No-Loss Proposition

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The allure of a ski club is straightforward. For modest yearly dues, you're connected to a group of people who love to ski. Camaraderie, in fact, is overwhelmingly the No. 1 reason that skiers join ski clubs. Anne George, a New Jersey-based financial public relations executive and a member of the Garden State Ski Club, sums it up in a single sentence: "I don't like to ski alone, and I meet a nice group of people who say, 'Hey, let's go.'"

Bob Wilbanks, publisher of the National Ski Club Newsletter, says people often join ski clubs after a life shake-up. "They just moved to town. Maybe they just got divorced. Maybe they just got a raise and can afford to ski."

Wilbanks estimates that there are 2,515 ski clubs in the United States, of which 95 percent are nonprofit. With an average of 400 members per club, that's a combined membership of more than a million skiers, about 10 percent of the skiing population. There are citywide and statewide clubs, clubs for university alumni and disabled people, as well as 125 gay clubs and 85 African-American clubs.

"Ski clubs are basically social and sport clubs that at least nominally center around skiing," explains Wilbanks. "About 20 percent of their activities consist of ski trips. The rest are parties and meetings that often look a lot like parties."

Most ski clubs belong to ski councils, umbrella organizations that may represent dozens of ski clubs and thousands of members. The Far West Ski Association, for example, is a ski council with more than 60,000 members. There are statewide councils, such as the Texas Ski Council, and specialty ski councils, such as the National Brotherhood of Skiers, with more than 14,000 members. The councils give individual ski clubs clout and buying power, as well as a unified voice.

American ski clubs date back to the Forties. The oldest ones often built and maintained their own mountain lodges. Approximately 150 of those club lodges still exist, primarily in New England. Take the White Plains Ski Club, one of five clubs that have on-mountain lodges at Vermont's Mad River Glen. It was founded in 1954 and has 75 permanent and eight provisional members.

The heart of the club is a ski lodge members built in 1967 that sleeps 32 people.

"The lodge is very family oriented," says club president Volker Von Ahn, who notes that members spend summer weekends maintaining the property. "We've been coming here since 1963, and it's the mountain where our four kids learned to ski."

But such lodge-based clubs are an increasing rarity. More common are the larger clubs that exist in warmer climes and organize multiple ski trips to the West and to Europe. Wilbanks estimates that the farther you live from the mountains, in places like Texas and Florida, the larger and more active your club tends to be. For example, the Texas Ski Council represents 17 clubs that boast more than 6,000 members.

Club skiers often ski in places that other skiers only dream about. For example, the Ski Club of Washington, D.C., does 15 to 20 Western and European trips per year. And while many people wouldn't venture to South America on their own, the Florida Ski Council recently took 1,000 people to Chile.

SAVING MONEY
Affordability is often cited as the secondary reason that avid skiers join ski clubs.

The financial benefits are undeniable and can range from modest to substantial savings. Membership in a ski club almost always offers price breaks on lift tickets, accommodations, transportation and even ski equipment.

"A day-long bus trip that includes a lift ticket and an après-ski party is about $60," says Fred Hotz, a New Jersey stockbroker and a member of the Garden State Ski Club. "Annual dues are $30, and weekend trips to our lodge in Rutland, Vt., are subsidized by the club. If you stay Friday and Saturday nights, it will cost you $40 for the weekend and that includes linen service and breakfast."That's a far cry from $250-per-night condos. Sound ticing? It is, but know that singles often find themselves in dorm-style accommodations. Members buy a share, either for the whole season or half the season, and whatever's left is rented to other club members on a nightly basis. "The place is really just a souped-up motel, but it's really cheap, and it's clean and nice," reports fellow Garden State member Anne George.

