Terrain-Based Learning Amps Up
Beginner Fun
Q & A with
Ski IT Pros
Economic Study
PLUS: Standing
Sideways from
the Start PG. 36
How Terrain-Based Learning Amps Up
By Kelly Coffey
ki areas have long recognized the uphill battle they face in trying to entice beginners
to engage in lessons. Let’s face it, the word “lesson” is as appealing to a 16 year old as
“colonoscopy” is to a 60 year old. It’s no wonder then that from the outset the thought
of signing up for ski and snowboard school doesn’t always resonate with newcomers to our
sport – no matter if they are young or not-so young. Of course complicating matters is the
plethora of other, often times much more accessible, past-times that kids and adults have available to them today. Nevertheless, ask that same 16 year old if he or she wants to go out and ride
a mini-halfpipe like Shaun White, and you’ll likely hear a resounding “Yes!” w w w. n s a a . o r g
FEBRUARY/MARCH 2013 | NSAA Journal | 31
Clearly, finding success in creating a new skier
or snowboarder goes far beyond the language we use,
but it is a start. Outside of the terminology is the
experience itself, and a number of resorts are breaking from tradition and turning toward terrain-based
learning as a creative way to revolutionize the beginner experience. Resorts like Colorado’s Aspen/Snowmass, New Jersey’s Mountain Creek, and Northstar
California Resort are among the growing number
of ski areas that have boosted skier and snowboarder
progression through the use of terrain enhancements.
Features such as camel humps, mini-halfpipes, banks,
berms, and spines add excitement to an otherwise flat
beginner area. But, to do it right requires proper planning, a commitment to daily maintenance and proper
training of both instructors and groomers. The result
can transform a “traditional” lesson taught on the
w w w. n s a a . o r g
bunny hill into a beginner experience that students
are eager to recommend to their friends and family.
Focus on the Experience
Northstar, known for its high-end terrain parks, saw
a logical fit with creating enhanced terrain features
within its beginner area. The 3,170-acre resort
worked with Burton and Snow Park Technologies to
create the Burton Snowboard Academy – a boutique
snowboard lesson focused on the entire snowboard
experience that is the first of its kind. The centerpiece
of this product is terrain-based learning progressions.
“We create a unique environment where you
don’t just learn to snowboard, you learn to become a
snowboarder,” says Shaun Cattanach, resort programs manager for Burton Snowboards.
The Burton Academy completely revamped FEBRUARY/MARCH 2013 | NSAA Journal | 33
“It was an absolute
eye-opener at how well
this worked.”
— Bill Benneyan, President, Mountain Creek
the traditional teaching progression for first-time snowboarders.
New snowboarders strap both feet into their boards right away
and begin learning balance on features like a mini-halfpipe,
rollers to a quarterpipe, and banks – all of which are designed
to remove fear, reduce falls, and naturally let the student feel
the proper movements required for snowboarding.
Northstar also promotes terrain-based learning in its ski
lessons. Terrain Park Crews build spines and rollers around the
beginner chairlift that both ski and snowboard lessons use.
“One of the first focuses we had was ‘how do you take
away the fear most guests have about going downhill and losing control?’” says Mike Hafer, assistant director of Northstar
(continued pg. 36)
Custom Built for the Industry!
What are you waiting for?
Ph. 775-831-7670 t t
[email protected]
34 | NSAA Journal | FEBRUARY/MARCH 2013
w w w. n s a a . o r g
From the Ground, Up
Dee Byrne Aims to Establish
the Best Snowsports School
in Tahoe
By Rachel Walker
When industry veteran Dee Byrne got the call in late 2010 to
revamp the Squaw Valley Snowsports School, she wasn’t looking
for a career move. After spending 24 years with Vail Resorts — during which she spent eight years directing Vail’s ski school — and
then joining the Aspen/Snowmass team as the ski school’s business development manager, she was on top of her game. Yet she
couldn’t refuse the challenge to infuse Squaw Valley with the same
passion, energy, and leadership that she brought to her previous
posts. Here Dee shares her insight on the transformation.
What first appealed to you about the job?
I like the excitement of being part of a team on the ground floor
of redeveloping this wonderful resort. The school was underresourced and untapped in its potential. I knew it had credibility, otherwise I wouldn’t have come
here. It was just a matter of infusing new energy into it.
As school director, your job is all about management: strategy, instructor training, business
development, and more. What about that appeals to you?
We do a lot more than help our guests go left and right. Our job is to help build their self-esteem.
Once they gain confidence, they can transfer that to other aspects of their lives. Skiing is the
best sport on the planet because it allows you to participate independently and still be part of a
Describe the “Smart Terrain” technique that Squaw implemented late last spring.
