How a Hot SoCal Ski Resort Amps Up Its Diversity
In 1997, when Karl Kapuscinski took over management of Mountain High, a 220-acre ski area an hour east of Los Angeles, he needed to attract new customers to the struggling resort. But instead of laying down more groomed runs and valet parking, Kapuscinski transformed the mountain into a massive freestyle playpen. He added a halfpipe and 120 other terrain features, like boxes and rails, supplemented cheeseburgers and cocoa by the lodge fire with fish tacos and Red Bull in the parking lot, and began promoting the mountain at local beaches and on hip-hop stations and Spanish-language television.
The idea, says the 40-year-old Kapuscinski—who was the executive director of the Spirit Mountain ski resort, in Dulut...
"IT REALLY SHOOK THE ESTABLISHMENT OF VAIL," says Bill Jensen, the Colorado ski resort's chief operating officer. Was it a new downhill speed record? The announcement of a billion-dollar ski-area development? No, this momentous event was a performance by Snoop Dogg. To the shock of some locals, last April, the resort chose the hip-hop icon to headline its annual spring festival marking the end of ski season, in the hopes of attracting a clientele younger and more diverse than that normally associated with the resort.
"It was very calculated," says Jensen, 53. "The younger generation connects with that urban lore, and Snoop Dogg is part of that." It worked; the sold-out show drew 10,000 people, making it the largest music event in Vail history.
Snoop's concert was more than just beats and rhymes, though; it was the sound of an outdoor industry waking up to a new reality. With the United States set to become "majority minority"—meaning more than 50 percent nonwhite—by 2050, survival in any business requires getting on the right side of the demographic curve. And after decades of overlooking minority communities and urban culture, action-sports destinations and gear manufacturers are taking steps toward attracting younger, more diverse participants. Last August, in Salt Lake City, hip-hop stars the Black Eyed Peas took the stage at Outdoor Retailer, the outdoor industry's largest trade show, for a performance announcing a new partnership with JanSport. Proceeds from the show—and a line of Peas-designed backpacks—will go to Big City Mountaineers, a nationwide nonprofit that takes at-risk teens into the outdoors.
"Seventy percent of our under-18 population is now classified as multicultural," says Roberto Moreno, a first-generation Mexican American and the founder of Alpino, a national organization, based in Denver, that introduces minority kids to snow sports. "If we as an industry don't figure out a way of breaking the code and becoming more inclusive to people of color, we're out of business in 25 years."
And while Snoop (who's also rumored to be thinking about his own skateboard line) and the Black Eyed Peas are as likely to attract suburban thirty-somethings as inner-city teens, their presence in this arena is indicative of a more substantial shift. Nine years ago, a struggling ski spot outside of Los Angeles called Mountain High (see "Case Study," page 22) began increasing ethnic diversity on its staff and started advertising on hip-hop and Spanish-language radio stations. Last year the resort recorded the most skier days per acre in the country, with a clientele that's half nonwhite. "The vibe is definitely getting down to the kids in the urban markets," says John McColly, Mountain High's 36-year-old director of marketing.
According to the Boulder, Coloradobased Outdoor Industry Association, ethnic-American participation in outdoor activities is on the rise, from 16 percent of the total in 1998 to 21 percent in 2004. And the 10,000-member National Brotherhood of Skiers, a group that connects African American skiers and sponsors Olympic hopefuls, is the largest winter-sports organization in America. Still, 10,000 in sports that count nearly 13 million participants (skiing and snowboarding combined) is hardly representative of the nation at large. "The snow-sports industry has primarily catered to a fairly Caucasian audience," says Mary Jo Tarallo, director of education and special projects at SnowSports Industries of America, a trade group based in McLean, Virginia. "A lot of money is potentially being left on the table."
Even New York City, the most urban of urban environments, represents a massive untapped market. On January 21, the U.S. Olympic halfpipe team will be named at New Jersey's Mountain Creek, a resort with 11 lifts, five terrain parks, and a 425-foot-long superpipe—all less than 50 miles from New York's eight-million-strong multiethnic hodgepodge. "Emerging multicultural majorities exist in every U.S. metropolitan area that's close to mountains," says Moreno. "Unfortunately, even in a place like Colorado, defined by its mountains, most people never get there. The number-one culprit is that we have done too good a job selling the exclusivity of mountain sports."
Frank Tansey, the head of Pepsi's travel-and-leisure division, is on a crusade to turn that around. Pepsi handles 65 percent of resort beverage sales nationwide, and last year Tansey, 51, used that muscle to convene the winter-sports industry's first-ever diversity summit in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. He brought together the heads of major ski resorts and diversity-preaching executives from several national companies, including Sprint, American Express, and Budweiser, with a simple message: If you want to survive, hire minorities and market to them. "Why does PepsiCo spend millions of dollars to create a Spanish ad?" Tansey asks. "Because if you can adapt the message to that consumer, you are going to sell more product."
Beyond resorts, the related gear and apparel makers have historically been unsure of how, or whether, to operate within urban youth culture. Back in the nineties, the hip-hop appropriation of brands like Timberland and The North Face (TNF), fueled in part by artists like Fat Joe and the late Notorious B.I.G., launched these brands into a market they never planned on entering. "Being a company up here in New Hampshire, we weren't quite aware that we were part of this," says Jay Steere, Timberland's vice president of global product management. "Early on it was viewed as a phenomenon that turned into a lifestyle."
Timberland has embraced and fostered its hip-hop presence, advertising in New York subways, sponsoring inner-city community-service projects, and working with the entertainment industry to plant its gear in music videos and films. "If someone wants our three-layer Gore-Tex jacket or our backpacking boots," says Steere, "and instead of going up Katahdin this weekend they're using them in downtown New York, more power to them."
Other brands, while welcoming all new participants regardless of age or race, have chosen to base their marketing efforts solely on the sports that define their identities. The North Face, whose down jackets have long been coveted among inner-city teens, contributes to Big City Mountaineers but does not seek to leverage its urban credibility. "We do not do classic marketing tailored to any particular demographic," says Joe Flannery, TNF's vice president of marketing. "We only market to and through our sports."
As for turning urban buyers on to those sports, research shows that change is most likely to come from efforts that start young; according to the Outdoor Industry Association, 90 percent of adults involved in these pursuits were introduced to them when they were under 18. So efforts like Big City Mountaineers and Alpino may be the best place to start, and Snoop and the Black Eyed Peas may be the ideal messengers—but only if that message is hitting the right notes. When REI president and CEO Sally Jewell arrived at the company six years ago, she pushed for using more people of color as models after finding REI's catalogs to be largely white-only affairs. "Even if you don't have a very diverse industry," says Jewell, "you can at least use your marketing to say, We welcome you to the outdoors.' "