Entrepreneur Matt Jay pulls down the safety bar on a Snowmass, Colo., chairlift to displayMapLinks, the controversial product he hopes to install on chairlifts nationwide. The four-foot-long panel, bolted to the safety bar, features a map of Snowmass' sprawling trail system. Jay instantly launches into his sales pitch: MapLinks reduces use of paper maps-the main source of litter on ski slopes-and encourages skiers to lower safety bars. Most of all, the lift-mounted maps make it easier for skiers and boarders to plan their next runs. "Asking skiers to take off their gloves, fish maps out of their pockets, unfold them, figure out where they are going, then refold them before getting off the lift is a total pain," Jay says.
But there's a catch: Each MapLinks panel includes an advertisement. The ads for Amstel, Tylenol, Altoids and other companies pay for-or sponsor-the maps, which Jay provides free to resorts. Skiers love the maps; it's the on-lift ads that are stirring debate in an industry trying to burnish its image as a wholesome, back-to-nature sport. "We have to be concerned about over-commercialization," says Vail Chief Operating Officer, Bill Jensen, who rejected MapLinks for his resort because of the ads. "People come skiing to get away from the pressures of urban life."
Prompted by questions about MapLinks, the U.S. Forest Service has decided to review-and likely update-its rules governing ads on national forest lands, which hold a majority of the nation's ski slopes. Some industry officials want the Forest Service to allow more corporate sponsorships to underwrite resort improvements. For skiers and boarders, sponsorships mean resorts could provide more amenities without raising ticket prices. The downside is that more logos or messages could appear elsewhere on the mountain.
The debate kicked into gear in September when the Forest Service ended a pilot project that allowed MapLinks to be installed last season on Aspen's high-speed quads. Aspen skiers surveyed by the Forest Service overwhelmingly supported the lift-mounted maps, with just 12 percent saying the ads detracted from their experience. Even so, the Forest Service determined the ads violated an outdoor-advertising ban on public lands.
The Forest Service's advertising ban, instituted decades ago, was imposed to prevent billboards from marring scenic landscapes. However, federal officials have made exceptions. Resorts, for instance, can hang ads inside gondola cars because those ads are not technically "outdoors." Temporary events such as World Cup races, the Winter X Games and even local NASTAR races are also exempted. Banners that line podiums and racecourses pay for these events.
With such ads already on the slopes, Jay felt the Forest Service had singled him out. So the 28-year-old college dropout, whose life savings are invested in his company, fought to save his business. He drove to Washington to press his case with Forest Service officials and lobbied U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., as well as Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who is on the committee that oversees the Forest Service budget. Jay argued that the safety-bar ads, like those inside gondolas, are visible only to riders and thus do not increase visual pollution. Jay wanted to put two ads on each chairlift, but he agreed to cut that to a single advertisement and reserve one side for environmental or safety messages.
The Forest Service relented, agreeing to allow MapLinks at Aspen again this season while it reviews its regulations. Whatever the outcome, "the policy needs to be made contemporary," says David Holland, national recreation director for the Forest Service. At the moment, Forest Service officials appear to be leaning toward a policy change that would allow more visible displays of sponsors, whose logos, names or ads could appear on items they underwrite.
The Forest Service would strive to ensure messages are tasteful and would retain the right to rejeect certain ads, such as those for tobacco products. Even so, the sponsorship debate is heated, says Jim Stark, the agency's winter sports administrator for Aspen. "Our fear," he says, is that the change might "open the floodgates for commercial advertising."
The floodgates, however, are already leaking, as resorts on private land hang more advertisements to generate revenue, while those on public lands plaster their base lodges, usually on private property, with pitches from Chevy Trucks, PowerBar and other companies. Vermont's Stratton Mountain, on private land, features an Altoids gondola car. Stratton has used the revenue to build new race shacks, among other things. Beverage maker SoBe sponsors Steamboat's terrain park, on private land. Even Vail, which has criticized Aspen's decision to allow MapLinks, has a Rossignol demo center, and in past winters had a terrain-park hut sponsored by Mountain Dew and Burton. This winter, Vail erected a new demo center sponsored by Salomon. Vail COO Jensen doesn't see a contradiction. He views sponsored huts and demo centers as "competitive advantages" over rival resorts, but dismisses MapLinks-style advertising as too intrusive. "If you ride a chairlift, it's hard to ignore a beer ad."
In the future, more sponsorship messages will likely appear in terrain parks because they are costly to build, maintain and staff. (California's Mammoth Mountain spends $1 million annually keeping its parks running.) Teens who frequent terrain parks "aren't looking for a natural setting," says Ed Ryberg, who oversees ski resort advertising for the Forest Service. Rather, they seek an urban feel that mimics a city skateboard park on snow, and they consider sponsorship displays part of the landscape. "If resorts need sponsorships to pay for these parks, (the Forest Service) must consider that," Ryberg says.
For smaller ski areas that rely solely on ticket sales rather than revenue from restaurants, hotels, shops and real estate sales, increased sponsorships could have a profound impact. Colorado's Loveland ski area, whose base area is leased from the Forest Service, can't even accept free ski racks with ads. Current rules forbid Montana's modest Showdown ski area from accepting free, sponsored trail maps, complains General Manager George Willett, who says it's skiers and boarders who suffer due to the Forest Service's anti-advertising policy. "For a small ski area like us, if we can't accept sponsors to pay for our terrain parks, we have to go without them," Willett says.
It's no coincidence the MapLinks ads debuted in Aspen. Its clientele is among the wealthiest in the country-precisely the consumers most advertisers want to reach. But the resort is also an environmental leader. The ads are a tradeoff, says Auden Schendler, Aspen's environmental director, who concedes that drawing the line between acceptable and inappropriate advertising is a subjective process.
MapLinks, he says, has allowed Aspen to slash the number of paper maps it prints. "I'm no beads-and-patchouli-wearing environmentalist," Schendler says. "These maps are a common-sense way to reduce waste. Without the ads, these maps wouldn't be here. They're free, and we're a business." It would cost Aspen about $20,000 per chairlift to install maps without ads, says Mike Kaplan, vice president of mountain operations.
Out on the slopes of Snowmass, Jay schusses to a stop in front of the large, metal archway that marks the entrance to the Pipeline terrain park. Jay thinks the Forest Service should zone areas of ski resorts for sponsorships (chairlifts, terrain parks and other infrastructure), while keeping other areas (upper slopes, bowls and glades) ad-free. "They should be able to put ads all over that thing," he says, pointing a ski pole at the metal archway. "Up there," he says, turning to the double-black-diamond headwall that looms over the resort, "there shouldn't be anything, not even trail signs."