Only three years ago, when Parlor Skis was just beginning to make a name for itself as a custom niche within the New England ski industry, things were a little cramped at its East Boston headquarters.
Tucked away behind a Planet Fitness in an expansive industrial building along Route 1A, the custom ski-building workshop has today expanded from its-then ground floor beginnings. There’s now dedicated office space on the second floor, a busier, bustling factory boasting the scent of a carpenter’s den, and, most prevalent, a name recognition that has in essence created a new community of skiers in New England and beyond.
“The brand has certainly had more growth in a lot of ways than I had expected,” Parlor co-owner and manager Mark Wallace said. “It’s really taken on its own voice in a lot of ways. It has its own identity.”
Less than a decade after its business infancy, located an abandoned Cambridge funeral home, Parlor has become the largest ski manufacturer in New England, and is a name quickly becoming a status symbol among skiers. Both Skiing and Backcountry magazines included Parlor entries in their gear guides this year, and with demo fleets of their products now set up at Stowe, Wachusett, and Shawnee Peak, word continues to spread about the quality of custom work Parlor prides itself on, all while creating a culture unto its own.
“We have a lot of community around the brand that those bigger ski brands don’t have,” Wallace said. “If you’re on Parlors, somebody is going to stop you and be like, ‘Oh do you know those guys? Do you love your skis? You go have a beer, take a couple runs. That doesn’t happen on Völkl, it doesn’t happen on any of these other brands.”
Indeed, the Parlor ski has become an individualized key to the mountain, from its wooden core to the expansive avenue of graphic looks customized to each skier’s appreciation. It has, in some way, become like wearing your favorite band’s T-shirt to the slopes, a conversation-starter twisted within the tastes of the individual.
From a sales perspective, Parlor has been up 30 percent to 40 percent annually in recent years, according to Wallace, who founded the company along with a pair of former classmates at Williams College after they hatched an idea to create a small batch of skis specifically made to handle the typically unpredictable conditions in the Northeast. Wallace, Jason Epstein, and Pete Endres, all three of whom are also graduates of ski academies and raced while at Williams, spent their first four years in the basement of the funeral parlor, owned by a cousin of Epstein’s.
Eventually, what started out as a hobby became a burgeoning alpine destination, all situated within earshot of the daily air traffic at Logan Airport.
These days, Parlor is producing some 15 to 20 pairs of skis each week, with a seasonal production staff and a group of digital marketing and graphic design contractors on hand in East Boston. It has also added a few pro team athletes to its stable of marketing, while utilizing their expertise to help develop product.
One of Parlor’s limited editions this year is the McFellan Pro, the inspiration from noted Vermont freeskier Tim McFellan. “We designed that ski really for his style,” Wallace said. “Sort of aggressive woods skiing at Mad River [Glen]. So it’s a really loose, sort of more directional all-mountain ski.”
Parlor made the ski by adapting one of its platform skis, the Mountain Jay, by including an early rise tail for better floatation, as well as a “more-centered mount point for easier midair acrobatics.”
“It worked so well and everybody was so happy on it that we released that,” Wallace said.
Or, maybe you just want a ski that might make you more confident on whatever terrain you choose. Yes, even those groomers.
“We have a pretty solid mix,” Wallace said of the Parlor clientele base. “I would say we have a smattering of truly entry-level skiers, but a lot of intermediate to advanced-intermediate skiers. It’s a little like getting the right driver for the first time, like a custom off-road bike. We can really elevate the game of those clients. We find that a lot of them are tied to the performance element of the brand.”
Gear heads tend to flock to Parlor’s shop nights, held every other Wednesday during the winter, a $25 event that includes beer and other refreshments. Wallace describes the evenings as “a brewery tour for skis” where visitors can better understand the mechanics of how skis are made. Skiers who want to talk flex, alignment, and camber won’t be disappointed.
Nor does that mean the custom ski market is intended solely for the hard-core equipment snob.
“We really excel in that sort of middle zone where somebody is like, ‘I just want the ski to feel solid and I want to be more confident in the woods.’ And then we can take that and do the engineering work. It’s not on the consumer to do that. They just have to tell us how they want it to perform and then we build that product for them.
“Every year the community around the brand has continued to grow, and sales have come along with that. We’ve also evolved quite a bit to meet some of the demands of the customer.”
That includes the company’s custom ski building workshop ($1,500), during which the customer helps build the ski from start to finish over the course of a two-day class or a month of sessions. Overall, the price range ($950-$1,700) for Parlor custom skis is comparable to what a consumer might pay off the rack elsewhere, with Wallace suggesting other similar, non-customized brands may go for $1,200-$1,500.
Wallace said that Parlor aims to be transparent about its pricing, pointing out that the cost also enables the company to create jobs in East Boston, while keeping prices lower by selling direct from the factory, where all the work is done in-house. It also depends on its growing word-of-mouth as its primary marketing, shying away from full-page ads in skiing publications, which can run up to $10,000.
“We have a bit more limited resources, but where we make up for that is in the quality of the content that we have,” said Wallace, highlighting Parlor’s event-based marketing and community events both on snow and in the shop. “Those have really built this community around the brand that has gotten people excited, and as soon as they get on the product and realize how good it is, they’re talking about it and spreading the word, and that’s the core of our marketing, that sort of grassroots effort.”
But Wallace said the company also has its eyes on being a global brand, already taking pride in the work it has done in creating skis that work well in the Rocky Mountains, South America, Japan, and the Alps. But, he maintained, it will always be the individual needs of the customer that will remain the core of what Parlor strives to achieve.
“I really believe it’s one of those stories where if you create something the right way, you talk about it truthfully and organically, and you have the product to back it up, it’s going to spread,” Wallace said. “One of the things we tapped into here is how passionate skiers are in New England and the Boston area. People love skiing, and we get to sit at that intersection, getting to talk to people about that thing that they’re most excited about.
“We’re all so passionate about it, too, that I think that connection has been infectious.”
Eric Wilbur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.