Who among us hasn't had a smug chuckle at the sight of a first-timer attempting to ski? Certainly, the odds are against them. Clamp beginners onto a pair of slippery boards, bark a few counter-intuitive commands ("Relax!" "Don't lean back!") and push them downhill. The result is footage that always gets a howl in Warren Miller films.
But because skier days have stubbornly refused to budge much beyond 50 million in 20 years, resorts aren't laughing. The problem has always been "retention." Too many "never-evers"-people skiing for the first time-are turning out to be never-agains, leaving the return rate for skiing at an unimpressive 20 percent.
"The things we do to beginners-my God, it's a wonder they ever come back," laments Bob Harkins, an American Skiing Company (ASC) vice president. Equipment hassles, apparel ignorance and parking-lot logistics can chill enthusiasm before a learner has even boarded a lift. "Then, if you get thrown into the same area with a bunch of experts, it can be really embarrassing," says Harkins. "Imagine learning to windsurf at Hood River Gorge."
Vermont elementary school teacher Mary Weith, now a capable skier, remembers the first time she and her sister went skiing. "We were wearing tight jeans, which froze solid after one fall," she recalls. "We didn't have goggles, so our eyelashes kept freezing shut. We couldn't walk with our skis on, so all we did was fall down, stand up, fall down, stand up. We were crying-we didn't have a clue."
With a rediscovered vigor, resorts want to provide clues, hoping to convince four out of 10 new skiers and riders to return. This season, ski areas are advancing a three-prong offensive:
Gear The most conspicuous new weapon isn't new at all: the use of very short skis. It's a concept that surfaced in the mid-Sixties, the collective brainchild of visionary instructor Clif Taylor, Killington Ski School Director Karl Pfeiffer and SKI editors John Fry and Mort Lund, who coined the phrase "Graduated Length Method." They reasoned that short skis would be less intimidating to first-timers: easier to walk in and easier to turn. Learners would progress to full-length skis by week's end. The GLM revolution put thousands of new skiers on the snow, but also had one big drawback: The Sixties' shorties skied like two-by-fours.
A full 30 years later, that isn't the case. Shorties are still user-friendly, but this time they turn like full-length skis. Rossignol and Elan, in particular, have made a commitment to upgrading short-ski technology. These manufacturers turned loose their design gurus, who previously had worked exclusively on race-level skis, to come up with short skis that can wedge and carve.
Armed with this new technology, many resorts are recycling the GLM program-right down to the acronym, though it now stands for Guaranteed Learning Method at ASC resorts. (Marketing, as well as ski technology, has advanced since the Sixties.) Rossignol manufactured a fleet of shorties-in lengths of 110, 120 and 135 cm-for ASC, which is using them as a foundation in a top-to-bottom ski school overhaul. Elan will supply its Graduated Sidecut System skis-in three similar lengths-to more than a dozen resorts, from Mammoth, Calif., to Okemo, Vt.
Beginner Centers Resorts are constructing separate "learning centers" to exclusively coddle first-timers as if they were an endangered species. ASC has led this innovation: Beginners avoid the intimidation of the base area and report to a slick new facility where they are greeted by a personal "pro" who helps them get equipped. Then there's an introductory film in which Olympic freestyle gold medalist Jonny Moseley does his best to inspire and encourage the rookie class. Next, learners are taken to a slope that is segregated from the rest of the resort so they won't feel like comic relief for experienced skiers.
Nothing has been left to chance, right down to the precise gradient of the hill: ASC knows that the ddifference between a 7 percent and 10 percent pitch can be the difference between a return visit for a beginner or wearing a mouse-ear hat in central Florida. Quick-study skiers are soon rewarded with a motivating trip to the summit, where they get a taste of what's in store for them if they keep at it, then make their way down on a pre-arranged route that they can manage. Back at the Learning Center at day's end, it's time for beverages, de-briefing and The Pitch: Sign on the line for additional days, please.
Marketing Gimmicks Ski resorts across the continent are scheming new ways to attract first-timers, often asking current skiers to do the prospecting. Deliver a non-skiing friend to a ski school and many resorts will reward you with a free lift ticket, as is done throughout New Hampshire in the "Take A Friend" program. Aspen Skiing Company resorts reach out with private lessons in nearly a dozen languages, including, of course, Japanese and Farsí. Nearly all resorts package lodging, lift tickets and lessons at steep discounts to attract new customers. ASC charges the first-timer $55 for the first day. Two additional days cost $79. Sign up for three days, and they guarantee you'll be a skier. Beginners can't beat the price at Colorado's Copper Mountain, which offers free skiing on 50 acres of easy terrain during introductory days throughout the season.
The upshot is that there has never been a better time to learn how to ski or to drag a non-skiing friend to the hill. If all goes as hoped, the loudest laughter this winter will come from newly minted skiers discovering the downhill joy that keeps skiers returning to the mountains.
"We're trying to get it across to the staff that beginners are very special guests," Harkins says. "They don't know how to get on a lift. They don't read signs. They're clueless. And yet, they're our most important customers."
The Right Tool, For A Start
If you're a newcomer to skiing, your timing is impeccable. There has never been a more inviting group of skis for first-timers-skis that guide you into your first carved turn and then stay with you as you improve. Aspen Ski Academy Director Sarah Richardson and SKI senior contributing editor Edie Thys led a team of ski testers who evaluated newcomer gear. The results? Great skis at a great price that will get you turning in a day.
Elan PSX Detonator
$450, 158-193 cm, 100-62-86
The most dramatically shaped newcomer ski, and the easiest to turn. It received high marks for stability and forgiveness, even in crud.
$400, 140-180 cm, 99-70-88
Scored well in long-turn carving and stability at speed. A great confidence builder that loves to cruise the groomed.
Rossignol Cut 10.4
$359, 150-184 cm, 104-67-94
Tops in crud-buster and forgiveness categories; second in stability. A relaxed ride that will take beginners into new terrain.
Salomon X-Free 08
$425, 155-194 cm, 98-63-83
Perhaps the most versatile newcomer: No. 1 in both stability at speed and, thanks to its slender waist, quickness in short turns.
Völkl Carver Access
$400, 163-198 cm, 98-65-87
One of the most sophisticated skis in the test. Versatile and snappy, the Carver Access responds to even subtle edging with easy arcs.