Number Cruncher | Why the ski/snowboard rental biz is on the rise

Blockbuster Video stores may no longer be around, but in the snow sports industry, rentals are here to stay. The adventure travel boom, direct delivery offerings, and high checked bag fees are making grab-and-go gear more attractive than ever.
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snow rental gear

Snow sports shops are taking advantage of the upward-ticking rental trend by expanding their fleets. Photo courtesy of Brian Gautreau via Flickr.

You get to keep the money and the inventory? In theory alone, the rental business seems like a pretty good gig, but here’s some news to sweeten the deal: rentals were up nearly 300,000 units and over $16 million in the 2015/16 season, bringing total revenue to $238 million.

Though the magnitude of that increase likely has more to do with seasonal weather fluctuations, it does reflect steady growth in interest, said Kelly Davis, director of research for SnowSports Industries America (SIA). Specialty shops are taking heed — about 43 percent of those interviewed for a survey said they expected to expand their rental inventory in the 2016/17 season.

According to Davis, casual users currently compose 80 percent of the snow sports participant base. Millennials’ experimental adventure habits could widen that sector even more in the future.

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Driven to spend money on new experiences, millennials are known dabblers and a significant component of what the Adventure Travel Trade Association calls “Adventure Grazers,” a label that describes about 24 percent of the US population. First-time adventure travelers are more likely to rent than buy, and they’re growing in number. That’s good news for specialty shops with rental fleets.

Rental gear: Not just for newbs

Tentative newbies aren’t the only ones taking advantage; even ski and ride diehards find themselves leaving their quiver of tried-and-trues at home when they travel these days.

“We’re seeing destination skiers and snowboarders demoing new gear when they do a destination trip,” said Davis. Airline fees might be one impetus lurking behind the trend. Such fees are relatively new — American Airlines was the first mainstream airline to institute a charge for passengers’ first checked bag in 2008.

“It’s inconvenient and pretty expensive to take your skis and board on an airplane these days,” Davis said, adding that the destination demo trend is ultimately a good thing. “You can try new stuff and hopefully fall in love with that new stuff,” which can translate to sales, she said.

In Winter Park, Colorado, Epic Mountain Sports has grown its demo fleet to 16 different companies. The variety brings customers into the store, and knowledgeable boot fitters and personnel take it from there, said shop owner Katherine Mowrey. She said 50 percent of their rentals come through online reservations.

The virtual rental: You can do it all online

Another trend sweeping the ski hill: direct delivery. Rental operations now ship gear, apparel, and accessories directly to consumers, either at home or at their hotel. After the rental period, the satisfied skier simply rolls the whole kit back into the box and makes a pickup appointment, dumps the goods off at the shop, or sends the return by mail. While a number of online services like GetOutfitted and Ski Butlers specialize in the rental delivery game, they’re not the only ones getting on board.

“Specialty shops are cluing into the viability of that particular model,” said Davis.

The Utah snow sports chain Ski N’ See is one such shop, sending an expert fitter with an armload of equipment to the homes and hotels of Park City skiers in need. Epic Mountain Sports does the same in Winter Park, though Mowrey emphasizes that it’s a nice side offering, not the main show.

“Whenever possible, we try to get clients to come into the store so we can show them what we have,” she said. “The delivery business has grown in popularity in the area over the years, and I think it’s a great service for a specific clientele, but it’s still a niche market.”

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