These are on-snow features that simulate conditions on the mountain. When beginners go
through them, they create the feel for the skier or rider so they know what they’re trying to
achieve. They simulate movement you don’t get being on flat snow. It also promotes offensive
moves and mobility, teaching students to go with their momentum rather than fight against it.
What other changes have you made to operations?
Before, they were teaching two- and two-and-a-half hour lessons each day. You cannot create a
relationship with a group in that time, and instructors were falling victim to the pressure of trying
to accomplish too much in a short amount of time. We also took a scalpel to our pricing to be
strategic and sensitive to the market. We made changes to the age grouping of Squaw Kids.
What are common mistakes made by ski instructors?
Over-teaching. They’re trying to share everything they know with a student in one lesson.
Another mistake is assuming they know the guests’ goals. A lot of guests couldn’t care less about
how good they are. They just want to ski green runs, have the wind in their face, and be on the
hill with their family. At the same time, some of our guests don’t understand their potential, so we
nudge them a bit.
Any words of advice for beginners?
The lesson isn’t a commodity; it’s not something that’s consumed and then disappears. It’s an
investment guests are making into their recreation. Take a lesson. Get with your friends and family
and organize a private group lesson so you can set your own agenda, and the pro can work with
the individual as well as the group. Be sure to rent or buy the right equipment. There’s no reason
people need to be cold or uncomfortable in boots anymore. And don’t be afraid to go to a top
destination to learn. You are as entitled to be here as the best skiers on the mountain.
Reprinted with permission, Squaw magazine. ■
w w w. n s a a . o r g
FEBRUARY/MARCH 2013 | NSAA Journal | 35
Ski and Ride School and a Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) National Team member.
“How do we build a feature that will control somebody’s speed so they can focus on the task at hand?”
The resort found that in order to properly
maintain the terrain features at the Burton Academy and the rest of its beginner area, it needed
to keep strong communication between the ski
school, groomers, and park crew.
This includes a daily all-department meeting,
which allows Hafer to talk directly with members
of the grooming department if there’s an issue with
any of the features. They also use a paper map of
the beginner area, writing notes on it at the end of
the day for that night’s grooming shift to follow.
That close contact between departments has allowed
Northstar to keep these beginner-level terrain features in top shape.
Standing Sideways from the Start
Burton’s Riglet Parks Make Learning Faster, Easier, and More Rewarding
s a father of three, a lot of my time is spent
with the kids and sports. Whether it’s
coaching volleyball, baseball, or snowboarding,
I’ve found there are common principles that
can be applied toward building success within
all kids’ sports programs. Kids learn to play tennis with kid-sized courts, kid-sized equipment,
larger racquets, and balls that are less bouncy.
Kids learn to play soccer with kid-sized
soccer fields, balls, and goals. These
factors are critical when teaching or
coaching kids, regardless of the sport,
and for more than 14 years Burton has
been incorporating the same logic in
teaching young kids to snowboard through its
Learn to Ride (LTR) products and programs.
This combined with Riglet technology and
instructors who know how to work with children, creates a fertile learning environment and
ultimately translates into success.
A Riglet Park is a kid-sized learning facility that is focused on giving kids a fun and
successful introduction to snowboarding. The
parks are built around the idea of giving children as young as 3 years old a fun introduction to the basics of snowboarding through
play and guided discovery. Interactive stations
allow kids to maneuver over, under, around, and
through the sculpted terrain and features. Balance, weight transfer, edging, and freestyle are
learned through fun and play. Riglet Parks combine specially sculpted terrain features, regular
play components, and animation and charac-
36 | NSAA Journal | FEBRUARY/MARCH 2013
ters to provide visual learning, discovery, and
the experienced-based learning environment in
which children thrive. By integrating play with
snowboarding and using an interactive environment, kids have more fun and get better results.
As in any sport for kids, the coaches
or instructors will either make or break the
An instructor at California’s Sierra-atTahoe uses the Riglet Reel to pull a young
snowboarder over their first box sliding
experience. The Riglet Reel (see inset) is a
tool designed to accelerate the development of balance by allowing instructors
to pull kids so they feel the sensation of
moving on a snowboard within minutes.
By Jeff Boliba,
Vice President Global Resort, Burton Snowboards
w w w. n s a a . o r g
Mountain Creek: Bringing It to
Every Lesson
“Any good instructor has always looked on the hill
for areas of terrain that would aid the technique,”
says Bill Benneyan, president of Mountain Creek
Resort in New Jersey. Mountain Creek decided to
take those instructor behaviors and implement them
into formal resort policy.
