Archive for September, 2010

DEEPER… and steeper – on splitboards!

September 30, 2010

Just got back from a special screening of the new Jeremy Jones/TGR movie, DEEPER. And without spoiling the ending (not that there really is one), DEEPER is the best winter sports documentary I’ve seen since Christian Begin‘s LocoMotion in the early 90s. Jones, who was once a star team rider for Burton before striking off on his own – quite literally – put two years of time and effort into producing a truly astonishing big mountain feature length movie where all of the footage (well, all that we can tell) was filmed by skiers and cameramen getting around under their own steam. And not just in one location, either – DEEPER goes to the Sierra Nevada, Antarctica, Chamonix, AK (twice) with a stop at Donner Pass for some of the truly deepest pow snowboard footage (caught on sweet helmet/POV cams) I’ve ever seen. The AK spine riding and ultra-steep Cham lines are breathtaking; and though I know that Arc’teryx athlete Eric Hjorleifson is trying to up the ante in the backcountry for big mountain skiers, fJeremy Jones has clearly thrown down the gauntlet and has made an adventure movie for the ages. On one plank or two, it’s hard to imagine anyone riding steeper, more fluted spines than those in the Fairweather Range in the final seggy. And lest you think it’s all fun and games, you’ll be gouging your eyes out when the lads get stormed in for TWELVE days near Haines, AK. Those park pussies would be heading crying into their IPhones after Day 3. Then again, so would I… Well worth a watch – **** on the action sports rating system…

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Just when you think you’ve seen every promo, contest, etc…

September 21, 2010

Along comes, well, Red Bull – to show you that there in fact ARE some ideas that have yet to be fully explored in the action sports world. And to think it was all filmed in Australia – though top riders like Salomon‘s Bobby Brown and Simon Dumont are in attendance. I can’t even begin to explain it, so I’ll leave it to the folks at Red Bull. :

Melbourne-based installation artists ENESS bring a new perspective to action sports by fusing interactive art with skiers and snowboarders flying through the air. To achieve this spectacle a 21’ inflatable sphere hovered between the hits as proprietary software mapped 3D visuals onto the snow and sphere. Riders were tracked via an infrared camera as they flew through the air.

I am NOT a fan of their energy drinks, I don’t think that they should be marketing to minors (a la tobacco companies), but without doubt they do the most creative special events out there.   Though – haha – didn’t Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead once ‘project’ psychedelic movies onto the stage when they were playing? Off The Planet is truly off the hook when it comes to creativity. I’m betting this thing goes pretty viral over the next 48 hours…

Lazarus resorts – Tamarack, Elk Meadows, back from dead?

September 19, 2010

Just a short post tonight with respect to a couple of interesting news items from the past week. Though the recession is hammering the mountain states hard, it’s surprising to hear that both Tamarack Resort in ID and Elk Meadows in UT will be operating this winter, according to Ski Area Management‘s website.

What’s happening in both of these cases – primarily Tamarack’s – is that people with deep pockets (yes, there are still wealthy Americans out there) are getting together to make skiing happen at resorts that might otherwise have been forgotten.Interesting to note that Elk Meadows had been valued at $5M, and sold for just under $2.0M. As a no-frills, no-snowmaking kind of place, it’s at the other end of the spectrum from Tamarack, which was going to really be the Next Big Thing, well, after the Yellowstone Club, at any rate. Still, what’s happening at Tamarack is truly remarkable – a group of homeowners getting together to hire 65 staff that will open the mountain from Thursdays – Sundays for 15 weeks this year (can you say “big pow Thursday??”) Season’s passes are on sale for $199 per person – I’ll bet that will get noticed down in Boise.

Clearly, these are homeowners who have already likely lost a ton of money on their vacation homes and want to keep the dream alive. Well, bravo for them and I hope it all works out.  I don’t think you’d be able to get together a bunch of dirtbags to do the same thing…

Windsurfing? Tennis? Skiing?

September 18, 2010

One of the first posts on the new Skiing Business website is called “Is the Hardgoods Industry Killing Itself?” – and makes some comparisons between the fate of sports like windsurfing (virtually dead) and tennis (which rose Phoenix like from the ashes about ten years ago, and has been the fastest growing sport for the past six years in the USA). I would argue that comparing sales of ski gear and clothing with windsurfing and tennis is like comparing apples to lemons to oranges.

Windsurfing’s heyday was in the late 70s and early 80s, when people drove down to their local lake with the uber cool Windsurfer One Design strapped to the roofrack and… waited, and waited, and waited for the wind to blow. Windsurfing was a great sport for baby boomers who wanted to catch some surf stoke at the local lake – much in the same way that SUP (stand up paddleboards) are now – but the sport had two fundamental flaws. Number one – the average wind speed in the United States in something like six knots per hour – so, as wind generation proponents are finding out – it’s not a very cost effective sport for the weekend warrior. Number tw0 – generally speaking, once the basics of windsurfing were mastered, the sport was quite boring. Ergo, the rise of places like the Columbia River Gorge and Cape Hatteras, where people – ironically, mostly my fellow Canadians – would make hellaciously long road trips to. You only need to get skunked once or twice to think: enough of this, I’m taking up… tennis. And while ‘the wind is free’ – as the early Windsurfer ads put it – the gear most certainly was not. Indeed, windsurfing gear went through about a twenty year evolutionary curve that rendered sails, booms, boards, and fins pretty much obsolete about every three or four years. And short board sailing, similar to surfing – was very difficult to master. Kiteboarding has pretty much hammered the last nail into the windsurfing coffin because it attracted a crossover demographic from wakeboarding and even skateboarding.

