How big-resort clubs can max the bang for your buck

By |August 26th, 2021|0 Comments

We tend to think that big programs and big mountains necessarily mean a big price tag or a puppy-mill like experience. Not so everywhere. In addition to the skiing benefits that go along with the mountains themselves, bigger programs can offer things like discounts and trade-outs to resort employees, not to mention extensive public and private resources. Each club has its secret sauce that sets it apart, and most big clubs, like small ones, are intentional about keeping cost low, the quality high and the vibe fun. As CB Bechtel of Team Summit puts it: “A full time ski patroller should be able to have their kids in the competition program at the place they work. Whatever we can do to keep those people engaged is important for the sport. If you drive out your entire middle class, you’re limiting the fan base.” Amen!

Squaw Valley: A team of teams

The size and scope of Squaw Valley’s mountain have always been its biggest draw, and draw it does. Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows (SVAM) snowsports programs, fed by Bay Area families and an exploding population of Tahoe/Truckee transplants, includes a whopping 1,600 athletes. Among them are 175 full-time ski racers, U-12 and up.

Ski Team Director Bill Hudson explains that an ideal program offers an intensive individual connection between athlete and coach, as well as the camaraderie and pace that comes from skiing with a bunch of kids who push each other. “With such a big program you need to figure out how to do both,” says Hudson. SVAM does that through a “team of teams” approach, that divides kids into many groups based on their needs. “We can cater appropriate development and training opportunities to a group of four or five kids,” says Hudson. So, while a young local athlete can enjoy full time volume and challenge, a weekend only U-12 or U-14 can participate with friends in the appropriate level of training, on an appropriate venue, without feeling behind the curve.

At $5,535 SVAM’s full time FIS program delivers extraordinary value when you consider it includes five days/week on-hill training, year-round conditioning in their on-site gym, and access to nutrition counseling, seminars, clinics, athletic trainers and sports psychologists through a partnership with Tahoe Forest Sports medicine. Athletes can tap into a generous scholarship network including the Far West MastersSquaw Valley Alpine Foundation and the Lake Tahoe Ski Club Foundation.

Squaw Valley is among the communities where athletes can still viably attend public school, a key feature in affordability. The North Tahoe High School ski academy allows athletes to catch a bus at noon to Squaw for training all afternoon. Over half of the 200 students at K-8 Creekside Charter school, right in Squaw, are in SVAM’s snowsports programs. 

Another key to value is the Sierra snowpack, which allows programming and camps for Mighty Mite through FIS athletes well into May. Proximity to Mammoth and Mt. Hood means you can manage a lot of off-season training days without getting on an airplane.

The focus is on more training and less racing, and, of course, lots of free skiing, fast and steep, at every age, behind coaches who are hard to catch. Case in point, American DHer Marco Sullivan who is in charge of the U16’s. On a typical day with Sullivan, says Hudson, “no matter what you’ll take five runs on KT.”

Steamboat: The multi-discipline approach

Steamboat is known as Ski Town USA for good reason. From its in-town facilities at Howelson Hill, Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club (SSWSC) makes all disciplines of skiing — Alpine, XC and jumping — readily accessible to all. To encourage skill development, the U10 program includes moguls, freeskiing and jumps, and the club recommends renting a combi all-mountain ski versus buying gear.

Even for U-12s, any structured five-days-per-week program includes one day of “Ski Meister,” Nordic and jumping. “This gives them a diverse skill set and is a great alpine development pathway,” says Associate Executive Director Jon Nolting. It also gives kids time to find their fit and helps educate parents on long-term value of building a broad skill set, versus simply running more gates.

Steamboat maximizes skiing locally, firing up the guns at Howelson Hill in early November. Early and late season, athletes take full advantage of the nearest Colorado skiing, minimizing the need for off-season travel.

At the FIS level, Steamboat is fortunate to lure top FIS and college athletes to competitions at its home hills, Howelson and the Stevens Family Alpine Venue at Steamboat Resort. They also enjoy a long tradition of cooperation with the public school, and a club liaison to coordinate academic and athletics with the high school and private K-12 Steamboat Mountain School.