The power to purchase low-cost lift tickets is also a club benefit, with members often saving up to 35 percent. The Garden State Ski Club, for example, belongs to the New Jersey Ski Council, which represents about 40 ski clubs. The council has tremendous purchasing power, so club members always get discounted lift tickets. "If it's a $50 day ticket, we usually get it for $30 or $35," says Hotz. And the same is true with week-long trips out West or to Europe. Hotz pulled together a seven-day trip to Chamonix that included two meals daily, lift tickets, accommodations, transfers and airfare for just $1,400 per person.

For Any Mountain Tours, a ski-trip operator based out of Virginia, clubs are big business. "Up to 40 percent of our annual revenue comes from ski clubs alone," says group sales manager Terry Mitchell. "We figure that a ski club member saves about 25 percent off the price of a retail package from a tour operator."

That 25 percent savings may be even greater when you consider that a tour operator's package is often 10 percent to 20 percent lower than the price you'd pay if you bought airfare, hotel and transfers a la carte. You also save because all the legwork is done on a volunteer basis, so there's no markup on ski club prices.

A typical ski club trip, Mitchell says, costs less than $1,000 for a week and includes round-trip airfare, ground transportation, lift tickets and accommodations. Prices often also include a club race, a picnic and a group awards dinner. At the other end of the scale, those old-fashioned on-mountain ski clubs, such as the White Plains Ski Club, typically charge $50 annual dues. After that, it's only $10 a night to stay at the club's Vermont lodge, with dinner for $8 and breakfast for $1.50. Midweek, members ski for $20 at Mad River. Who says skiing has to be expensive?

FINDING AND CHOOSING A CLUB
The National Ski Council Federation (www.skifederation.org) and SnowLink (www.snowlink.com) can help you locate the names of clubs, but won't tell you much about each club's culture. To find a good fit, you need to talk with club members.

For example, the average member in the Garden State Ski Club is 35 years old. "We're younger than a lot of clubs, about 80 percent single, and a lot of us are recently divorced," Hotz reports. In other words, Hotz's club may not suit couples or families. On the other hand, older New England clubs, such as the White Plains Ski Club, actively seek out families.

It's also important to find out how active a club is and what it offers. Many clubs host races and free instruction through members who are certified by the Amateur Ski Instructors Association. Also, most clubs offer off-season trips that feature whitewater rafting, tennis, golf or rock climbing.

As for those infamous parties, they were once the siren song of ski clubs. The lingering cliche is of a booze-infused bunch of middle-aged hellions who bus it from one resort to the next.

"We're still apt to party, but we're aging," confesses Wilbanks. "The party mode isn't as true as it used to be, but it's still there."

THE BIGGEST BLOWOUTShile both the Florida and Texas ski councils feature several large gatherings each winter, two specialized ski councils stand out. The National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS) organizes a biannual Black Summit, a week that brings together as many as 6,000 African-American skiers from all over the country. The next summit will be held in Keystone, Colo., March 25-April 1. Contact the NBS at (773) 955-4100, or log onto www.nbs.org.

Gay and Lesbian Ski Week is held every January in Aspen, under the aegis of the Aspen Gay and Lesbian Community Fund (AGLCF). Attracting up to 2,000 participants and featuring everything from ski clinics to drag shows, this year's celebration is scheduled for Jan. 20-27. Call the AGLCF at (970) 925-9249, or log onto www.rof.net/yp/aspengay.

Travel Hit
According to the National Ski Club Newsletter, 12 percent of destination skiers are ski club members, and they're paying an average of 20 percent less for their lift tickets than the typical guest.Ski Week is held every January in Aspen, under the aegis of the Aspen Gay and Lesbian Community Fund (AGLCF). Attracting up to 2,000 participants and featuring everything from ski clinics to drag shows, this year's celebration is scheduled for Jan. 20-27. Call the AGLCF at (970) 925-9249, or log onto www.rof.net/yp/aspengay.

Travel Hit
According to the National Ski Club Newsletter, 12 percent of destination skiers are ski club members, and they're paying an average of 20 percent less for their lift tickets than the typical guest.