Snowboarding Ain’t No Fringe Sport, Man!

snowboardingWhen John Barber first tried snowboarding three years ago on a dare, he attracted more than his share of attention. “Everyone was wondering who the old guy was on the board,” says Barber, 35, who owns a vintage clothing shop in Portland, OR. Now entering his fourth season as a snowboarder, Barber is less of an oddity on the slopes. “Having skied since age four, snowboarding was new, it was different, and it was far faster than skiing–I’m still loving every minute of it.” That same novelty is what attracted Marie-Pierre Gendron, a second-year psychology major at the Universite de Montreal. “For me, skiing became boring,” says Gendron, 21. “Snowboarding creates a new sensation, almost like floating on water.”

The key to the popularity of snowboarding, a winter cousin of surfing and skateboarding, seems to lie in the progress its participants can make in a relatively short period of time. “The appeal is definitely in the learning curve,” says Yvette Jackson, 32, a veterinarian technician from Ladner, B.C., who skied for more than 20 years before deciding it was time for something new. “With snowboarding, you notice improvements almost on a daily basis.”

With snowboarding now attracting enthusiasts of all ages, resort operators are reaching out to embrace a lucrative new market. At Blackcomb, Canada’s top resort with 972,280 skier visits last season, Smythe has virtually moved mountains to satisfy the growing number of snowboarders. “We have had focus groups with snowboarders to try to really understand what their needs, wants and wishes were,” says Smythe. Over the past few years, these efforts have led to the construction of Blackcomb’s own snowboard park and the opening of three retail shops dedicated to snowboarders. In addition, Smythe has hired Japanese—and French-speaking snowboard instructors to cater to the increasing volume of tourists. Smythe insists that the improvements at Blackcomb are more than just a symbolic gesture to appease a vocal minority: “By the year 2000, I predict that one-third to one–half of our skier visits will be snowboarders.”

Paying special attention to the snowboarder is not a strategy exclusive to Smythe. Next door to Blackcomb, the Whistler resort is opening its own snowboard park this year, complete with a 300-foot halfpipe. Similar facilities are set to debut at Mont-Sainte-Anne in Quebec, the site of the first Snowboard World Cup in Canada in 1993. The resort’s owners, Dallas-based Club Corporation International, located the new park directly under a quadruple chairlift, both to entertain customers and to heighten awareness of the sport. “A lot of us are starting to cater towards snowboarders now,” says Jeff Collingwood, marketing director at Newfoundland’s Marble Mountain, 10 km east of Cornerbrook. Collingwood, who has just hired a snowboard director to co–ordinate coaching, events and camps at his resort, is convinced the sport is here to stay. “Snowboarding is not just a fad–it has become an integral part of our winter activity.”

Snowboarding has not always been viewed so favorably by resorts and conventional skiers. “I think these kids brought a whole new attitude from the streets to the mountains, and initially there was some resentment from the over–30 ski crowd,” says Nagel. With their baggy clothes, dyed hair and special mountain language, the sport’s pioneers were viewed as annoyances who just scraped snow to the bottom of the hills and got in the way of regular skiers.

Simple economics helps to explain why resorts are now rushing to accommodate snowboarders. The downhill ski market has been stagnant since the late 1980s, and with spiralling costs, the number of ski resorts in North America has dropped to about 820 from 1,600 in the mid-1970s, hence snowboarding’s transformation from skiing’s problem child to industry savior. “There is no question that if it weren’t for snowboarding, the ski industry would probably be in trouble right now,” says Ward Bond, who last year opened Canada’s first all-snowboard mountain, The Ranch, in Bethany, Ont., 100 km northeast of Toronto. Ironically, with regional competitors such as Blue Mountain and Mount St. Louis Moonstone now also pursuing the snowboard crowd, Bond has decided to welcome conventional skiers this year to his resort.

In short, the snowboarding boom is a gift to many hard–pressed resort operators. According to a survey by the Canadian Ski Council, snowboarders average 16 visits per season, compared to 12 for downhill skiers. Many snowboarders are so eager to hit the slopes that they will go in almost any weather or ski condition, including early and late in the season when conventional skiers typically stay at home. “From an industry standpoint, snowboarding sure works for us because it extends the season,” says Smythe.

Snowboarding also works for Vancouver lawyer Richard Hamilton, who was talked into trying the sport three years ago by his son, Craig, now 19. After enduring a punishing first day–“I fell so much it was like being in the ring with Mike Tyson”–Hamilton, 49, is now a snowboarding regular, and has not touched his skis in more than a year. “I still have the skis and boots in my basement, but right now I’m enjoying the boarding more,” says Hamilton. “I find it more exhilarating.”

With snowboarding’s surging growth and the conversion of former skiers such as Hamilton, ski industry professionals are waking up to the reality that their business has changed, probably forever. “There will always be die-hard skiers, people who will ski and snowboard, and people who will just strictly snowboard,” says Wendy LeMoine, director of skier services at Marmot Basin resort near Jasper, Alta. Skiing traditionalists, of course, remain convinced that snowboarding will never actually surpass their sport to become the new king of the hill. But if the current trend continues, it promises to become an increasingly important source of profits for resort owners. And that means Hugh Smythe will almost certainly have to add one more item to his to-do list: take all those new revenues to the bank.

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