SSWSC recognizes that ski racing — even with access to World Class facilities and public schools in a town steeped in ski culture — is not cheap. This goes for families who might not be considered low income. Among the seven types of scholarships offered to athletes is the EZ Scholarship (which can be combined with other scholarships) that offsets program fees 10-40 percent for local families, based on an income range up to $160,000 per year. As Nolting explains, “there is a stigma about applying for scholarships.” Making the application as simple as a click of a box, he hopes, “makes it an easy decision to stay in the sport.”

With 95 Olympians who have brought home 16 medals over the course of 20 Winter Games, Steamboat can rightfully claim its place in skiing history. Looking forward, SSWSC hopes that building a broad base will help keep the sport healthy and sustainable for the long term. 

Vail: Ski when the snow is on the ground

One of the benefits of being centrally located in the heart of Colorado’s High Country is access to snow October through June. This is thanks not only to the high elevation and favorable conditions, but improved infrastructure over the last 15 years on Vail’s Golden Peak, Copper Mountain, Loveland, and Keystone. As a result, the Ski & Snowboard Club Vail staff a few years ago looked around and said, “Let’s stay home.”

While the COVID pandemic has forced them to temporarily modify this strategy, Executive Director John Hale expects to return to a Colorado-only prep period in future seasons, achieving 65 days of training within a day’s drive of the Vail Valley for Age Class racers (U14 and younger) prior to their first race. By staying home, SSCV has provided high-level training for under $50 per day, whereas traveling out of state can cost $300 per day or more.

“At SSCV, we remain wholeheartedly committed to taking advantage of the snow when it’s on the ground,” said Hale. “This strategy allows us to keep prep period costs for families as low as possible. Additionally, it allows our athletes to enjoy other sports and provides time for ‘kids to be kids’ during the off-season, providing critical rest for their bodies during an important phase of adolescent development.”

The stay-home strategy was bolstered by the Golden Peak Expansion Project at Vail, which was funded entirely by private donations, not club fees. The Expansion provides approximately 30 acres of additional trail space, a brand-new surface lift, and improved snowmaking infrastructure. With these enhancements, 600 vertical feet have been added to the alpine venue, providing more than 1,700 vertical feet of total racing terrain, enough to accommodate full-length speed. The project creates two new alpine trails, plus a connector that feeds into the preexisting giant slalom start. But perhaps most importantly, the project provides access to higher elevations, which allows local athletes to train at home earlier and later in the season.

Studies, including a 2016 survey by Dan Leever, have concluded that training volume at an early age is critical to reaching and thriving at elite levels of the sport, including the World Cup. A significant number of training days outside the sport’s regular competition season is essential in developing these athletes. The Leever study also emphasizes the importance of taking advantage of “ski days when snow is on the ground,” rather than traveling to distant locations to chase snow throughout the summer, which of course, saves money.

Additional cost-saving measures at SSCV have included partnering with Red Sandstone Elementary School to provide a customized academic program that caters to the unique schedules of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders who ski race on a full-time basis. Modeled after the popular Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy — the first public ski and snowboard academy in the U.S. — the Red Sandstone partnership provides a public-school option, making the ski-racing lifestyle more accessible to more families.

Snowbird: Built for speed, not for show

When Bridger Call took the reins at Snowbird Ski Education Foundation, his predecessor Steve Bounous had been there for 30 years. Snowbird’s program has been extremely steady over the years as has the club’s “skiing first” culture.

That means an emphasis on fun and freeskiing, and not much reverence for excess, in equipment or travel. “We’re always thinking about costs,“ says Call, who notes that Snowbird has always been responsibly and efficiently run. Snowbird enjoys better coach retention, partly because coaches can carve out a life for themselves in Salt Lake City, where career and education opportunities abound, and real estate prices are more affordable than in resort towns.

With a soft cap of 300 athletes, Snowbird’s focus is on building quality and content. Call’s goal specifically is to grow the scholarship fund into significant ongoing assistance.

For equipment, athletes keep costs down with an internal equipment swap, and speed skis get passed around through U16. “Skiing is expensive but what gets you is the travel,” says Call, who explains that, up to U14, Snowbird athletes can sleep in their beds every night, and team travel starts at U16. Early season they steer away from crowds, partnering with local teams to find less crowded venues and minimize cost. One thing they don’t have is hard snow, so the program offers sessions at Utah Olympic Park one-two days per week, for an additional fee.

