors to guide 10 to 12 people each. "The instructors serve as mountain guides, telling the history of the area and showing them the scenic views," Key says. "Most of the participants don't want to be hassled about their technique and the ski instructors know this. It is difficult to tell a CEO what he or she is doing wrong, so the instructors tend to not be overbearing with instruction and instead see if an attendee is apt for learning."

Skiing in a group, as the Royal Bank of Canada participants did, is a good way to facilitate business discussions. Key tends to stay away from formal meetings, and leaves the mountain to function as a meeting room, saying that "most business is done on the slopes -- networking in a casual atmosphere works best." John Briner, director of the Telluride Ski & Snowboard School, often sees business conducted on the chair lifts.

Asked why she brought Royal Bank of Canada to Telluride, Key says, "The Peaks is the only hotel in town that can handle the size of our group, and Telluride has an exclusive yet unpretentious feel. Plus a unique feature is the free, public gondola, to get from the intimate town of Mountain Village to Telluride."

The Waiting Game

Ultimately, the interest these resorts are currently seeing should translate into bookings this coming winter. Steven Threndyle, secretary treasurer of North American SnowSports Journalists Association, says, "It's very hard to determine if skiing has experienced a 'bump' due to the Olympics or not -- most folks have already taken their annual ski vacations. However, the Olympics did provide excellent exposure for [skiing], though the connection is, right now, rather ephemeral in terms of dollars and cents." Bettis adds that "most of the time, it takes six to twelve months to plan a meeting, so we will see more of an impact in the coming ski season among groups planning meetings at our destination."