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WisBusiness: Ski Resorts Focus on Kids as Key to Business

By Brian E. Clark

From Trollhaugen in northwest Wisconsin to Tyrol Basin in the south, Badger State ski and snowboard areas are focusing on children as a way to stoke business now and create it in the future.

They are doing it by offering free lift tickets, beefing up programs for kids, improving terrain parks for the younger set and making their resorts more family friendly. Early snowfall and consistently cold weather for snowmaking so far this season could give the efforts a boost.

For the 2003-2004 season, the state had 1.86 million skier visits, which ranked second in the Midwest -- behind Michigan, but ahead of Minnesota -- according to an economic impact report prepared by the Colorado firm RRC Associates. The study did not say how many skiers or snowboarders were kids.

But the report said the sport produced the equivalent of about 3,000 year-round jobs in the Badger State. And it earned Wisconsin resorts about $70 million in direct sales, while motels, restaurants and other businesses garnered another $50 million from skiers and snowboarders. The report did not cover cross-country skiing.

In an effort to build a larger base, the Wisconsin Ski Industries Association recently launched a Fifth Grade Passport program that will give fifth graders three free passes to a dozen participating resorts. A $5 registration fee is required for administration. For more information, go to http://www.skiingwisconsin.com.

Though Wisconsin has the third highest number of resorts in the nation -- behind New York and Michigan -- many of the snowsports enthusiasts come from outside the state, especially the Chicago suburbs.

Hence, the passport program will also include schools in Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. To date, more than 100 skiers and boarders have signed up.

"Attracting more kids - and their parents - is absolutely a vital part of everyone's marketing plan," said Jim Engle, president of the WSIA. He also runs Ski Sunburst about 45 miles north of Milwaukee.

"At my resort, we are making family skiing and riding more affordable by offering things like a Sunday night package twice a month where a parent and child can get a lift ticket, rental and lesson for $29 for two," he said. See http://www.skisunburst.com.

Randy Axelson, vice president for sales at Cascade Mountain on I-90/94 between Madison and Wisconsin Dells, said the ski industry's health depends on reaching out to families.

"We definitely need to develop more young skiers, and we also need to create a stronger skiing and snowboarding culture in Wisconsin," he said, noting that 70 percent of his resort's clients come from Illinois.

Cascade has the best deal in the state for kids, offering free lift tickets to kids age 12 and under who are accompanied by a paying adult.

"It's kind of wild and I don't think anyone else is doing it," said Axelson, who said the offer is good seven days a week.

"It's aimed at getting adults and kids skiing together," he said. "We need to do something because skiing numbers have been flat for a number of years. We got a bump from snowboarding, but now that has flattened, too."

Axelson said the only restriction on the free tickets at Cascade is that parents can't simply dump their offspring at the resort.

"We don't want to babysit," he said. "Adults have to ski or board, too. But you can bring along the neighborhood kids if you want."

In addition, he said the Sunday afternoon family day at Cascade is a bargain. A family of four can get four lift tickets and rentals for $99 from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. The normal price for an adult lift ticket is $40. See http://www.cascademountain.com for details.

"We think skiing is a great family sport that you can do together for decades," he said. "Unfortunately, it can be expensive for rentals and lift tickets.

"We are trying to reduce the barriers with things like free tickets for kids 12 and under," he said. "We hope they'll like skiing. But if they are looking at spending $50 for that first shot, chances are many won't even try it."

At Granite Peak just outside of Wausau, general manager Vicki Baumann said parents whose children have reached the skiing age are no longer leaving their kids at home. To encourage that trend, Granite Peak has lowered the ski school minimum age from 5 to 3 and put up a yurt warming hut to keep the little ones warm. The resort also has installed a SunKid Wonder Carpet, a type of moving conveyor that makes it much easier to get novices up the slopes.

Charles Skinner, who bought the resort five years ago and has pumped several million dollars into improvements, said he spent about $750,000 for a new beginners' Santa lift, the Wonder Carpet, yurt, electrical infrastructure and snowmaking for the children's area.

"Being a father of girls (now 9 and 13) has given me a better perspective of the wants and needs of families with children," he said.

"Our philosophy is that as a Midwest ski area we are attractive to families because of the high costs and travel hassles of flying an entire family out west, and that we can offer a very comparable destination ski experience to families in particular," he added.

He said his resort's skier days have increased from about 50,000 five years ago to nearly 150,000. Most of the increase is from the establishment of a destination/overnight stay business, which was almost non-existent before. And many of those overnighters are families.

He said most of the destination business is from Illinois, southern Wisconsin and adjoining states.

Baumann, the Granite Peak GM, said grandparents are also taking their grandkids skiing.

"But a lot of it is middle-age and somewhat younger parents who perhaps waited a while in life to have kids and want to enjoy the outdoors with them," she said.

In addition to allowing kids age 5 and under to ski free, the resort also has a variety of deals on its Web site at http://www.skigranitepeak.com

At Trollhaugen, 40 miles north of the Twin Cities on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, marketing director Denise Olson said her resort has beefed up its family programs.

She said packages start at $20 for lessons and lift tickets in an effort to get youngsters and their elders to ski and snowboard together.

She also said the improved Little Troll ski school makes the learning experience more enjoyable for children. The resort has a live troll wandering the slopes, as well as painted puppies, raccoons, squirrels and other critters in its troll village.

"We need to create a new generation of snowsports enthusiasts," she said. "If you do it as a child and enjoy it, chances are you'll pass it on to your own family.

"It's a trend throughout the industry," she said. "With 9/11 and the economy suffering, things have not been the greatest for ski resorts. We hope this will help turn the situation around." See http://www.trollhaugen.com

And at Tyrol Basin, 20 miles west of Madison, spokesman Jon Winkler said resort discounts are designed to get families on the slopes.

They include Wednesday family nights that start in January. For $10 each, parents and kids can get a lift ticket, rentals and a two-hour lesson. If kids are 5 or less, they ski free at any time.

Another package - this one offered on weekends - is called "Don't View It -- Do It," which is geared for families with kids 10-and-under.

While the youngsters are taking a two-hour lesson, mom and dad can ski or ride as part of the same package. The offer is $50 for one parent and one child and $30 for each additional child and $15 for the second adult. See http://www.tyrolbasin.com.


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