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Paradigm Shift: SIA Downhill Consumer Intelligence Project Unlocks Fresh Take On Old Questions

April 11, 2016 | 0 Comments

In lieu of recent speculations, SIA Research Director Kelly Davis sheds some clarity on what’s really happening in snowboarding and digs more deeply into the numbers that have been drawing the attention. What she found was that the primary drop in participation was among 18- to 24-year-old males. “We started to find out that the message they were getting about snowboarding was not resonating with them, and that brands were having trouble engaging with them at a time when that group, particularly, was under economic distress.”

Another factor: The drought in California, which started in the midst of the decline. Davis learned that 1 in 4 snowboarders lives in a state bordered by the Pacific Ocean. Naturally, if there’s no snow, participation will fall. “It was like the perfect storm,” she says.


The comparatively new sport of snowboarding had gone from a peak of a little under 8.2 million snowboarders to a lull of about 7.4 million. The numbers have climbed back to 7.6 million in the most recent season and visits have stabilized. “Is that a dying fad? No, but it’s at the point that snowboarding companies had to really start focusing on business, that it wasn’t going to be as easy for them as it had been,” Davis says.

Getting some real answers on what was happening with snowboarding when the decline occurred was one of the drivers behind theDownhill Consumer Intelligence Project (DCIP). The idea started with snowboarding, but SIA quickly expanded the research to downhill skiing. SIA’s collaborative approach with more than 25 organizations has resulted in a treasure trove of data, including interviews with 75,000 consumers, which is far beyond any previous data set collected by SIA.


“The standard participation research could tell us what was happening, but it couldn’t tell us why it was happening,” says Bob Gundram, president of C3 Worldwide.. “The value of the deeper level of information coming out of the DCIP are answers to why trends are occurring.”

One of the tools to expect as a result of the DCIP is a dashboard that allows you to filter for age, gender, geography, income and other factors and view that consumer profile’s intent to buy equipment and accessories in the next year.

“The insights that have come out have been amazing, but given the speed of change and how we connect constantly and how trends develop and mature overnight, it’s really important for us to continue doing consumer research,” Davis says. “That’s one of the major findings of the DCIP. We’ve got to make a concerted effort – a concerted and absolutely deliberate effort to understand our consumer on a 24-7-365 basis. No more waiting 10 years. It’s just not tenable. We can’t do it anymore, or we’re going to lose, and that’s as simple as it gets.”

An important partner in the research has been the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA).. NSAA’s researchers, including Nate Fristoe, managing director of RRC Associates, spoke during Industry + Intelligence about some of the findings. “It’s not likely we address it and hit it out of the park year one,” Fristoe says. “I’ve been in this industry for 16 years, and I can tell you one of the failings of the industry is sometimes we repeat past efforts. … It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it again, but we shouldn’t do it exactly the same way we did back then.”

To Fristoe, the research should help the industry avoid past mistakes. Davis agrees. “We’ve got to break the paradigms,” she says. Gundram says suppliers, retailers and resorts all have a stake in bringing more people into the market. “The collaborative approach we took with the DCIP helps all of us better understand our consumers,” he says. “That higher level of understanding means we can provide more engaging experiences and products to consumers, and sell skiing and snowboarding to a new audience.”

Where to Start

The industry has actually seen what Davis calls “unbelievable stability” over the past 40 years – no great decreases in participation. The problem: There have not been any great increases either. “Whatever we’ve been doing has probably contributed to the stability of our industry, which is good,” she says.

“We haven’t declined, but none of those programs really ever tipped the needle up. We never saw anything have that kind of an impact.”


The first phase of the DCIP project was released last year. SIA examined five studies conducted during four decades of research on the topic of growing the sport. According to Davis, some of the most prolific barriers over the past 40 years to participation in snow sports have not changed: proximity to the resorts and expense. “What do we do about that?” Davis asks. “What are some of the things that really invite out-of-the-box solutions for those two problems?”

What’s more, the latest DCIP-driven research has uncovered other potential challenges for the industry. “Where can we have the maximum effect in terms of moving the bar? There are only so many levers to pull,” Fristoe says. The goal of the DCIP is to answer that question and work with the industry to build better marketing and communications campaigns and products and, ultimately, to sell more.