The 167-acre ski resort is New York City’s clos-
est ski area. That convenience to the world’s largest
metropolitan area means there are a lot of beginners
arriving at Mountain Creek’s parking lot. As part of a
resort-wide focus on improving the beginner experience, the resort committed to turning 100 percent of
beginner terrain into sculpted zones that both ski and
snowboard students could progress through.
Like Northstar’s Burton Academy, Mountain
(continued pg. 39)
An instructor at Stowe Mountain Resort helps a young
snowboarder make her first drop in on-snow.
An instructor at Vermont’s Smugglers’ Notch Resort
uses this stationary chairlift to help a young snowboarder practice getting off the lift.
experience. Instructors who have been well trained
understand how to teach, keep the pace, and make
it fun for kids. These are the most important ingredients for success. Both the American Association of
Snowboard Instructors (AASI) and the United States
of America Snowboard Association (USASA) provide opportunities for instructors and coaches to be
trained to teach young kids how to snowboard using
the Riglet Park.
The benefits of using the Riglet Park are immediate and within a short time kids are making movements on their boards, achieving balance, and
beginning to control their snowboards. Kids can have
their snowboard ollie, ride over a teeter-totter, drop
w w w. n s a a . o r g
in on a mini-ramp, and start turning! The Riglet Park
can be set up with or without snow to bring the snow
experience to the streets and give kids a quick introduction to snowboarding almost anywhere.
By immersing themselves in an experience that’s
as entertaining as it is educational, children can progress quickly and learn to enjoy snowboarding. Riglet
Parks are giving kids a chance to stand sideways
from the start, and provide an effective tool for enticing the second generation of snowboarders to build
memories with their families and your resort. It gives
them the opportunity to share snowboarding with
their children. Smiling kids, parents and instructors
are the end result. That is great for our industry!
Jeff Boliba is vice president of global resorts at
Burton Snowboards, Burlington, Vt. Contact him
at [email protected] ■
FEBRUARY/MARCH 2013 | NSAA Journal | 37
My Snowboard Lesson
By Troy Hawks, NSAA Journal Editor
should be embarrassed that in my ski industry
career, which includes 12 seasons working as a
kids ski instructor, I never once tried snowboarding. Truthfully, for all of those seasons I felt like I was
still learning to ski, and after each day, I couldn’t wait
to click back into those bindings and try it again.
Another decade later, and I still feel the same. These
truly are lifelong sports.
My snowboarding benightedness is even more
cumbersome given the fact that Lowell Hart
was one of my supervisors at ski and ride
school. Lowell is an educational founder
of the American Association of Snowboard Instructors (AASI) and helped
establish one of the country’s first
snowboard programs. He literally
wrote the book: The Snowboard
Book: A Guide for All Boarders.
Clearly, I could’ve done a better job
of taking notice. Today’s instructors
are much more multi-dimensional, not
only in on-snow disciplines, but also in
their ability to speak multiple languages,
teach students with special needs, and a host of
other abilities.
Now, after 30 years of skiing, I embarked on my
first snowboard lesson. And the day I chose to pop
my sideways sliding celibacy had cataclysmic doom
written all over it, at least according to the Mayan
calendar. From the outset there was the prospect on
December 21, 2012, I would perish while learning to
snowboard. That didn’t happen.
But there was also a promise. A promise of a “nofall” lesson, and those words piqued my interest and
set in motion my lesson with Chris Hargrave, current
director of operations for Woodward Tahoe located
at California’s Boreal Mountain Resort. Chris is also a
trainer, examiner, and Snowboard Team member of
AASI and continues to provide consultation on behalf
of the Burton Snowboard Academy at various resorts
across the country. Joining me in the lesson was
Arthur Berry, president of Pennsylvania’s Camelback
Mountain Resort, and Wenda Huseman, NSAA education director, her husband, Pete, and their two sons,
Isaac, 9, and Ethan, 7.
Chris is a master of the sport and has a keen
understanding of the on-snow physics of the snowboard and the associated movement dynamics of
snowboarding. The specific body mechanics of our
sport are fascinating, but one thing that separates the
great instructors from the good instructors is the ability to also consider the psyche of each student. Chris
38 | NSAA Journal | FEBRUARY/MARCH 2013
is among the ranks of great instructors, and it’s an
asset to our industry that there are thousands of professional ski and snowboard instructors at ski areas
coast-to-coast that have the ability to connect with
guests that are entering “our world” for the first time.
Athletic or non-athletic, wickedly enthused or
slightly scared, in the end, each student shares a
common goal: fun. Chris knows how to deliver fun,
and he goes further to explain that many common
beginner responses can be affected by, and
are somewhat reliant on, the topography of the underlying surface. Said
in a more cliché way, success starts
from the snow up. Enter: TerrainBased Learning.
