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Thursday, January 5, 2012
The business of big-mountain contests

By Megan Michelson
ESPN.com

A skier heading toward the finish line at a Freeride and Freeskiing World Tour stop at Kirkwood, Calif.

When the Freeskiing World Tour and Freeride World Tour descend on Revelstoke, BC, this weekend for their first North American stop of the season, all eyes will be on the athletes. But there's another thing that will be on display: the ski resort.

Revelstoke is a relatively new ski area, now just in its fifth season of operation. And for the last two years, the ski area has been the host to the FWT's sole Canadian stop. This is Revelstoke's last year of a committed three years as a host site, and the resort is currently in the process of deciding if they want to continue being a stop on the big-mountain contest's tour.

"From the resort perspective, the Subaru Freeskiing World Tour has definitely facilitated our reputation as a big mountain and a contender on the competitor circuit," says Sarah Windsor, marketing coordinator for Revelstoke Mountain Resort. "But with our new family and beginner developments, we hope to appeal to a broader audience including families and the novice skier who come to experience all that Revelstoke has to offer. With this in mind, we will look at all future opportunities and decide which ones best suit the needs of our guests."

This begs the question: Are big-mountain contests good for ski resort business? Sure, they bring in media attention and mainstream exposure, but is it the right kind of exposure for a resort hoping to appeal to the masses, not just expert skiers?

Big-mountain contests draw in spectators but most of them are already core skiers.

A ski resort sales employee who asked not to be named, but who works at a resort that hosts a big-mountain contest, told ESPN, "I've heard the concerns that these competitions don't bring in people who spend money -- buy hotel rooms, buy lift tickets. Instead we're giving free conference space, a lot of ski patrol hours, a lot of complimentary lift tickets. But, at the end of the day everyone agrees it's worth it because it's our street cred -- and that does matter."

Adam Comey, president of Mountain Sports International, which puts on the Freeskiing World Tour and The North Face Masters, says that the cost of hosting a big-mountain contest is relatively low compared to a park or pipe contest or a major ski race. "There's no snowmaking, limited cat work, limited resort manpower," says Comey. "And for the resort, the Freeskiing Junior programs are a huge draw for families (and the money that comes with it) to those resorts."

Take Crested Butte, Colo., which was the first ski area in the country to put on a big-mountain contest. Their U.S. Extreme Freeskiing Championships, a stop on the FWT, will return for its 21st year this spring.

"Hosting the Extremes gives you street cred with the core set. The Extreme Freeskiing Championships event generates buzz that the core audience is receptive to; buzz that is largely benign to the destination vacationer," says Scott Clarkson, Crested Butte's vice president of sales and marketing. "On one hand, the event endorses the terrain, while on the other, our natural terrain on the lower mountain is perfect for beginner and intermediate skiers."

"The Extreme Freeskiing Championships event generates buzz that the core audience is receptive to; buzz that is largely benign to the destination vacationer."

--Scott Clarkson, vice president of sales and marketing for Crested Butte Mountain Resort

Clarkson says hosting the event doesn't interfere with business as usual at the resort. "Here at Crested Butte, the terrain featured in the competition is on the northeast flank of the mountain, and it doesn't impact the other 1,100 skiable acres," he says. "Therefore, it's not an opportunity cost decision about allocating slope space when it comes to hosting the Extremes. We can host a world-class event seamlessly for one audience while operating a world-class resort for the other."

Jackson Hole, Wyo., which hosted the FWT's qualifier contest last year, has opted out of hosting the event this year -- namely because the resort would rather host a major tour stop than a qualifier, which typically receives less exposure. But still, Jackson Hole staff say the contest was good marketing.

"We felt it was a good marketing opportunity for a resort like Jackson Hole that owns the number one spot as a big mountain destination," said Zahan Billimoria, communications manager for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. "Jackson is a mountain that's serious about attracting families and intermediate skiers and destination guests who want something more than just skiing. But the majority of the exposure for the tour is within the core ski segment, so it doesn't turn anybody off."

Billimoria says the cost of hosting a big-mountain contest is in line with the cost of hosting similar events. That cost comes with risk, though. "You do incur a high level of risk," he says. "There's a real sense of young talent and the need to prove oneself, so the risks are high. The resort incurs that level of risk."

Moonlight Basin, Mont., will be the new site of this year's FWT qualifier, marking the first time Moonlight has hosted a national big-mountain contest.

"For us, it's about the exposure, letting people know what kind of terrain we have," says Moonlight Basin General Manager Greg Pack. "People don't necessarily think of Montana for its skiing, but we have some of the best terrain anywhere."

On top of that, MSI's Comey says that big-mountain freeskiing and snowboarding contests are events that really inspire its spectators to come visit that resort. "I don't know too many passionate skiers who watch World Cup ski racing or mogul events and wish they were in the athletes' shoes," Comey says. "Passionate lifer skiers who are trapped in office buildings working to make that next trip wish they could be in a big mountain skier's shoes not only for the quality of the skiing experience but also for the lifestyle these athletes live."

"Further they wish they could be at the resorts that host big mountain events," continued Comey. "Over the years, we have produced events at Snowbird, Kirkwood, Jackson, Whistler, Revelstoke, Crested Butte -- what resort wouldn't want to be on that list?"