The second phase of the research was completed in fall 2015 and homed in on social trends and behavior and their potential impacts on the industry.

For example, in Label Networks research conducted for SIA, 10,000 13- to 25-year-olds were asked about their attitudes on the sports of snowboarding and skiing: 12.6% said they participate in snow sports, with 9.1 % snowboarding and 7.6% skiing.

Those that don’t snowboard used words like afraid, too extreme, dangerous and cold in their answers as to why not. Difficult also popped up. Despite this, opportunity exists in this age group, per the research, as many also said the words learn, watch, try and fun. And 35.2% said they wanted to learn to snowboard, and 22.9% want to learn to ski.

Another insight from the research: Action sports may no longer be considered edgy, the way they once may have been. “Action sports are mainstream to a 15-year-old today. From their point of view, snowboard has always been in the Olympics, and skateboarding was something that their parents often did back in the day,” the research found.

After separating out 18- to 25-year-olds from the group, Davis was surprised to find that the No. 3 reason that some in that age group didn’t snowboard was climate change. “It was the first time we’d ever seen climate change given as a reason why people aren’t participating,” Davis says.

Gundram was also surprised by that result. “They said that they didn’t want to invest time and money to learn to snowboard if it was going to stop snowing in the near future,” he says. “That seems a little overblown, but considering the drought the Pacific experienced up until this season, I can see how a 15-year-old might think the snow was gone for good,” he says. “And if we hit them with a message targeting the facts about climate and snow, maybe we can engage them and convince them to give snowboarding a try.”

Not surprisingly, there are significant generational differences. The newest generation – what many call Gen Z – and its predecessors, the Millennials, each require different approaches than Gen X or the Baby Boomers.

For example, say goodbye to the rebellious messaging of years’ past with snowboard marketing. “If you find out that message doesn’t resonate with that group, because you will find that out if you look at the DCIP, you’re going to discontinue marketing that kind of a message. We’ve seen that actually happening,” Davis says.

Another potential application: If you find out you’ve been marketing to 35-year-olds, and suddenly realize most participants are under 30, that should change the way you merchandise. In fact, it may even change how you communicate with your target audience. “We know that that group, based upon this research, is constantly connected,” Davis says. “Ten percent of them sleep with their phones. They sleep with it in their hands.”

What Are We Selling?

With a wealth of data now at the industry’s fingertips, Davis encourages stakeholders to think differently to answer the question of what the industry is selling. She’s worked with a group with representation from golf, tennis, soccer, football and other sports who want to grow participation.

“We’re all struggling with the same question,” she says. “Nobody’s cracked that. Nobody’s got the silver bullet yet, but in our case there are things that appear to be working.” For example, the Burton Riglet and terrain-based learning programs appear to have moved the needle for the 17 and under crowd in snowboarding, Davis says. The age group grew 16% in the 2014-15 season.

Davis asks: “How can we give more kids the taste of participation in snow sports without having to spend a lot of money or travel long distances – two of the biggest hurdles to growing participation? She notes there were 13 million sledders last season. Take a YouTube video with a kid on a saucer going down a hill, giggling and running back up the hill again. That’s exactly the same kind of excitement that all of us are chasing.”

And that shows in the qualitative results from the latest research. When SIA asked why people loved skiing, they used words like freedom, love, adrenaline and thrills. “What do we need to do as an industry to make sure that anybody that goes out and plays in snow is thinking, if I can throw this snowball, maybe I should start skiing?”

But newer or casual participants may be discouraged by messaging that skiers and snowboarders have to huck a cliff to be any good. “We’re missing that group,” Davis says.

The truth is, Davis says, today’s equipment makes learning skiing or snowboarding easier than it ever has been. “All of our disciplines are learnable, fun sports,” she says. “We’ve got to reconnect to that idea. I’ve said over and over, we’re not selling skis, we’re selling a drug.” 

World’s Largest Lesson

More than 160 ski and snowboard venues hosted a Guinness Book of World Records event on Jan. 8 in pursuit of four records as part of Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month in January: world’s largest multi-venue ski lesson, world’s largest snowboard lesson, single-venue ski lesson and single-venue snowboard lesson. Targeted at true beginners, the world record attempt drew thousands throughout the U.S.


