Promotions aim to attract new skiers; `surfers' hit the slopes

Another January, another opportunity to learn to ski for free. ``Let's Go Skiing, America!'' was such a successful promotion last year that some 233 ski areas coast to coast will participate in the second free national learn-to-ski day, this Friday, Jan. 8. First-time, never-ever skiers at participating areas will get rental equipment, a ski lesson, and access to beginners lifts at no cost. The only restrictions are that skiers should contact the area of their choice ahead of time to assure availability and to make reservations. Last January, some 20,000 first-timers turned out to take advantage of this offer.

Not only was this coast-to-coast ``freebie'' a smashing success, another 40,000 skiers took part in low-rate introductory packages during the rest of January.

This year, from Jan. 9-Feb. 7, 246 ski areas will offer learn-to-ski packages (rentals, lesson, lifts), that the National Ski Areas Association says won't exceed $15 midweek, $25 weekends and holidays.

To qualify, new skiers must pick up a coupon at one of nearly 1,000 ski shops jointly participating with the areas. The shops, of course, want to make contact with potential skiers, and they'll load neophytes with all kinds of info on how to get started.

There's even a toll-free number (800-888-6754) where you can get the name of a nearby shop. Shops will have a list of participating areas and their phone numbers.

The end result of these promotions appear to be a significant number of never-evers discovering the fun of winter on a ski slope. Ski school business generally had sizeable increases last winter.

What frankly isn't clear is how many newcomers will stay with it once they have to start paying full price. The expense of alpine skiing is often cited as a major perception that deters people from trying the sport. But initial expenses can be relatively modest, even without ``let's-go-skiing-have-I-got-a-deal-for-you'' promotions.

And if you're willing to ski at non-peak times or at the more modest, less glitzy ski areas - and especially if you're willing to shop around for good deals - you can enjoy skiing without hocking the family jewels.

But sometimes I wonder how serious most ski resorts in the United States really are about luring newcomers to the mountains. Very few American ski areas have big skating rinks or a slope reserved for sledding or tobogganing - two relatively inexpensive sports that might attract families with nonskiers.

And despite a lot of talk, so far most ski areas have not sufficiently integrated their ski schools with a real winter vacation experience for skiers of all abilities - beginners to experts - at real get-acquainted, bargain prices.

Why not follow the airlines' lead and offer a limited number of advance-reservation, super-saver, off-peak ski weeks at a seriously low price? And for $10 extra you get an introductory videotaped analysis of your skiing with written suggestions of what to work on.

Hey, half of those who signed up would probably also sign up for a half-week of lessons - provided, of course, the lessons were exciting mountain experiences and not boring stand-around classes. Real values might bring some real growth in new skiers and in winter vacations.

Well, the ski industry is looking harder at attracting people to short midweek ski vacations than it ever has. There's even talk that the big northern Vermont ski areas might offer a reciprocal ski week lift ticket next season. Maybe we will yet see a lot more people enjoying a skiing getaway at an affordable price. Surf's up, sort of

One sport definitely not suffering from lack of growth is snowboarding - surfing in the snow, or down a ski slope on a snowboard. This is the alpine, winterized version of cutting through the waves at Malibu. One estimate puts the number of active American snowboarders at 200,000.

Ski areas now allowing snowboarding have multiplied to an estimated half the nation's total. Some areas are expecting a doubling of snowboarders again this season.

There's even a 10-stop national tour of snowboard demonstrations, the ``Suzuki Samurai Snowboard Safari,'' culminating in the seventh annual US Open Snowboarding Championships at Stratton Mountain, Vt., in mid-March.

Snowboarding is neither easy nor ``impossible'' to learn, they tell me. Fortunately for us all, ski areas require snowboarders to prove their competency before turning them loose on a slope. Briefly speaking

Suzy Chaffee, skiing's silver-suited cover girl, leading US ski racer of the '60s, a pioneer of women's freestyle skiing in the '70s, and general promoter extraordinaire, was one of six individuals recently named to the US Ski Hall of Fame at Ishpeming, Mich. Mike Gallagher, eight-time US cross-country ski champion and head coach of the US Cross Country Ski Team from 1980 to 1986, and Tony Wise, who founded and developed the largest cross-country ski race in the US, the American Birkebeiner, were also inducted.

With more untimely injuries than anyone can remember, the US Ski Team approaches next month's Olympics in Calgary with poorer prospects than perhaps ever. Should make things ripe for an upset.

When braking on icy roads, squeeze with slow, steady pressure, according to Colorado Ski Country USA, and the American Automobile Association. Don't pump quickly nor lock your brakes.

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