Ski Resorts Seek Higher Lift Sales And Lost Cachet

SKIING has lost its elan, and the resorts are scrabbling to get it back.

In the 1960s and '70s, it was hip for college students to take a year off to be ski bums in Aspen, Colo. In the '80s, yuppies shared the slopes of Vail, Colo., with movie stars.

But in the '90s, Western ski areas are struggling. Although drawing almost 60 percent of the nation's skiers, revenues have been flat now for the several years. Competition is fierce and operators can no longer rely solely on their fabled ''champagne powder'' and spectacular scenery.

As a result, Colorado, California, and Utah, the nation's first-, second-, and fourth-largest ski markets are adopting new marketing strategies.

Ski executives are targeting snowboard-toting generation Xers, advertising the Western ski experience abroad, and making an effort to bring baby boomers and their children back to the slopes with package deals designed to lower $50 lift-ticket fees.

''We're going to make skiing cool again,'' says John Frew, the new president of Colorado Ski Country USA, a marketing association for Colorado's 26 ski areas.

It has taken time to reach this level of marketing sophistication. Confused ski executives, caught with their poles down, still wage petty battles with other states' resorts over who has the best snow. But circumstances have forced them to take a longer view and set priorities.

Skiing in the Western US is already considered exotic to selected international markets: England, Germany, the Benelux countries, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.

''They love that old West feel we have,'' says Colorado Ski Country spokeswoman Kelly Ladyga. ''They think everyone wears cowboy hats here.''

Only about 5 percent of Colorado, California, and Utah's skiing business is international, but experts believe that will change as Utah gears up to host the 2002 Winter Olympics and Colorado's Vail ski area stages the 1999 world championships.

In their effort to conquer the world, Utah and Colorado have called a detente in their minor skirmishes and are now uniting to form Olympics marketing coalitions.

California, on the other hand, is far enough away from Utah that it doesn't expect to benefit much from pre-Olympic publicity. ''It's their time in the sun, but we're not quaking in our boots,'' says Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Association. ''Competitively, the Olympics will be a blip.''

CALIFORNIA, which had 7.1 million skier visits last year, has traditionally relied on its large population to fill its ski runs. But Utah and Colorado have begun siphoning off California skiers.

''We're late to the marketing game, so we figure we had to build a better mousetrap - one that includes Mickey Mouse and Minnie,'' Mr. Roberts says. Ski packages include trips to Disneyland or San Francisco. ''We're selling a destination vacation - more than just a pure ski holiday.''

Colorado, too, promotes ''skiing plus'' holidays, emphasizing other outdoor activities at the state's resorts. But Ski Country USA's Mr. Frew says this season Colorado will address its past failure to promote skiing to the young and to baby boomers who have cut down on their skiing days.

This includes prioritizing snowboarding, which makes up 13 percent of Colorado's $2.5 billion skiing market. Snowboarding - surfing the snow on a curved board - is popular among younger skiers and is the only growing segment in the ski industry.

Snowboarding first became popular at the beginning of the decade and has created a generation gap on the slopes. Older alpine skiers grumble about snowboarders' lack of ski etiquette; snowboarders complain they don't have their own parks or runs.

But ski areas, anxious to lure the teen and early 20s crowd, are devoting attention to the different needs of each type of skier. Aspen Skiing Company hired a director of snowboarding last week and is trying to accommodate both generations by closing its main mountain to snowboarders but expanding snowboard parks at its three other ski areas.

Meanwhile, ski operators are catering to the needs of baby boomers. All Colorado ski areas have day-care centers, lift-ticket deals for families, and ski-instruction groups for women and children.

''We want everyone to be welcome on the slopes,'' Frew says. ''We want to make sure it's affordable, good exercise, and still fun.''

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