Ski School Revolution?

Fall Line

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Franz Fuchsberger is an instructor’s instructor. He began skiing at age 6 and was trained to teach at the venerable St. Christoph sports academy in his native Austria.

After moving to the U.S., he climbed to the top of his profession with the Vail ski school, where his teaching skills and passion earned him a devoted list of top clients. But each spring, when the snow melted in the Gore Range and ski school was out for summer, Fuchsberger got a sick feeling in his gut about his cloudy financial future. Finally, in the spring of 2001, with a wife and two young kids, he made the difficult decision to abandon full-time teaching and accept a higher-paying job.

Fuchsberger is hardly alone. Ask the vast majority of instructors, and they’ll tell you they make just enough money building houses or selling real estate in the summer to get them by on instructor’s wages-pay that may add up to $10,000 for the four-month winter season. “It’s just the way it is,” sighs Fuchsberger. “It’s the life of the starving instructor.”

Most resorts depend on ski schools as profit centers, running margins of 30 to 60 percent, which for large areas can put millions of dollars of profit to the bottom line. “I think it’s bad business,” says Joan Rostad, who has taught skiing for 22 years, was a Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) executive vice president and served as a board member from 1989 until this year. “Cutting investment in quality to improve the bottom line is only going to hurt the ski teaching profession .”

Poor wages are partly to blame for the high attrition of PSIA’s least experienced members, those who attain the minimum Level 1 certification but don’t teach for more than a season or two. Rostad estimates that 50 to 70 percent of the Level I instructors turn over every couple of seasons. Much of that is a natural progression: The resort life isn’t for everyone. But if instructors were better paid in general, wouldn’t they stick around longer and become better teachers-thus turning out more devoted skiers who would help the sport grow and prosper?

That begs the broader question: Should ski school be a short-term profit center or a skier-development center working toward long-range goals?

“At the end of the day, this will be the No. 1 issue,” says Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA). Only 15 percent of the people who take beginner lessons stay with the sport, and resorts want to improve that retention rate-indeed, they believe their very future depends on it. They’re conducting in-depth research with would-be skiers who never came back after the first lesson. And they’re going to study pay scales for ski instructors (the range is generally $10 to $20 per hour), while looking for novel ways to compensate teachers and ski school managers for turning more non-skiers into skiers.

The first step is to get resort managers and ski school directors in the same room together, something Berry believes has been missing for decades-and has led to a disconnect over long-term goals. For example, most ski schools use their least qualified instructors to teach novices, while ski-school veterans teach experts. “We pay people the most to help the people who need it the least,” Berry says.

Solutions may come from unlikely places. The four-season Homestead Resort is a tiny area in Michigan that does less ski business in a winter than Vail does in a week, but it is committed to developing a strong ski school. It began to offer base salaries and worked to recruit people who can also teach golf or tennis at the resort in the summer so they will have year-round employment. The Homestead’s research showed that its best instructors wanted to teach privates to expert skiers. So the resort created a program that compensated instructors for a percentage of the revenue brought in by their actual work. The more students enrolled in a lesson, the more money for the resort-and the teacher. “”You’d be amazed at how many instructors became extremely interested in teaching groups,” says Homestead president Robert Kuras. Meanwhile, resorts across the country are marketing ambitious learn-to-ski programs-and even rewarding graduates with a free season pass and rental skis for the remainder of the season.

With all the layers of resort management finally focusing on the ski schools’ critical role, NSAA’s Berry says he expects to see results. “I think you are seeing the beginnings of change here.” The future health of the sport depends on it.