While ski manufacturers and urban-based specialty retailers are worrying about the impact the boom in high-end rentals will have on the ski industry, a new wave of entrepreneurs sees it as an opportunity. Since its start in a one-car garage in Park City, Utah, in 2004, Bryn Carey’s Ski Butlers rental ski delivery service has grown to 10 locations in the United States and British Columbia.
Thanks to his dad Chip, who was the senior vice president of marketing and sales for the former American Skiing Co. and is now the communications director at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Bryn Carey (photo - right) grew up in the ski industry. He said poor rental shop experiences -- including crowded conditions, long waits and poor equipment selection -- were what spurred him to launch Ski Butlers.
Now, the response to his service, as well as outside market conditions, including ever-increasing airline baggage fees, have him convinced that the demand for rental deliveries will continue to grow. SNEWS caught up with Carey to find out just how the ski rental delivery system works, and who are his best customers.
SNEWS: How did Ski Butlers start?
Bryn Carey: I had bought a company named Park City Seal Coat after my freshman year in college, because I always had the entrepreneurial spirit and wanted to own my own business. I learned a lot, but the business never made a lot of money. Then I came up with the idea of Ski Butlers my senior year. I kept thinking about what a hassle it is to go to a rental shop, and thought I had a good idea that could make the whole process easier.
I started the company in Park City in 2004. The main ingredient was the website -- which is the storefront, because the actual physical store part was being operated out of my garage. After I spent a month developing the name and logo, and talking to people at hotels and reservation agencies around town, I moved into the operational side of things and immediately went to Rossignol. They had just moved to Park City from Vermont, and I wanted to deal with them because I wanted to have a top-five ski brand as my main supplier.
That first season, I had 175 skis in my inventory, and I was sold out for all of the holiday periods. Where I didn’t forecast well was I bought too many demo skis instead of focusing on just the high-end rental skis. To this day, the most popular package is the high-end performance skis, which is really a middle-of-the-road ski. A lot of people got free upgrades that year because the performance skis were not available and the demo skis were.
SNEWS: And you were ready to expand the following year?
Carey: I couldn’t believe the demand we had. Other companies, such as Door 2 Door and Black Tie Ski Rentals, had a headstart on me in some other locations, but I felt strongly that the model I had could work in other places. So I moved to Vail in the winter of 2005 to open a new location, and I also sold my first franchise in Breckenridge.
Once I realized the size of Vail and the opportunity there, I just wanted to focus on it 100 percent, and I went a little bigger with about 250 pairs of skis, which turned out to be a mistake because it took me a little longer to catch on in Vail. One thing I had going for me in Park City was that I knew all the contacts, and it took me a while to establish that same kind of network in Vail.
SNEWS: How fast have you grown, and what has been the main catalyst since you opened in Vail?
Carey: From 2006 until now, whether it is a franchise or a new region for me, I have opened one to two locations a year. Probably the biggest change is that the idea of ski rental deliveries began to be known among the skiers. At first, I had to explain the concept, but around 2006, there were enough locations and enough word of mouth that people began calling up the hotels and asking who does this and where can I get ski rental deliveries. I don’t know the percentage, but I think a large percentage of people now get rentals via delivery, so the business continues to grow. Our goal is not to be in every location, but in the Tahoes and Whistler and in the main locations. I think right now we have a total fleet of more than 3,000 skis.
SNEWS: How often does that fleet get turned over, and what kind of maintenance does it entail?
Carey: After the obvious convenience factor, our other advantage is the quality of our skis. The whole rental service problem is based on bad equipment, and the fact that all of these old, terrible-looking skis are being sent out with the customer. It is so important to our image that our skis go out looking good. If a ski starts to look bad, we retire it, and every ski is waxed before it goes out, and tuned if it needs to be. As far as turnover, the rule of thumb is that we are turning over one-third of the fleet every year, and the high-end skis are being turned over every year.
SNEWS: Who is your consumer, and what do you charge for this service?
Carey: The majority of our customers are families that ski once a year or maybe twice a year. They don’t own their own equipment, and are intermediate skiers who are more on the high-end side of the market. We do more deliveries in Deer Valley than we do in the town of Park City, for example.
It is a high-end service that we offer, but the rule of thumb is that we try to be cheaper than the resort ski shop and more expensive than the town shop. Our pricing at Beaver Creek for a high-performance package is $64 a day, and then we have a package above that called the pro line, which is $74 a day. For the high-performance package, that’s about $260 over four days. The way I would look at it is, for that price, you don’t have to pay to bring your skis on the airlines, you get the newest skis on the market, that are tuned, waxed and ready to go, and you don’t have to take them home with you. We also have sport packages at $39 a day, and junior packages for about $25 to $30.
SNEWS: How do you indemnify all of this gear going out the door?
Carey: We work with the Horizon Insurance Agency. I don’t know how many ski shops they work with in the U.S., but I would say it is the majority. Safety is such a big issue in what we do. If we don’t offer a safe product, then we will be out of business. All of the employees are trained and certified, and we fit the bindings and boots right there with the customer, just like a normal ski shop would do.
We do interact more with our customers, and we come right into their accommodations with the equipment. If they have their own boots, it can be very simple. But if they are trying on boots, and say you have a family of four, it can take up to 30 to 40 minutes. And since most of our employees are locals, and are often the first people our customers see on their vacation, they typically spend some time answering a lot of questions as well.
SNEWS: Does that ever give you ideas about a kind of concierge business or something that would work hand-in-hand with what you do?
Carey: We certainly get some interesting requests for things that people would like us to bring along with the skis from time to time. But with Ski Butlers, I want to do just one thing and do it very well. I look at In-and-Out Burger as an example, where you walk in and can get one of three burgers, and everything is very simple and the service is done especially well. Ski rental delivery is what we are good at, and what we know.
SNEWS: A lot of people say high-end rentals and demos are killing ski sales, do you feel as if that is what you are trying to do?
Carey: There are a couple of trends going on here. One is that skis are changing every year and it is very expensive to buy new gear every year. For the consumer, we are seeing a lot of people who bring their own boots with them and then want to try the latest and greatest equipment each year. I think for a lot of people from New England, who do own their own skis and probably bought them for hardpack conditions, when they come West, it makes a lot more sense to try out something for the powder and softer snow.
Number two is the baggage fees the airlines are charging, and just how expensive it is and what a pain to bring your skis, which might not even show up at the airport with you. Also, for the industry, a lot of companies keep putting out better rental product each year. Since 2004, I have seen an incredible improvement in how easy it is to fit good skis for the rental customer, and send them right out to the hill. Certainly, all of this is affecting sales, and a lot less skis are being sold in shops, which is definitely a concern. At the same time, companies like mine are buying more skis because of the demand we are seeing from our customers. So these are still people who are skiing, and if they rent something that they really like, they may still buy it after all.
SNEWS: What does the growth of this market say about the industry overall?
Carey: I think it is amazing how people will ski through good times and bad times. I think that is something we have learned over the years. And I think that we are going to see more programs like mine that are based on creating a more convenient, more enjoyable experience for the consumer. You have grocery delivery services that will go shop for you, and hotels that bring your boots to and from the boot room in the morning so they are already warm. I think that skiing is such a great sport, if we can continue to make it as easy and convenient as possible, with great service, then it will continue to grow.
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