With Snowbird’s proximity to Salt Lake, athletes come from dozens of public schools, and coordinate their schedules independently. “You don’t have to travel far and go to an academy,” says Call. The local community is also known for helping each other and being epically resourceful. Case in point, World Junior Champ level racer turned Big Mountain star Angel Collinson, who grew up in Snowbird’s employee housing. “We’ll do trades with families for work or let athletes work in summer to work off tuition to the extent we can,” explains Call.

Snowbird’s key advantage is speed. “One of greatest assets has always been early morning training,” says Call. In a given season that can be 50-plus sessions of early morning fast GS and, starting at U14, super G sessions on wide open Big Emma. “We also have a long season,” says Call. They typically ski to Memorial Day, and encourage kids to do other sports in the summer.

Team Summit: Low overhead and local outreach

With access to A-Basin, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Keystone, Team Summit provides accessible opportunities for the kids of Summit County, Colorado, and beyond. “We are working hard to improve accessibility while delivering on our mission and vision as a youth organization and enhancing athletic performance,” says Alpine Ability Director Aldo Radamus.

The key? A lean, flat and efficient organizational structure, and partnerships. Executive Director CB Bechtel explains that the three-person admin team oversees the 501c3’s $3 million budget for 520 athletes (110 full-time), while the work of a separate events and development staff funds their own positions. By partnering with an accounting company to outsource and streamline administrative services, Team Summit gets access to highly skilled people, and efficient, integrated cloud-based services without funding expensive positions.

The other key partnerships are with the resorts, each of which offer entry- and devo-level programs in each sport. As a group they provide unparalleled variety and legit World Class facilities in each discipline. That includes FIS level alpine training at Copper, night training and age class at Keystone, Big Mountain at A Basin and Breckenridge, and terrain parks everywhere.

Until competing at the high FIS level “We’re a day trip from the majority of our competitions,” says Bechtel, and Team Summit’s big advantage is its length of season. Alpine athletes can be on snow locally from October to June, taking airplanes, lodging and expensive meals out of the equation.

Summit’s academy coordinator helps families negotiate the educational system at Summit County public schools as well as Snowy Peaks prep school. In partnership with the Summit Co High School Ski Team athletes get a wage, passes, and training with the Masters program in exchange for working in the junior coaching program on Saturdays. “It’s given us a pool of strong skiers to teach the little kids, and strengthened our high school ski team.”

The Summit Cup series, one competition at each mountain in each sport, and free to anyone U16, brings people into the sport. “The coolest thing by far,” says Bechtel are the Monday night Bubble Gum races at Frisco Adventure Park. Kids run a dual course from 4-5 pm then race at 5, when the town provides hot cocoa and cookies. “It’s the happiest time on snow you can imagine,” says Bechtel.

Alyeska Ski Club: Partners and volunteers

For nearly as long as Alaska has been a state, Alyeska Ski Club has been teaching locals to ski. Of the 600 members, 350 enjoy low-cost introductory racing and all mountain skiing programs. Once hooked, they can move on to the junior racing, freeskiing and Alpine X programs.

 “We tend to attract lots of families because of that cost,” says Executive Director Lara Hildreth. “We have a longstanding philosophy of doing more with less.”

An administrative staff of three oversees 110 total employees roughly 1/3 of whom are paid program directors, head coaches and junior and freeride staff. The rest are volunteers, more than half of whom came up through the program. Full time athletes, from Anchorage and Girdwood, train six days per week. “We utilize all the space we can get, every single day for as long as we can get it,” says Hildreth.

That means stretching out training for various groups from 9:30 am to 8 pm. By charging fees based on the number of days per week you train, programs can be efficiently staffed while maintaining a 6:1 athlete-to-coach ratio.

The club relies on more than 100 sponsors and foundation grants to help subsidize racing programs for full-time athletes. Not surprisingly, “the biggest challenge for our competitive programs is travel costs,” says Hildreth. Starting at U14, that involves traveling out of state at least twice per year, and for FIS athletes six-seven times per year.

ASC utilizes relationships with other clubs around the country — for everything from vans and equipment when on trips, to surrogate coaches for athletes — to minimize costs and maximize exposure.

