Family and Friends: Blue Mountain’s Beginner Breakthrough

As snowsports schools restructure their products to make them more convenient and appealing to consumers, one common ingredient for success is focusing on families.

 

Keeping families together – regardless of skill levels or choice of snow-sliding tool – was the basis for Blue Mountain to develop its Family and Friends Lesson, which in just two years has become the Pennsylvania resort’s most popular lesson offering. According to Learning Center and Summer Adventures Director Joe Forte, the area is selling twice as many Family and Friends lessons as they are beginner lessons, “which have always been our bread and butter.”

 

“We’ve been focusing on a lot on conversion, and following the National Ski Area Association’s Conversion Cookbook, trying to make the beginner experience more friendly, and more easy,” said Forte. “One of the things that was right in our face was what a challenge it was for our customers and our instructors to split up families.”

 

Keeping Families Together in Group Classes 

Other recreational activities, such as rafting or even mini golf, make it easy for families to enjoy the experience together. But traditional ski and snowboard lessons divide them based on discipline and ability almost as soon as they hit the snow. “Frankly,” Forte said, “it kind of sucked starting out the day by telling them they couldn’t be together.”

 

Built around beginners, the initial program retailed for $199 for three people, and $50 for each additional student, and included ski, snowboard, and helmet rentals; beginner-area lift tickets; and a 90-minute lesson. Kids have to be at least six to take the class, at least one of the initial three students has to be 14 or older, and Forte said the school tries to cap the classes at 8 to 10 students maximum. 

 

That latter point turned out to be the only hiccup. Despite clear marketing explaining that classes would be mixed, some families were surprised to be sharing a lesson. The solution? “We made another product called the Family and Friends Private, and put that up on the board for $329 for three students so everybody could see the difference,” Forte said. “Six students is ideal for us, and we still shoot for a maximum of 8 to 10 students, but, realistically, any of the Mid-Atlantic resorts get swamped on the weekend.”

 

Forte said the area only sold about 100 Family and Friends Privates last year, but sold twice as many regular Family and Friends offerings as they did regular beginner lessons. The classes start as soon as there are enough students ready to hit the slope, with instructors helping people gear up in the shop, then showing early arrivals how to slide on their boards and begin to make turns while waiting for the rest of the people in the lesson.

 

The Benefits of Two Instructors Per Class

Teachers pair up to lead the lesson, typically with one skiing and one snowboarding. And while Forte said that he and his team worried that “it would be a nightmare to staff the lessons,” one of the cool benefits has been the ability to pair younger instructors with “a senior instructor who knows all about putting out fires and pacing.”

 

Along with that “on-the-job” opportunity for mentoring, Blue Mountain also uses the Family and Friends lesson as an incentive for instructors to gain dual-certification. The area gives staff an opportunity to get training in a different discipline, and offers a pay bump upon completion.

 

Blue Mountain pays instructors an hourly rate, and to hedge against burnout they also assign teachers other duties at the base – such as helping in the shop – so they don’t work from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. constantly teaching lessons.

 

Letting Guests Know About Family and Friends Classes 

The mountain marketed Family and Friends on billboards, radio spots, the area website, and via “lots of social media posts,” which, Forte said, “was a really good avenue.” They’ve since seen word-of-mouth spark more interest from the region, and around the industry.

 

Asked if the classes are still structured in a way that allows students to gain the necessary knowledge to be skiing and snowboarding on their own, Forte said, “A great experience that brings them back is much more important.”

 

“If you look at the numbers and realize more people are going for the Family and Friends lesson, it’s clear that having this experience together is really what matters the most to everyone,” he Forte. “We have these expert skiing and snowboarding parents in the class who could easily be on the upper mountain, but would rather be enjoying this time with their children.”

 

“I can’t say I have seen a decrease in the skills outcome,” Forte said. “But I have certainly seen an increase in the number of high-fives in each lesson.”

 

- By Peter Kray

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