The event was set not only to kick-off the annual Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month, but also to draw more attention to the initiative. Mary Jo Tarallo, executive director of Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month, says more than 600,000 people have been introduced to skiing and snowboarding thanks to partners participating in the Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month over the past seven years.

Brands are also supporting the various programs organized in the month of January. RAMP donated a pair of skis or snowboard for one lucky winner participating in the world’s largest lesson event. For the #FirstDayFaces contest, new last year, newcomers to the sport take a photo and use the hashtag #FirstDayFaces. Brands and retailers are providing prizes for weekly drawings, including PolarMax, Zeal Optics, Seirus, and snowboards.comHead, The North Face and Burton have donated prizes for the Bring a Friend Challenge..

Tarallo is seeing growing collaboration between retailers, resorts and suppliers, all of whom have a stake in growing the sport. “The industry needs to refocus on how they approach newcomers on their own terms,” Tarallo says.

Learn more about Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month and related programs at

Sliding Into Snowboarding

Burton has started reaching out to kids away from the mountains. Burton’s PE snowboarding program introduces kids to the sport in the schools and teaches the basics of balance, core strength and agility through the use of Riglet Boards, Hover Covers and Riglet Reel tow cables, which kids use to pull their friends. The program also involves balance boards, interactive games and activities.

With 75 physical education sessions under Burton’s belt across six countries since 2013 (most of that since 2014), the PE program is starting to take on a life of its own. Burton’s partner resorts have joined the fun. “It’s a great tool for them because they can use it as a feeder system to their children’s snowboard schools,” says Jeff Boliba, vice president of global resorts.

Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resorts in Oregon adopted the program two years ago; the resort goes into elementary schools and runs physical education for the day. The resort has also taken the program to festivals and other events in the off-season. Then, the resort offers free or discounted season passes to the kids.

Mountain Creek Resort in New Jersey runs PE programs and then connects participants with an offer to come to the mountain. “That to me is connecting the dots and really making it happen,” Boliba says. “It’s one thing to go to a school and do it, but if you can then give those kids an experience that gets them up on the mountain, you’re totally taking it to the next level.”

Learning on the Trail

Participation of the Nordic variety has been growing for the past several years. To support that growth, Winter Trails  offers children and adults new to snow sports the chance to try out snowshoeing and cross country skiing for free. This year, the program expanded from a set day to the entire month of January. “One of our goals was to give more flexibility,” says Reese Brown, SIA’s Nordic director. The move also provided an opportunity for participating sites to get more creative with their programming; some locations are holding events all month long. More than 100 events were planned in January at alpine resorts, Nordic centers, state parks, National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service land. It’s estimated that 11,000 new participants take part in the Winter Trails program each year.

Winter Divas

Willi’s Ski and Board Shop in Pennsylvania started Winter Divas about six years ago, a ladies-only ski and snowboard club. “Women are responsible for the bulk of the buying and traveling decisions so we figured it was important to both our business and the industry as a whole to have more communication with them,” the shop’s Winter Divas coordinator Kjerstin Klein says.

The Winter Divas participate in six to eight on-snow events each year. Events have included skiing with the ski patrol, learning the ropes of a terrain park, watching snow-making, skiing with hardgoods managers and ensuring proper gear setup, and a softgoods day where the women learn about what’s coming next. Food and drink make the cut, too; chefs at a local resort show the ladies how to make something from their menus and pair it with the perfect drink. The group’s signature event is a race-inspired day called Ski Your Tiara Off! The ladies get race training and then run the NASTAR course. “It all helps to boost enthusiasm, build understanding and create a foundation for a strong relationship that goes beyond the purchasing of clothing and equipment,” Klein says. “The relationship becomes two-way.”


At any given event, up to 70 women participate, ranging in age from 18 to 80-plus. Klein says the shop has seen multiple benefits from the initiative, including increased member loyalty. “We help to solve problems that may have kept some of these women from the slopes,” Klein says. “They are excited and enthusiastic and provide an amazing, impossible-to-buy, word-of-mouth advertising.”

Interested in starting your own Winter Divas program? Klein is up for the challenge. Contact Willi’s for more information.


This article is from the 2016 SIA Snow Show Daily, Day 2. Find all digital versions of the Dailies here. 

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