If a student is on terrain with
even the slightest double-falline,
engaging an edge on the toe-side
of a snowboard can feel dramatically different than engaging the
heel-side edge. This alone ultimately
influences the progression and overall
success of the lesson. Of course the fear
of falling can also affect success. Nevertheless,
on-snow topography can be manipulated, and this is
an element of the learning experience that Chris says
is worth obsessing over.
The ski industry shares similarities with golf, and
when speaking of terms of topography, a comparison can be made between terrain-based learning
and a green built especially for beginners. Let’s face
it, if we asked beginner golfers to design the greens
they would look a lot more like funnels. Likewise, the
concept behind terrain-based learning asks those
truly committed to improving beginner conversion
to visualize a better learning snow surface. Resorts
implementing terrain-based learning are, in essence,
manicuring the first several “holes” that those new to
our sport will encounter, thereby making the overall
enjoyment more accessible.
In my lesson, I learned how to ollie in the first half
hour. It’s not necessarily a skill that you would need to
navigate down the hill, but it’s a fun one to learn and
practice, particularly while the instructor is working
with other students. If you’re smart enough to let the
lesson come to you, a no-fall beginner experience is
possible, but it requires an instructor’s connection and
extraordinary attention to the student. But if you’re
like me, and think that you can, when in fact you can’t,
you’ll fall. But I didn’t mind, I was having fun.
Contact Troy Hawks at [email protected] ■
w w w. n s a a . o r g
“How do we build a feature that will
control somebody’s speed so they can focus
on the task at hand?”
— Mike Hafer, Assistant Director, Northstar Ski and Ride School
Creek’s zones include a mini-halfpipe and camel
humps that get beginners managing pressure, intuitively finding a balanced stance, and guiding them
through their first turns. One of the first features new
students experience in their terrain-based progression is the mini-halfpipe. While a normal halfpipe is
built with its length stretching down the fall line, the
mini-pipe is built with its length across the hill. This
means that when new students are on the lip of the
mini-pipe, they’re facing up the slope. Knowing that
terrain will eventually stop them, they can focus on
offensive movements instead of figuring out how to
put the breaks on. All of Mountain Creek’s beginner
ski and snowboard lessons use these terrain features as
part of the learning progression.
“The terrain itself is stimulating the desired
results,” Benneyan says. “If you see the hill goes back Your key
to increased
ÞÜ[email protected];Üdg[ck
w w w. n s a a . o r g
FEBRUARY/MARCH 2013 | NSAA Journal | 39
up, you’re going to go with the flow and keep your
momentum to get up the next hill, it was an absolute
mind-blowing eye-opener at how well this worked.”
When Mountain Creek decided to dive into
terrain-based learning, it brought in consultants from
Snow Park Technologies, Burton, and California’s
Northstar Resort to help design the beginner area.
The resort wanted to figure out the proper shapes of
features, as well as find proper locations for features
in order to allow classes to logically progress from
zone to zone, make it efficient to groom, and stay
out of the flow of non-beginner traffic (see “Conversion Case Study” page 44).
Aspen/Snowmass: Filling
in the Gaps
Aspen/Snowmass comprises four Colorado mountains spread over a combined 5,300 skiable acres.
40 | NSAA Journal | FEBRUARY/MARCH 2013
Buttermilk Mountain, the smallest of the four, has a
challenge in its beginner progression: New skiers ready
to graduate from Buttermilk’s Panda Peak beginner
area face a big leap in difficulty when they tackle their
first green run. As a result, instructors spend extra
time on Panda Peak developing their students’ skills
before upping the terrain challenge to green runs.
The resort built a small halfpipe and camel bumps
at Panda Peak to help instructors overcome this challenge in their beginner progressions, according to Katie
Ertl, managing director of the Ski and Snowboard
Schools at Aspen/Snowmass. Those features do two
things for instructors: The fun factor keeps students
motivated to stick around the beginner area a little
longer, and students improve skills faster so they are
able to navigate the more challenging sections of Buttermilk’s other green slopes. Guests improve quickly
when their skills are challenged on these features in an
w w w. n s a a . o r g
The Ski and Ride Apprentice:
unintimidating environment like the
beginner area, Ertl says.
To make sure instructors have
the teaching knowledge to incorporate those features into their lessons, Aspen’s training team devotes
a good chunk of time to this topic
in both their new-hire training and
returning instructors’ fall training.
The Investment of
Terrain-Based Learning
Ertl recognizes that the four mountains of Aspen are lucky to already
have large resources in their park
crew. That means small incremental
costs for building and maintaining
impressive terrain features in their
beginner areas. Both Northstar and
Mountain Creek also put big investments into their park scene, a luxury
not every mountain in the U.S. can
afford. Nevertheless, there are simple
options that allow smaller ski areas
to dive into terrain-based learning.