Author Ryan Dionne then brings up the resurgence of tennis and wonders if skiing can mimic that sport’s incredible growth curve. Well, tennis was as dead as a doornail in the mid 90s and started to come back with the Federer-Nadal rivalry. That said, the good thing about tennis is that it’s really quite cheap to take up and play on a regular basis (though it’s a difficult game to excel at) and you can play pretty much any day that it isn’t raining. Tennis rackets haven’t changed much in price over the last two decades either – at least not at the mid/intermediate level – so it’s an affordable way to get some exercise.

Skiing differs significantly from both of these sports. Lift mechanization and snowmaking take both the force of gravity and the elements out of the picture. You can go skiing pretty much any time you want. Many North Americans only actually ever ski when they are on vacation, since most major metro centers are a long drive from even modest ski hills. What’s likely killing the hard goods industry is the fact that people are simply renting high performance gear for their annual trip to Whistler or Vail; the market for these rentals has soared in the past five years or so. Also, while retailers may stock a lot of SKUs, it seems to me that the specialty shops I go to in Vancouver and Whistler purchase pretty frugally on the hard goods side – they want those rockered skis and twintips out the door by the second week in February, sold at full retail. The story is right about one thing – a premium brand like Volkl can keep a ski in its lineup for quite a few years – the old P9 and Mantras being the best examples – and Salomon had a great run with the original Pocket Rocket.

I was a ski equipment editor at Ski Canada magazine about a decade ago and seemed to recall that manufacturers were trying to trim SKUs and keep skis in their lineups for longer. Then shaped, midfat, and fat skis hit the market and it went all to hell again. To my way of thinking, the challenge is that the ski industry has done a great job in convincing relatively serious skiers that they in fact need a ‘quiver’ of skis – rather than just one good all-arounder. I skied on Atomic’s R:EX for about four years in virtually every condition imaginable and they only thing they really balked at were super-tight trees in deep snow. They railed like crazy on hardpack and creamed both crud and moguls. Yet it’s almost impossible to find that kind of ski out there anymore – carve oriented boards either have a heavy plate and lifter (lousy for off piste skiing) and of course the ‘big mountain’ category is suffused with skis that are at least 100mm underfoot.

Ski retailers also have an advantage over both windsurf and tennis shops because they can sell tons of softgoods – which is where the high margins and profit can be made. You can rack a lot of Gore-Tex jackets on a shop floor and run the gamut from stocking outrageous, fashion oriented brands like Oakley and Spyder, or more conservative style from Arc’teryx and Mountain Hardwear. And you can always wear a nice Gore-Tex jacket on a rainy day at the park, whereas skis will gather dust if they’re not utilized.

I think the ski industry would do a huge favour to everyone if SKUs were reduced back to manageable levels. What’s interesting, though, is the proliferation of boutique brands like Moment, Icelantic, G3, and Black Diamond. Maybe folks do want to ski on something different, after all…

Without looking at SIA’s Retail Audit of hardgoods, I can’t say for sure just how tough things are in the hard goods industry. And while Ryan’s story is a good starting point for discussion about where retail sales are headed, the comparison with windsurfing and tennis doesn’t really wash…

Trade pubs – the way to become an ‘insider…’

September 16, 2010

OK, so the name of the blog is “Inside Skiing” and the angle is that by reading this blog and commentary, you’ll gain some kind of information you might not normally run across – though these days, with news aggregators, you can literally see dozens of ski-related stories every day.

And – I’ll be honest – usually I’m commenting or pointing to a news item that has already been reported and giving my ‘take’ on it.

You might not know it from browsing the internet, but there was a time when print media was not only alive, it was immensely profitable. Among the most money-churning category of magazines was a category called “trade publications” which weren’t really of much interest to the general public. Back in the day when I delivered mail for a living, various businesses would get all kinds of trade magazines – my favourite was FCN – “Floor Covering News – a massively oversized book that was fat with advertisers from linoleum, carpet, and hardwood companies. Man, I’ll bet that thing was a license to print money.

The ski, outdoor, and action sports industries have all had similar titles in the past as well – Skiing Trade News was a biggie, Wintersport Business became its rival (but not for long). Transworld Snowboarding Business once boasted over 400 pages of ads and editorial during the heyday of the sport in the late 1980s. Trade publications  had little to offer in terms of visual appeal and design – I swear the art direction at the NSAA Journal and Ski Area Management has not changed in years, and Bob Woodward’s SNEWS looked like a mimeographed church newsletter. However, much of the information is quite useful for retailers looking to grow their bottom line through creative merchandising displays, negotiating terms with suppliers, training and retaining staff – that sort of thing.  That’s pretty much the target market for any trade pub when it gets down to it – ‘let us show you how to make money.’

