I’m back from a tropical vacation where I am still impressed with a service level that was beyond remarkable in very demanding circumstances. And it is always great to come back to Mammoth. It takes me a few days to figure out which way the wind is blowing once I’m back here in town––being gone for two-and-a-half weeks always seems like I’ve missed a year. One thing I was curious to see was if any of the media outlets or maybe even Mammoth Mountain themselves would discuss the topics from the National Ski Areas Association 2009 National Convention and Trade Show held May 13-16 on Marco Island in Florida. I didn’t go but I was paying attention to the reporting by Roger Leo on the Mountain News website. I found no local discussion or even mention of the event(s).
The keynote speech (as reported by Leo) was by Joseph F. Coughlin, PhD. Coughlin is founder and director of MIT’s AgeLab and a member of the White House Conference on Aging. His topic: “Disruptive Demographics: Baby Boomers and the New Business of Old Age.”
“You’re all looking at your demographic getting older, and you’re getting nervous,” he told a packed house on the second day. “You actually own the relationship with part of the boomer generation that everyone else wishes they had. Aging is very, very new. There have always been older people, of course, but now they come with expectations, wealth and the belief they can age better than their parents and grandparents.
“Do any of you feel you’re aging the same way your parents or grandparents did? Raise your hand,” Coughlin said. No hands went up. “Life expectancy in 1900 was 46 years old. A hundred years later, life expectancy is generally 77 to 78, but that’s way off. The fastest growing part of the population is 85 plus.”
“The biggest problem boomers face is managing time, not just to go to a resort, but to have time to go to a resort,” he said. “Retirement is not do nothing, it’s go do something else.” Coughlin warned that older consumers are not captured assets, that brand loyalty is earned, and that older does not equate with disabled.
“The future is looking grayer and far more female than we’ve ever seen before,” he said. “Boomers want good service, good vacations, good experiences. What you’re competing for is wallet share and time share,” he said.
Coughlin said the older consumer is older than ever, healthier, better informed––or at least believe they are, wealthier, caregivers and female. Women are increasingly influential among boomers, he said, serving as “generation gatekeepers” through higher levels of education, increasing presence in the work force, longer lives than men, and roles as primary caregivers and family CEOs.
“The biggest difference between boomers and their parents is the expectations gap. Parents would say, ‘That’s old age;’ boomers expect a silver bullet to make things better. That expectations gap is your market opportunity, it’s how you can delight them,” Coughlin said.
He finished with 10 observations on boomers and fun:
1.) Time is a premium.
2.) Personal health and wellness is key.
3.) Boomers seek focused renewal.
4.) Resorts should engage women.
5.) Longer work life for men means older folks will still have and spend money.
6.) Make things easy to use.
7.) Remember the boomers consider themselves youthful.
8.) Engage grandkids with grandparents.
9.) Don’t overlook the importance of the Web.
10.) Build through social networks.
The next day, NSAA President Michael Berry spoke about the specific message of Coughlin’s thesis for ski areas, warning that market research and demographic analysis suggested a bleak future unless ski areas work hard over the next 10 to 15 years to bring newcomers into the sport, and to keep many of them coming back. Berry’s presentation on Friday May 15 included what he called “the scare slide.” Screens in front of a roomful of ski resort owners and operators displayed a timeline of skier visits declining an average of 2.5 percent a year, from 57.1 million in 2008-09 to 41.4 million in 2020-21.
“If we do just what we’re doing now, we’ll see that projected decline,” he said. “The fact of the matter is we need to talk strategically about how we bring people to the sport, how we grow it,” Berry said. He said that would require growth of 6 percent in trial and 1 percent in conversion rates, and cutting retention loss in half.
“That’s achievable. We can do that,” Berry said.
Berry outlined a “Beginner Cookbook” with 10 recipes for attracting people and keeping many of them as skiers and snowboarders.
1.) Provide information about what to expect prior to the visit.
2.) Improve the arrival process with signs and greeters.
3.) Focus on boot fit and providing extra attention in the rental shop.
4.) Have small lesson groups of six or seven students.
5.) Place students by athletic ability and learning goals.
6.) Staff beginner lessons with senior instructors.
7.) Focus on personalized lesson closure.
8.) Provide roving instructors for non-lesson takers.
9.) Follow up with guests and invite them back.
10.) Create a culture with all resort staff of valuing beginners.
“Inherent in both beginner conversion and core retention is the continuing delivery of value,” Berry said. “For all groups at the end of the day the fun must outweigh the money spent and the hassle to get there.”
He concluded with the warning that the ski industry is in for game-changing generational shifts in its marketplace. Programs to make skiing easier and more fun were put in place 10 years ago to keep existing boomer customers and were very successful, Berry said. These combined with an increase in Gen Y customers to help the ski industry dodge a bullet, he said, but are no longer enough as the industry looks ahead.
I know at least one representative from Mammoth Mountain attended the convention. I sure hope our leaders are listening. Thankfully, Mammoth isn’t all about skiing. In fact, as summer begins I am reminded of the old saying “You come for winter, and stay for summer.” The spring rain has made things as green as I can remember. It should be a beautiful summer. Now I’m back to work, it looks to be a busy summer ahead.