“I think camel bumps and
spines and very small pipes are
definitely an opportunity for smaller
areas,” Ertl says. She also notes
that during her travels as a former
PSIA National Team member she
saw great cost-effective ideas come
out of mountains with limited
resources. She saw one ski school
create an entry-level bump run
on its beginner terrain by having
instructors make turns around the
brushes and gates, building up the
bumps with every turn.
By taking extra steps in shaping the overall success of their
skiing and snowboarding lessontakers, ski areas such as Northstar,
Mountain Creek, and Aspen are
realizing gainful returns through
terrain-based learning.
Kelly Coffey is a national team
freestyle specialist for the Professional
Ski Instructors of America and training manager at Breckenridge Resort’s
ski and ride school. Contact him at
[email protected] ■
w w w. n s a a . o r g
Teen Assistants Vital to Brighton’s
Teaching Programs
By Harriet Wallis
t Utah’s Brighton Resort, teenage class assistants have been a crucial part of
the ski and snowboard school for more than 20 years. Because of their help,
the instructors can concentrate on teaching knowing that their assistants will
take care of peripheral things such as: gently pushing a child who stalls out on
flat ground, taking a kid to the bathroom, and riding the chairlifts with the kids to
assure they ride safely.
“Our teen assistants are absolutely vital to our programs,” says Eric Uquillas, assistant director of the Brighton Mountain School and director of the teen
“Above all, safety is our top priority. When you put a helmet on a smaller kid
the center of balance changes, so it’s important that they learn to load, ride and
unload from the lifts safely,” he says.
The school maintains a class size ratio of six little skiers to one instructor and
one assistant. For snowboarding, it’s four kids to an instructor and an assistant. The small class size enhances learning, and it also assures that the kids are
accompanied by the instructor or assistant on all lift rides. No child rides alone
and no child is pawned off.
“This is precious cargo. There’s no room for error,” says Uquillas.
Nearly 6,000 youngsters a year take a day or multi-day lesson at Brighton.
The assistants, who are 14 to 17 years old, are called “peer instructors” but it’s
really a misnomer. They don’t actually instruct and they are not peers, for they
are much older than the learners who are mostly 7-year-olds and younger. Brighton has 180 full- and part-time instructors and 40 teenage peer instructors. For
their commitment, the peer instructors get a season pass, learn responsibility and
commitment, and some get paid.
Teens who want to be peer instructors must first submit a resume and a cover
letter. It’s evaluated for grades, activities, and ski or snowboard experience. It also
screens the serious applicants from those who just want a free pass.
“We don’t need bodies, we need young professionals,” Uquillas says.
Fall training includes interaction with the instructors, role playing, improving communication skills, and other on- and off-snow sessions. Those who are
selected commit to one day a week, Saturday or Sunday, including some school
holidays. When the season begins, the new teens are paired with veteran instructors as well as veteran peer instructors, and they train in real classes. After a few
classes, the teens are ordained as full-fledged peer instructors.
“I ask a lot from them and they give a lot in return,” Uquillas says.
Those who work both weekend days get paid in addition to their season
pass, and those who perform well are invited to return the following season.
Uqillas says the program is very flexible about the peer instructors’ schedules
because they have school and other activities. He says some of the teens form
study groups and do their homework in the free time between classes.
“I like being a peer instructor because even though we’re teenagers we can
help kids learn. And I learn patience and responsibility,” says 16-year-old Erin
Pfeifer. “I also look forward to seeing my [peer instructor] friends and skiing with
Likewise, Erin’s twin sister Elese says she feels being a peer instructor is
important because she is able to help kids love the sport she loves. Both are in
their third season as peer instructors at Brighton.
“The peer instructor program taught me responsibility and time management. You’re a kid yourself, but you have to learn to set goals and keep commitments,” says Aldo Littig, who has been an instructor at Brighton for 12 years. He
started as a peer instructor when he was 15.
“What’s more, it’s harder and harder to get work experience while you’re still
in high school. This is excellent work
experience. You learn
to dress,
2013 how
| 41to
act, and how to be professional,” he says. ■
Terrain-Based Learning
By Chris Hargrave, Director of Operations, Woodward Tahoe
here are so many variables at play when trying
to help guests connect with our sport. They
justifiably show up for lessons with a certain
level of fear, but also an idea, or hope, that they will
be able to catch on to skiing or snowboarding. If
that person is fortunate enough to be placed into a
smaller-sized group lesson and have an experienced
instructor ready to give 110 percent, the traditional
learning systems work well. But for many of our
beginner lesson takers, that doesn’t happen, and they
achieve only a marginal level of skill progression. By
the day’s end, these students are sore, tired, and even
worse, defeated. What impression of our sport are we
sending them away with?
