Ski rentals getting the respect they deserve

Innovation abounds in the often overlooked ski rental category, where an emphasis on creating new skiers is resulting in dramatic changes in both the equipment, and the personnel. From manufacturers to resorts to retail, SNEWS takes a look at this fast-moving market.

There’s never been more attention paid to the unglamorous ski rental category, and that’s promising news for an industry increasingly dependent on converting new people to the sport. Suppliers continue to push easy turning, early rise starter skis and labor-saving reduced-sole boot systems. Resorts, realizing that rentals can be the strongest contributor to the bottom line after lift ticket and pass sales, are putting their best people in charge, turning over their fleets more frequently, and dramatically reducing labor costs with time-saving systems and improved computer software.

Rentals have long been driven by price, durability and the cyclical nature of fleet replacements. But with the 2011-12 sell-in season winding down, there’s more interest in both ski performance to promote conversion and in reduced-sole boot systems that dramatically cut rental shop staffing and improve the customer experience.

“It is becoming more about performance,” said Gary Fleming, vice president of sales for Elan, who says rentals are tracking at 40 percent up. There’s been a strong reception to the company’s slightly rockered rental model, the EXAR E-Rise, he said.

Meanwhile, at Rossignol, another big player in the ski rental market, the company’s Avenger 74 entry-level rental ski developed a cult following this past winter among teaching pros, some of whom said they’d be happy to ski it themselves.

“Rental is strong and will continue to be,” said Jon Rucker, director of sales and marketing for HEAD, which offers the BYS rental boot system in just three sole sizes with two shells each. As the pioneer in the simplified boot system and a major supporter of the industry’s growing Learn to Ski & Snowboard Month (LSSM) efforts, Rucker is bullish on the potential of HEAD’s new easy-turning, composite radius, early rise Link rental ski. “We think it will help conversion,” he said.

It’s taken time for many resort rental operators to fully leverage the labor-saving opportunities of the latest reduced-sole boot systems, but the effort is gaining traction -- and grew last year when Rossignol and Salomon both entered the market. Rentals, along with the increasing high-end demo business, don’t bring in the revenues of ski school and food and beverage at many resorts, but by reducing payroll they often deliver the biggest profit.

With systems "you can cut labor by 25 percent by accident. You might be able to reduce it by half,” said Scott Russo, vice president of sales and brand manager for Dalbello. Russo sees strong sales both in Dalbello’s 4 Factor System and at the higher-end with the Viper Ltd. and Martis Ltd. “We are having a very good rental year, and systems are continuing to be very strong. I’ve been in rental shops where there are no tools,” he added, referring to systems where even the DINs are pre-set. “They just have people reading tickets and runners.”

Tim Kohl’s Ski Area Association Buying Program handles the rental buy for some 265 mostly small- and medium-sized resorts, many located in the Midwest and East. The program was up 40 percent for 2010-11 and is projecting a 50-percent jump for 2011-12, he said. In eight years, Kohl’s seen the average rental fleet turnover virtually halved among his resorts, from 12-15 years down to seven to eight years. He’s impressed with on-hill performance advances in the rental fleet (his soup-to-nuts program includes on-hill testing), but said reduced labor from boot systems, coupled with an increased emphasis from resort management, is driving the rental renaissance.

“The smart guys are turning their fleets every three to five years and paying for it in productivity. There is no net cost to the deal. It’s like buying a car that gets 50 mpg,” said Kohl, who cites one resort rental shop that cut its staff from 68 to eight. He said resorts didn’t always put their most experienced people in rentals but are now giving the department its due, a reallocation of resources that parallels the growing practice of ski and ride schools putting their best pros in charge of the never-ever program.

Suppliers and resorts are seeking to close rental fleet deals in La Costa, Calif., this week at the NSAA National Convention & Tradeshow, where the resort that is deemed to be doing the best job with the beginner experience will be crowned in the NSAA’s first annual Conversion Cup Challenge. The three finalists, selected from 17 entries, are Park City, Utah; Boreal, Calif.; and Snow Time Inc., owners of three ski areas in Pennsylvania: Liberty Mountain, Ski Roundtop and Whitetail Resort.

“We’re very pleased with overall response to our inaugural Conversion Cup Challenge, "said NSAA President Michael Berry, "and based on the depth and quality of information provided in many of the applications, it’s evident that resorts are putting forth tremendous efforts to boost repeat visitation rates, and collectively, endeavors such as these will benefit the overall health of the industry."

--Andy Bigford

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