Travel

When snowboarders also like to ski, and vice versa

Snowboarders take to the mountain in Vail, Colo.
Jack Affleck/Vail Resorts
Snowboarders take to the mountain in Vail, Colo.

Skiers often joke that snowboarders will eventually see the light when riding becomes boring or a burden on the body. But what they may not have anticipated was that many snowboarders would actually take up skiing as well, spending more quality time on the slopes than their smug ski buddies.

Around 16 percent of snowboarders also ski and are actually more dedicated to winter sport tourism than most ski travelers. The US skier and ski traveler report by the tourism research firm Phocuswright revealed this statistic in 2013, and since then the industry has been responding to this sub-group.

So, how are resorts addressing this double dipping? Lake Louise in Alberta is enabling beginners to hire a duo-instructor with a switch halfway through the lesson. “It’s no problem, so long as we know in advance,” says Dan Markham, director of brand and communications. “We can even work an equipment swap in there keeping in mind the added time needed in the lesson to do so.” Around 15 percent of Lake Louise Snow School staff are multitaskers. “The ‘duo’ functionality is a choice instructors make to expand their opportunities for work, and personal preference,” Markham explains. “In fact, we’re seeing a lot of traditional snowboard instructors going over to skiing as they have families.”

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The earliest age to ski is around 3, compared to 6 for boarding, which requires better balance and strength. Many steadfast snowboarders have no choice but to try their kids on skis first if they want them exposed to winter sports early on. And they are sharing the learning process. Big White in British Columbia, for example, offers innovative whole-family classes and Keystone, Colo., is running private family lessons for the first time this year. Brighton, Utah, which has a strong snowboarding culture, is raising its free lift ticket age to 10 this season, giving children a more equal opportunity to learn both skiing and riding.

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The Stewart family from Colorado is a clan of skier-snowboarders. Parents both ski and ride and two daughters are already happy plunging down steep black bump runs at ages 6 and 8. It all started when Drew Stewart moved to Steamboat Springs in 1994 for a ski instructor job. With 20 years of vacation skiing under his belt, he branched out into snowboarding and met his wife through the close-knit instruction community. “When my wife and I started dating, she snowboarded more . . . and I found myself snowboarding more because of it,” he says.

These days, a civil engineer during the week, Stewart skis and rides with his family almost every weekend in Vail. “Lately I’ve probably been 60-40 skiing to snowboarding, but that changes from year to year.” Because of the time and energy he has invested in skiing over decades, he says he is a better skier. “At one point, I considered myself ‘tri,’ where I could choose between alpine skiing, snowboarding, and tele-skiing,” he says. “That was due to my dedication to winter sports and wanting to try it all.”

The ski-ride flexibility facilitates enjoyment of diverse conditions, Stewart maintains: “On a snowboard, I love the steeps, trees, and powder, and on skis, I love bumps, speed, and powder — you gotta always love powder.” And although by no means a clotheshorse, he does invest more in equipment because of his multimountain habits. “I don’t really care if I’m setting fashion trends in either industry. Some designer could probably make a mint marketing a line of dual sport clothing,” he says.

Skier-snowboarders studied by Phocuswright scored higher in most behavioral ski-related dimensions, says Douglas Quinby, vice president for research. “They ski more, they take more ski trips with paid lodging, and they are much more likely to hold a season pass for a ski area.” As a group, they also demand different things to other demographics. While many resorts are concentrating on diversification, providing off-snow peripheral activities and ramping up their après-ski for family appeal, this gung-ho group is there for the snow. “It’s a hard-core audience,” says Quinby. “I know it’s obvious, of course they come for the snow, but that 16 percent are there just to hit the trails, getting up and down as many times as they can, hitting new terrain, and they are most likely to be experts.”

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With ski travel a confirmed part of their lifestyle, 60 percent of these people are under 35 and big on social media. So, for ski industry marketers, there is a clear pathway to engagement. “They are predominantly millennials — well educated and tech savvy,” Quinby explains. “So it’s a question of do you have Wi-Fi at the top of the mountain where the lifts drop off to quickly take snaps and share with your friends? And are you providing real-time updates to your guests on the status of trails and snow conditions and lift lines?”

PhocusWright also noted that the Internet dominates ski shopping, with seven out of 10 ski trips planned through websites. Within resorts, cell coverage is essential as a means of sharing experiences by means of social media networks. Internet-savvy resorts include Fernie in British Columbia, where Liam Knight is a duo-instructor. “Fernie’s mobile site gives up-to-the-minute bowl and run status, which allows the public to be instantly connected to where fresh lines are,” says Knight.

Instructors who spend more time on the snow, he says, are the most likely to swing both ways. And deciding when to do which is typically snow-dependent. “When conditions are firm, windswept, or icy it is really nice to have two edges in contact with the snow on a set of slalom skis; or when it is knee-deep . . . it feels amazing arcing turns on a snowboard.” Spending the majority of his time on a board, Knight appreciates having the ability to ski when exploring the slackcountry and backcountry around Fernie: “Being comfortable on a split board or on an alpine touring setup definitely enables a more efficient journey into these areas.” Knight also recommends that anyone who is getting frustrated with either skiing or riding should try the alternate sport to help revitalize their passion for snow play.

Louise Hudson can be reached at louise.hudson2011@gmail.com.