People need an experience that allows them to
feel in control and safe. A successful lesson introduces students to the various sensations of sliding on
snow, all while fueling their desire to push themselves
further. In the end this is an experience that makes
beginners feel as though they’ve grown stronger as a
person, and offers them a visible pathway to mastering something amazing.
In a traditional ski or snowboard lesson, students
start out by being corralled into a large group. The
first hour or two are the most grueling. Students
normally work on drills designed to orient them with
their new equipment and teach them how to maneuver around the learning area. Other drills help them
develop their balance. Now, already fatigued, the
students plod farther up the hill to work on an arduous and defensive wedge or side-slip position. They
are naturally scared of sliding all the way down the
hill and develop counter-productive movement patterns as a result. For some students, the remainder
of the lesson can be focused solely on undoing these
defensive positions in order to progress their skills.
New skiers and snowboarders can spend the next
three years or so learning how to build enough confidence to start letting go and making effective moves
with accurate tactics. Of course, this only happens
if they stay with the sport long enough to taste “the
good stuff.”
In a gourmet restaurant even the water tastes
good. Savory appetizers whet the appetite and
delectable desserts leave the guest wanting to come
back for more. In the finest restaurants, the service
the guest receives is calculated and acutely choreographed. Yet with beginner lessons, we often overload
the “waiter,” in this case the instructor, who we task
with delivering an exceptional experience to everyone
in the class, regardless that these students come with
varying degrees of athleticism and mixed enthusiasm.
The various on-snow features of the terrainbased system are intuitive, perhaps more likened to a
cafeteria. Through effective signage at each feature,
42 | NSAA Journal | FEBRUARY/MARCH 2013
the students can clearly see the skill developments.
In fact, more adept students can practically teach
themselves. Meanwhile, the instructor can place
more focus on connecting and building relationships
than what the standard lesson allows. The coach and
the students feel successful because the students are
feeling amazing sensations and performing movements previously only associated with the experience of high-level skiers and snowboarders. They can
work together to build a plan for how the student
will be able to take these feelings out to the groomers, the powder, the trees, the bumps, the pipe, and
the park.
The methodology of teaching is as equally as
important as the terrain. The focus is on taking steps
that enable people to ski and snowboard without
failing. The goal is to teach them confidence in the
fall line so that they are more able to move freely to
maintain balance as they transition from edge-toedge and link turns. They learn the ranges of motion,
ollies, presses, hop turns, edging, sometimes even
hand-plants or other technical body and ski and
snowboard control tricks. By developing these skills,
the students are more comfortable being in the fall
line, with no concern for stopping because the design
of the features do that work for them.
The transition shapes are designed to help them
feel pressure build up and release so that they can
time their mechanics to accentuate the terrain. Learning to pump through a transition in a linear path
requires many of the same mechanics that skiers and
snowboarders use when they pressure a turn and load
their boards. The rollers require accurate pressure
control to maintain speed, otherwise the students get
stuck and stop. The result is that the rather than the
fear of going too fast, students ask for more speed.
The banked turns gently catch and help redirect
students through their first direction changes. Every
piece of the puzzle is designed to take the fear out of
it so that students feel more free to make moves while
they slide. In this environment students are learning to
connect with high level sensations, skills, and tactics
right away.
They leave inspired by their experience and aspiring to greater things. They are connected for life, the
environment that has been carefully crafted to help
them feel just the right things and accomplish things
that they never thought possible helps foster a passion for skiing and snowboarding they will share with
their friends and family. They want to come back and
they want to be a part of our culture!
Chris Hargrave is director of operations for Woodward Tahoe located at California’s Boreal Mountain
Resort. Contact him at [email protected] ■
w w w. n s a a . o r g
How One Ski Resort Achieved a 48 Percent
Increase in Return Lesson-Takers
Joe Hession currently works as a terrain-based learning consultant based in Vail, Colo.
Prior to establishing his consulting firm, Hession Design, he worked at New Jersey’s
Mountain Creek for 14 years. As the resort’s director of south operations in 2006,
he led the effort to develop one of the country’s first all-mountain terrain parks, and
later served as vice president and general manager from 2009 to 2012. This is a story
of how Mountain Creek increased its conversion rate from 17 to 65 percent as well as
a look at the processes behind this change.
In 2008, Mountain Creek renovated its day lodge
and base area, and the project piqued a resort-wide
effort to reinvent itself in order to generate more
repeat business from beginner skiers and snowboarders. Before the redevelopment, the resort
struggled to accommodate high volumes in its
beginner learning area, particularly during peak days.
