1.10.2012

Endless November, skiing, and the new normal

** January conditions in Squaw Valley, CA.

The phone is blinking, right now, with that reporter from the City. Yeah, that one. The very same reporter you’ve been trying to ply and squeeze and caress and gestate into some positive ink for more than a year.

But they’re not calling about fluff and white stuff … they want to talk about the rocks and the brown. In fact, they want to film the brown.

They want to bring a camera crew up to your mountain and get some footage of your record-setting craptastic conditions. They want to know how the depressing conditions have depressed skier visitation. And they want someone to go on camera to explain it all … how your ski hill snugly fits into the national story of the weirdest, worst start to a ski season since monoskis and moustaches were normal.

Ignoring that blinking light is not an option, unfortunately.

Editorially speaking, weather is popular. Weather is personal. Weather is relatable, reliable, high-quality water-cooler conversation fodder.

And that reporter is going to keep calling. Not because this story is going to be an award winner, nor because they went to J-school with fantasies of doing standups in empty parking lots, but because their editors are riding them, hard. Get a camera up there, get a quote, and get it done.

The story won’t pin anything to climate change, of course, as there’s no actual proof (just “science”) that the earth is warmed by the sun and not by a giant furnace stoked by evil gremlins at the earth’s core. But they will keep your number on speed dial for when winter goes haywire again in 2014, 2016, 2019 and 2020.

So even if you manage a Jedi mind trick this January, you’re going to be staring down at this very same blinking light, very soon in your very annoyed future.

There is an upside, of course. And not just because there’s a microphone on. This moment could be the opportunity you’ve been waiting for. This could be the chance to reframe the whole damn thing as step one of the transition to a new normal. And that new normal is a place where "ski" and "outdoor" join forces.

"Ski" is great of course. It’s about snow and wind and cold, and transporting souls from the warmth of purring fireplaces to a Martian landscape where they can speed around fueled by gravity and nothing else. “Ski” is exhilarating, transformative, and makes my heart rate jump just typing about it. The downside of “ski,” of course, is the stupid weather.

“Outdoor," on the other hand, is a portal. “Outdoor” is climbing and kayaking and hiking, but it’s also biking and flying and fishing and zorbing and … yeah … skiing. “Outdoor” isn’t limited by weather, it’s enabled by it. Because when January gives you October, you still go outside. And once you get outside, you realize that it's the place you've wanted to be all along.

A lot of American destinations have already begun this transition, of course, with subtle branding tweaks to drop “ski” from their name altogether, replacing it with euphemisms like “mountain resort.” They’ve made some token operational changes as well, allowing things like snowshoeing in the winter, and lift-accessed mountain biking in the summer. But they’re still firmly rooted in the “ski” mindset, looking for ways to draw bodies and to contain those bodies in a few clearly labeled boxes.

An “outdoor” resort would also lure people in, of course, but it would tempt them with the allure of access instead of an implicit guarantee of situationally perfect conditions. Opening a portion of a mountain to uphill traffic only, year-round, for example, would be a simple way to kick things off. Let these “outdoor” people come, give them access, and let them figure out how to use it.

The easiest place to look for proof of the “outdoor” appeal is right in front of you. Your crusty locals are a remarkable resource. These are the people who are so passionate about mountain access that they live across the street from fill-in-the-blank resort’s Dumpsters. Many of them don’t hold a season pass of any kind, and some of them barely ride a chairlift at all anymore. But I guarantee you that they're heading outdoors, every second that they can.

In a down winter, the creativity of local adventuring is all the marketing research you’ll ever need to do. These people are professional fun hogs, and are the driving force of opportunity-driven outdoor adventuring. LINK.

The truth, of course, is that "ski" is already pretty far down the path of transitioning to "outdoor." More initiatives are being put in place. More summer work opportunities are emerging. And a few more bodies are coming on a regular basis. The biggest challenge isn’t getting ski areas to think like outdoor areas … it’s getting the people to recognize it.

Consider for a moment the tradition of America's biggest mountain-driven “outdoor” season … New England's fall foliage blowout. Each autumn, swarms of people flood the region with the obsessive calendar-driven regularity of an OCD salmon run. People eyeball the weather. And then they decide what to do, be it camp or fish or paddle or bike.

That, in a maple-covered nutshell, is the fundamental difference between "ski" and "outdoors," and between the constraints of the current moment and the opportunities of the next.

In yesterday’s world, we were waiting for the weather. In tomorrow’s, the weather is waiting for us.