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Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Snow Business: The heli-ski outfitter

By Devon O'Neil

In your dreams: A Points North helicopter in Alaska.
Snowmaker Entrepreneur Marketing Guy Shop Owner Heli Outfitter

[Last winter in a nutshell: Ski resort visitor numbers were down 15 percent nationwide, ski and snowboard gear sales dropped 12 percent, and snowfall was at near record lows. In this five-part interview series, called Snow Business, we talk to the people in the snowsports industry who are coming up with innovative ways to keep their businesses thriving despite the crummy winter. This is the final story in the series -- be sure to click the tabs above to read the interviews you missed.]

When the global recession began in 2008, many observers figured heli and cat operators would be hit the hardest, since they offer the most expensive snowsports experience. Ironically, that hasn't been the case. Some, in fact, have thrived in spite of the economy and inconsistent snow conditions (horrible in Alaska and great in the Lower 48 two winters ago, and vice versa last season). In particular, Points North Heli Adventures in Cordova, Alaska, has insulated its business from shoddy conditions and the rough political climate by offering early season trips, relying on big-screen marketing and, this past winter, introducing human-powered expeditions in yurt-like Arctic tents. Here, PNH founder Kevin Quinn outlines the rationale behind his business' success.

When we started there were five heli operations in Alaska. Now there are 15. Three new ones opened this year; they're popping up all over the place.

I'm secretary for the Heli Ski U.S. Association, so I know all the user days that the lower 48 operators do, and I think the whole heli industry is up. There are folks who have their issues with land use and wildlife and wilderness, but as a whole, everybody's doing well, really.

This is sort of giving away my trade secret, but our pricing structure is such that we don't guarantee anybody anything when it comes to vertical feet or the number of runs they're going to get. If they don't fly, we keep 50 percent [of their fee] and we credit the other 50 percent toward a future trip.

Kevin Quinn in Cordova, Alaska.

We've had a segment in Warren Miller movies for 10 straight years, and we're already lined up for next year. I can't even put a value on those segments. We ask our customers all the time how they heard about us, and an honest 75 to 80 percent say Warren Miller.

You've got to be honest with people or they're going to call you out.

We're taking baby steps with the yurt operation because I want to make sure it's done right. The first year we invited some friends to get feedback, and the second year, which was this past winter, we put it out to the public and basically gave them an industry rate to get more feedback.

We broke even this year on the expense of the camps, and they're not cheap. We've got five Arctic tents and all the stoves and cots and generators and power supplies and cooking -- everything so people feel like they're in a lodge, except they're in a tent.

If I can expand it each year, all of a sudden you have five or six camps and a scenario where people can tour from one camp to the next like the Haute Route in Europe. There's a big area of the Chugach between Cordova and Valdez that's non-motorized. So you're guaranteed to never have helicopters in there.

I think a huge part of the industry is yearning for that. Everybody's into getting out and exploring, and for the cost of a heli trip, which is $5,000-plus for a week, you can go ski tour for less than half that cost and have the place to yourself.

Our average client is 35 or 45 years old. They're comfortable but don't necessarily have a ton of disposable income. They do these trips because they can afford them and because they plan for them. Recession or not, it's like drinking beer and watching the Super Bowl. It's something that they've made a priority.