In studying the resort’s processes, I put myself in the
boots of the beginner, mapping out the entire ski
area experience from the time the guest arrived until
the time their tail lights left the parking lot.
In furthering my research, in the spring of 2011
I traveled with Jeff Boliba, vice president of global
resorts at Burton Snowboards, to the Burton Academy
at California’s Northstar Resort. I was soon introduced
to Chris Hargrave, a manager at the academy who has
worked in the industry for the past 19 years. Chris is
a trainer, examiner, and snowboard team member of
the American Association of Snowboard Instructors
(AASI). In May 2012, he was hired as the director of
operations for Woodward Tahoe located at California’s
Boreal Mountain Resort, and he continues to work
with Burton to further develop the Burton Snowboard
Academy at various resorts across the country.
As Chris and I toured the facility at Northstar, I witnessed students learning in a completely
immersed environment, right down to the lexicon.
All of the terms used by the instructors and students
were specific to the culture. For example, instead of
simply saying they were taking a lesson, students at
the academy said they were dropping into a minipipe. Suddenly, with just a simple shift in semantics,
these students were able to boast real-world snowboarding stories upon returning to work or school.
More importantly, it was clear that the students were
genuinely having fun.
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As Jeff Boliba says, “We set out to create a full
immersion program that would change the way
people learn how to snowboard, and as a result,
achieve a high conversation rate – the Academy has
done just that.”
The Burton Academy earns a 98 percent success
rate because it provides a fun, supportive environment while also properly aligning the overall expectations of the beginner. After seeing the academy in
action, I knew I had to implement terrain-based learning at Mountain Creek.
Implementing Terrain-Based Learning
Once resort management concluded that terrainbased learning was the right direction in order to
improve beginner conversion, a primary question
arose: Could this be replicated on a much larger scale
for all of Mountain Creek’s group lessons? At the time
of my visit, the Burton Academy had already been at
Northstar for six years. Up to this point, the concept
had never been applied resort-wide. In fact, the processes of the academy at Northstar weren’t built to
accommodate high volumes, so much time was spent
in retrofitting the concept to successfully implement
terrain-based learning at Mountain Creek.
With the support from Burton and with Chris
Hargrave as a consultant, we embarked on a threeyear process to design a program that simulated all
of the sensations of the Burton Academy. One of the
first steps was to develop a lesson progression based
on a one-hour and 40-minute lesson. Here’s how the
progression breaks down: 20 minutes in the beginner
flat area (including time on the balance board); 20
minutes in the mini-pipe; 20 minutes in the rollers; 20
minutes for perfect pitch; 20 minutes of debriefing
and experience review.
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Since each class needs to use a specific area, or
learning feature, for about the same amount of time,
we encountered our first problem: competing lesson
start times. Mountain Creek’s beginner flat area is not
able to accommodate all students at once. Traditional, unified lesson times can be likened to dams:
We hold our guests back until the official lesson start
time, only to open the proverbial floodgates to our
learning terrain. Rather than maintain a constant
stream through the lesson area, the traditional ski
school model can actually create an over-crowded
learning environment.
After further analysis, we moved ahead with
the rather nerve-wracking decision to do away with
dedicated lesson start times, concluding that it was
more efficient to have a constant flow of lesson
traffic. Mountain Creek’s facilities redevelopment
included the installation of new technology-driven
rental systems. With the system, users are able to fill
out paperwork with just the swipe of a credit card or
driver’s license, and a surface elevator transports the
rental equipment to the learning area. Combined, all
of these changes create a more tailored experience
for the beginner that leverages intelligent building
design and shaped terrain at each progression.
At each zone we placed signage that introduces the features and illustrates the skills that will
be experienced. The signage provides two advantages. First, if a guest insists on “self-teaching,” we
wanted to make our terrain as intuitive as possible.
Second, we found that most lessons have a great
deal of variation between them and in the words of
Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, “variation is evil.” Through the signage we provided our
instructors with a teaching tool that helped increased
consistency from lesson to lesson and instructor to
instructor. We worked with Chris, our instructors, and
training staff to design a very specific progression
and we asked our instructors to follow this process.
The signage was a helpful tool for reference and
training while providing a visual for both the instructors and students alike.
Test-Driving the Sport
Every lesson ends with a recap of the experience,
giving each student feedback specific to his or her
lesson. Instructors complete the transaction with an
up sell: two future visits including a lift ticket and
rental equipment for $30. But creating true conversion goes beyond simply providing a great return
offer. When you test-drive a new car and love it,
you’ll most likely buy it, especially if the price is right.