By using Alaska Airlines credit cards the club turns expenses into close to a million miles per year, used for coaches travel and auction packages. ASC and University of Alaska Anchorage team up to host a massive annual ski swap in the UAA sports complex, while UAA athletes transfer their gear (and their FIS points) to ASC athletes, and sometimes stay on to coach after graduation. As with travel, the task of finding coaches is another challenge in Alaska. Hildreth offers liveable wages, busy winters, and a lot of time in the summer to explore the wilderness and love where they work. “Every year we hire less and less because retention is growing.”

Mount Washington Valley: Three mountains and a legacy of hard work

In the heart of New England’s burliest mountains, Mt. Washington Valley has some rugged grassroots, connecting three mountains — Attitash, Wildcat and Cranmore — with a large, enthusiastic population of skiers and a legacy of ski racing.

Mt. Washington Valley Ski Team Executive Director Mike LeBlanc and Program Director Leanne Smith both grew up ski racing for and attending New Hampshire public high schools, and racing NCAA for UNH.

Skier: Savanah Shannon. Photo: Michael Duval / @mkdskis

When it comes to keeping ski racing accessible to working-class people, they are on a mission to reverse the tide of big spending. “The standard way is a big turnoff,” says LeBlanc. “We’re trying to push back on that, and we are in the perfect place to do it.”

Local hero Smith spent 10 years on the most successful U.S. women’s speed team ever, and describes, “crazy opportunities for so many people here who ski race.” These include: three mountains that provide challenging and varied freeskiing terrain and can host FIS level racing; a local program (Eastern Slope Ski Club) that gets every kid K-6 skiing for zero cost; cooperation with local schools; a centrally located gym with enthusiastic and knowledgeable trainers; a robust year-round community of kids to provide fun and competition; a World Class multi-sport environment.

That last speaks to their core philosophy that kids should not specialize too early. “Most kids at a young age need to be focused on other things so they can give ski racing their all for four-five months,” says Smith, who was a three-sport athlete at Kennett public High School. MWVST works closely with the public schools as well as the local charter school and nearby public/private Fryeburg Academy.

Kids from children’s programs at the three areas and beyond (MA, NH and ME) join regional MWVST at U16. There, they have access to training at all three mountains, full-time or on weekends.

Cranmore is a 10-minute ride on the school bus to midweek training. Taking advantage of all the resources available, at a fraction of what it would cost to attend a ski academy, means putting in the effort, communicating and being organized. “That’s the message we’re trying to send,” says Smith. “It boils down to individuals wanting to create the environment to grow in rather than having the expectation that the right coach or program makes you an amazing skier.”

Gould Academy: Grow your own coaching

Tao Smith puts it bluntly: “Cost is the greatest impediment to fielding top athletes.” Gould Academy’s Head of School raced for UVM and spent 19 years heading Killington Mountain School. He is well-versed in the historic and current challenges of ski racing, and sees the conversation about cost from three aspects: access/affordability, long term athletic development, and quality coaching.

“It is a continual challenge to get good young individuals and keep them in coaching,” says Smith. “It is a matter of time before you lose young talent.” This is an especially big problem with programs like Gould that have excellent facilities and venues (both at the academy and at Sunday River) but are further off the beaten track. But what if you could motivate young individuals to commit for three years, with the promise of experience, training, and a graduate degree in a field related to athletics, data management or business?

This is what Smith envisions through the Gould Fellowship program, a unique program aimed at encouraging young athletes who are just ending ski careers to get trained in coaching and other marketable skills. New teaching and coaching interns get housing, health insurance, meals and a seasonal coaching/teaching salary. In addition to the coaching and teaching curriculum, they’ll be trained in things like human development, psychology, adolescent development, physiology, technology training and analytics as well as communication skills to manage kids and parents. “That’s the hardest thing and there is no training for it,” says Smith. “It is expected you just know.” The vision is to have six to nine coaches in the program at all times, adding continuity and a continual influx of new energy while reducing the stress and pressure of turnover.

“If we can continue to increase the number of young people who want to try coaching, we will increase numbers who want to stay on and be professional coaches,” says Smith. The program requires the infrastructure of a larger club or a school to execute (housing and team-based management are key), but for the right programs Smith sees it as a cost-effective way to increase staffing and vitality. “If we can develop a system and a program like that it would be replicable at any program across the country. The more momentum we create, the more opportunity for all.”