The internet is actually perfect for trade publications because they don’t cost much money to put online, content is fairly minimal, and even with a weekly news cycle, breaking news can get stale fast. I love getting email updates for Ski Area Management, and the news today that Bonnier Corp is launching a Skiing Business website is definitely an interesting development.Bonnier, which killed the print edition of SKIING magazine earlier this year (where IS that new interactive magazine, anyway?) might be onto something.

Skiing Business – like its sister, Transworld Business – will be free. However, TW actually offers a print version where ‘insiders’ get content not available on the public website and that one costs money. As for Skiing Business – the selection of stories that went up today looks really promising – especially the story that compares the plight of ski retailers to the windsurfing industry a decade ago (I might tackle that one in a future Inside Skiing; it’s a bit apples and oranges to compare the two sports, actually).

What’s interesting, though, is that business intelligence (which is what a lot of trade magazines purport to ‘sell’) is worth – or should be worth – a lot of money. PR News –  aimed at (cough!) all of you flacks out there, costs $475 per year. I don’t know offhand how much SNEWS costs (now owned by Michael Hodgson) but its not something a consumer would buy unless you were a REAL gear geek. (Actually, many trade pubs will not take subs from people outside the industry). I actually wrote a couple of stories last year for TW Business and was paid, uh, zero dollars. That’s right – I ‘donated’ to the cause. So I guess I’m part of the problem.

For now, however, a hearty welcome to Skiing Business and a shout-out to the other trades. As Bill Gates once said, “content is king.”

Keeping it short and sweet – new Arc’ video

September 15, 2010

(Personal disclosure: blog poster is an employee of Arc’teryx Ltd and this blog is strictly personal commentary).

An ex-girlfriend of mine once told me that she was a huge fan of ‘short art.’ And while every freeskier and mountain biker worth his Hero POV can post their exploits directly to YouTube or Vimeo, putting together a short story from dozens of hours of footage truly requires a strong focus and attention to detail. Maybe it says something about my attention span, but I have to say I tune out of a lot of the ski/surf/bike porn stuff at about the one minute mark.

Doubtless a lot more crazy s**t went down on Chad Sayers’s and Jordan Manley‘s adventure to Gulmarg, Kashmir than their five-minute video that was posted yesterday on the Arc’teryx website. I came away impressed by three things: Manley’s video vision is every bit as stellar as his still photo work; secondly, the duo made the best of what truly looked like sketchy conditions; and finally – this is the best part – I actually wanted to see and learn more about exploring India with these guys. But I won’t… their next stop is La Grave, France.

The outdoor adventure media biz has been well-served by docs from Fitz Cahall (The Season, Dirtbag Diaries) and of course Mike Douglas does an excellent job with his Salomon Freeski TV segments.

A somewhat broader issue/challenge that this presents for sports marketers might be well do these clips of your sponsored athletes fit in with your brand? Whistler/Montreal based Origin Design gives the proverbial ‘two thumbs up’ to the Arc’teryx team on their Facebook page today.

Fellow outdoor blogger/media guy Steve Casimiro ferrets out some of the best stuff on The Adventure Life website; bookmark it and follow him on Facebook, too.

A Rebuilt Fortress in Alberta?

September 12, 2010

News via First Tracks Online – the Calgary Herald is reporting that Fortress Mountain Resort could re-open now that new ownership has been secured and a bridge across the Kananaskis River has been built. When I moved to Alberta in 1978 (whew! dating myself, here!) I skied up at Fortress once or twice, usually after Lake Louise closed. What I recall is a wild-ass access road and sideways blowing snow the likes of which I’d never seen before (or, at least until I skied at Mammoth in California). Fortress has an interesting history – it was once owned by the Aspen Skiing Company, who at the same time had just opened up a little-known hill called “Blackcomb Mountain” adjacent to Whistler. I could be wrong, but I believe that Hugh Smythe (former Intrawest CEO) was there for a short period of time, and that the old t-bar that ran up the side of Seventh Heaven originally came from Fortress. How ironic that the “Fortress” name would later haunt Whistler-Blackcomb, when ITW was sold to “Fortress Capital” (no relation, obviously) in 2007. A former roommate of mine bought property up there and raised his kids skiing up there, and actually (I believe) lost his property due to some mould problem in the building that was never fixed. The woes of the resort were well documented by former Seattle Times reporter Chris Solomon in SKI Magazine several years ago but I can’t find the story on-line. The new owner operated the highly-regarded Ski Martock in Nova Scotia, so it will be interesting to see what happens. Most of Fortress’s challenges center around the weather – it lies in the infamous Alberta ‘chinook belt’ which means that warm winds can eat the base (and shut down the mountain) at various times throughout the season. It also has a sketchy snowpack (more than one backcountry skier has died there) and can be awfully bony since it’s mostly above treeline. Still, Calgary is an affluent, skiing mad city and it might not take much to get people interested since it’s a much shorter drive than either Sunshine or Lake Louise.