By lowering the cost of beginner lessons, in effect,
we allow students to test-drive our sport. Terrainbased learning is like putting students into the sports
car of their dreams. With the right experience, at the
right price, they’re hooked.
Financially, there were clear benefits to our transition. Our conversion rate was about 17 percent prior
to implementing terrain-based learning, meaning 83
percent of our students were not returning, which
represents a sizable missed opportunity for generating additional revenues. By putting students into the
$30 program, Mountain Creek ultimately increased
its conversion rate 48 percentage points, meaning it
was now capturing repeat sales from 65 percent of
its students.
Yield was also a concern when determining the
correct price point for the resort’s beginner product.
Our overall goal was to improve the conversation
rate, but in order to set the right price, we needed
to account for breakage, and the fact that not all of
our first-timers would return for subsequent lessons.
In essence we designed the product knowing that a
certain percentage of guests would not use the full
package they had purchased. A resort doesn’t necessarily have to undergo
multi-million dollar facility upgrades in order to
improve its beginner conversion, and creating a successful terrain-based learning program goes beyond
building entry-level terrain features, hiring and training the right staff, and rebranding drainage ditches
as mini-pipes. Web-based tracking programs, such as
Killington Resort’s personal uniform resource locator (PURL) program, have proven successful and are
certainly part of the equation. Nevertheless, culture
is key. At the end of the day, the Mountain Creek
project would have never reached the success it did
if it weren’t for the acceptance and adoption by the
instructors, trainers, groomers, snowmakers, and
other key decision makers.
Joe Hession is president of Hession Design. Contact
him at [email protected] ■
continued on page 46
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continued from page 45
he lesson process at the Burton Academy starts in the Academy Lounge.
From the moment the guests walk through the door, they have entered a
comfortable and supportive environment. Coaches and students get paired off
and acquainted with one another, as they will be spending the entire day together.
Once students have their equipment and gear, they enter a prep station. Each
station has comfortable seating and a video screen. Here, the students get an
introduction to snowboarding through videos of team riders – this helps shape an
expectation and understanding of the day. Instructors assess the students’ goals,
review the workings of their gear, and get them started on a balance board to help
build confidence even before going outside.
Once out on snow, the student straps in for the first time on flat terrain. The coach is readily available to personally assist and will go as far as holding the student’s hand, which increases comfort and
builds trust. Over the next half hour, the student works on various movements accentuating the feel of
the introductory terrain features while developing balance and control. To the student, navigating these
tiny features might not seem like much, but this initial session establishes the foundation on which a successful lesson can be built.
From the view of operations, building the proper learning terrain is much more involving than
simply grooming the standard “perfect pitch.” Building features such as the mini-pipe, rollers, and
return walls requires about 15 percent more snow. A frontline groomer can easily be assigned to build
the shapes, and most terrain park builders will be up to the task. Once the features are built, they can
be maintained with daily tilling and light blade work. Yet to ensure proper maintenance, communication between the learning center and the grooming and snowmaking departments is essential.
As mentioned, the mini-pipe was aptly named
so students are immersed into the culture.
Technically speaking, this feature is not actually a “mini-halfpipe.” In fact, the design can
be likened to a drainage ditch. The mini-pipe is
built on a flat grade, and is normally about 30
feet wide. Each sidewall has a smooth 8 percent grade. When students slide for the first
time, they can clearly see that the wall on the
other side will bring them to a stop. This immediately reduces, or even eliminates, the fear
factor, and students therefore can focus solely
on the sensations of sliding. Rather than dealing with a students’ fear of falling or not being
able to stop, instructors can hone in on helping
students develop proper body positioning.
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With the terrain-based learning model, the next
features that students’ progress to are a series
of rollers followed by a return wall, which have
a smooth transition shape to provide an eased
stop and return. This is a continuation of the skills
learned in the mini-pipe, giving riders the freedom
to ride the fall line while experiencing the sensation of acceleration and deceleration.
The perfect slope is similar to the traditional Perfect Pitch,
but possesses gentle banks on each side of the run. The
rider can initiate and finish turns without worrying about
skiing or snowboarding off of the edge of the run.
Students will have varied success. Some will spend a few
days using these features while others might be riding the
lift that same afternoon. Students can train as long as they
want, reaching their goals at the Academy. Once the students have developed the necessary confidence and skillset,
they move to open slope training, which is focused on direction riding and avoiding falls. At this point, riders truly feel
that they’ve become a “snowboarder.” They even learn the
“secret handshake” is commonly referred to as the high-five.
Banked turns feature a slope gently on the side and are
slightly skewed toward the fall line with flat transition
points in between to help students control speed. This
feature helps riders feel direction change without needing a large amount of edge control.
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– Joe Hession
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