Part II: Business of the Backcountry SIA Panel


NOTE: Verde will be hosting an all-star panel for a special seminar at SIA 2013 next week in Denver, entitled “The Business of the Backcountry.” The seminar will be on January 31, at 1:30 pm, on the trade show floor within the Backcountry Experience Area, booth #4571.

The panel marks the first time that perspectives and conversation regarding backcountry safety and its tie to our sustainability as an industry has been formally discussed and dissected.

Business in the Backcountry, Part II
When he’s not climbing or skiing, Kim Miller can be found at the helm of SCARPA North America (a Verde PR client), where he serves as CEO.

Kim is a veteran of the outdoor and snowsports industries. Prior to working for Chouinard Equipment (the company that lead to Black Diamond Equipment), Kim owned an outdoor and snowsports retail store in his hometown of Denver, Colo., served many years as a rep, ski guide and Outward Bound instructor, and now serves on the board of directors of SnowSports Industries America (SIA).

SCARPA, located in Boulder, Colo., is a mountain-footwear brand in the outdoor and snowsports markets and is a leading boot manufacturer for alpine touring, telemark and now, Freeride boots.

Like many other vendors in the outdoors and snowsports markets, Kim and his team at SCARPA wrestle with the responsibility of growing participation numbers in backcountry skiing while concurrently working to educate a growing (and sometimes less experienced) customer base.

Fortunately for of us, Kim had a front-row seat to a similar situation back in the early 1990’s late 1980s with the explosion of growth in rock climbing, while he was working with Black Diamond. Today, he walks us through the parallels of those career experiences in this post. By studying the past, Kim hopes, the industry will collectively shorten the end-consumer learning curve around being safe in the backcountry.

In the late 80s and early 1990’s, climbing gyms were being built in droves in urban locations, which catalyzed a surge in growth for sport climbing (where a climber ascends a route clipping bolts rather than placing gear). More people took skills from the indoor-climbing environment straight out to the crags. Not surprisingly, the industry began to have to deal with liability, risk management and end-consumer education around a technical product category being used in a highly risky sport. Access was also a growing issue. Sound familiar?

To Kim, it certainly is. The experience of the outdoor industry around that growth, Kim said, carries many parallels to what’s happening in both the snowsports and outdoor markets regarding growth in participation and product innovation in backcountry skiing and riding.

To keep it simple, Kim has identified three areas of focus that we, as united industries, can have to shorten the learning curve with this growth:

1 – Vendor and Retailer Education Efforts Around How To Use the Gear:
It’s super important to educate the end consumer on what the gear can do and what it’s limitations are and there are many avenues for this, Kim says. Hangtags, rep education efforts, retail clinics, professional climbing schools and guides, shared resources (in print and online) for retailers to use; all will make a large impact on the education efforts of newcomers to the backcountry.

In the climbing market like backcountry, gear innovation drives sales and moves the sports forward. As concern about safety grew, many new innovations often evolved around engineering out as much human-error potential as possible (remember the introduction of the doubled-back harness system?). Another example would be belay devices . New innovations appeared, such as the mechanized belay devices that were easier to use and safer, but consumers didn’t know how to use them, which negated any safety innovation.

We’re all witnessing multiple vendors roll out new products that are making it easier than ever to transition from in-area to backcountry skiing and riding. Does the consumer know what the limitations are to this gear? What systems work together? How to use it properly?

In the climbing market, manufacturers and sales teams worked closely together to educate retailers, who in turn were able to offer more education to customers around how to properly use the equipment. Guides services and climbing schools also played a major role in the education process. The goal was a consistent and constant safety message across all groups. Social media exists today and didn’t back then, so ideally, the reach of the vendor, rep and retailer is even stronger. Making a concerted effort around education of how to use the products safely, as a united front, will get consumers educated faster and cut back on accidents.

2 –  Online and Print Magazines Can Direct Editorial Coverage to Safety Topics and How-To’s for Using Gear:
The endemic outdoor media was highly proactive about offering editorial space to product education and correct usage.  For example, Rock & Ice Magazine published an educational summary on “Accidents of North American Mountaineering,” regularly. In this feature, the editorial staff would share an accident from the book, and walk the readership through how the accident could have been avoided. What can the outdoor and snowsports endemic media and online influencers do to use their reach to create more end-consumer awareness?

Athletes and ambassadors, as well as writers and media, are influencers to the growing ranks of backcountry skiers and riders. With social media, they also have much greater reach. Using this reach to educate consumers is a key path to education and awareness.

3 – Provide More Uphill Access at On-Snow Resorts to Build More Awareness Around Snow Conditions and Real-World Usage of Gear
Climbing gyms created a point of entry for new consumers and those consumers had to learn basic skills to climb in the gyms. Uphill passes at on-snow resorts can accomplish this as well.

Many resorts do not allow uphill access for liability reasons. Kim wants to remind resort owners that at one time, they were also unwilling to open access to snowboarders and many were averse to building terrain parks. Both, once accepted and offered to the consumer, have become strong revenue streams and points of entry for new enthusiasts to the snowsports market. Uphill pass programs can follow this same trajectory. Uphill programs at resorts, especially when done with vendor and instructional partners (such as the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) and ski guides), can make a strong positive impact in terms of offering real-world education to a fledgling backcountry aficionado.

Scarpa and Crested Butte Mountain Resort partner for the resort’s uphill pass program. This effort, Kim says, is critical to enable education around gear usage and critical time “spent on snow” for backcountry enthusiasts looking to hone their skills for more remote terrain. He compares consumer education around safety in the backcountry to a pilot flying a plane. Pilots quantify experience by flight hours – real-world experience. The same is needed for consumers to develop a stronger sense of safety in terms of accountability with ski and ride partners, gear usage, understanding snow conditions and how the conditions can change so often even during one outing and navigating different terrain.

An uphill pass program should be promoted industry-wide, Kim says, for many reasons. An increase in participation will result as will a testing and training ground for consumers who want a real-world classroom to turn experience into skills.

Bottom line? We’re all experiencing what Kim calls “Backcountry Skiing 2.0.” It’s a natural evolution of where the sport is headed. The industries, collectively, have seen this coming for years. Collectively, we have all worked together to make the accessing backcountry easier and to make being in the backcountry more aspirational. It’s up to the outdoors and snowsports markets today to work closely together to make the awareness and educational resources available to the end consumers. The time is now.

NOTE: SIA launched a retail education tool on Jan. 17, 2013, which can be downloaded here. SNEWS also launched a “how to sell” winter gear Nov. 28, 2012, which can be found here.