VAIL — When Phillip Scott was a kid, he skied every other winter weekend with the Slippers-N-Sliders ski club, one of the founding ski clubs of the National Brotherhood of Skiers.
“I could ski black diamonds by the time I was 12,” says the now 35-year-old co-founder of the Denver-based BIPOC Mountain Collective, a diverse new-school ski club with 350 members and this tagline: “Shred. Party. Repeat. On the Cheap.”
“Once they hang out with us they almost always come back asking ‘What’s the next thing y’all are doing? I want to be a part of this,’” Scott said.
Ski clubs were a huge deal in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. Those groups introduced countless new skiers to the sport with discounted trips, lift tickets, gear and transportation. Today, as the resort industry focuses on discounted season passes as a way to increase participation, those clubs have lost their economic allure. While resorts still offer group discounts, the number of clubs is declining and membership is waning.
Ski clubs “are not as necessary as they used to be,” said Zeffie Bruce, the former president of the San Jose, California-based Fire and Ice ski club. “Younger people typically decide on the spur of the moment to go skiing and they don’t really need a club anymore. It’s just a different model now.”
The National Brotherhood of Skiers, which is rallying for its 50th annual summit this week in Vail with more than 2,000 attendees, fosters the most vibrant collection of ski clubs in the country. The NBS held its first summit in 1973 in Aspen and its success is driven by more than 57 ski clubs across the country.
The main focus of the National Brotherhood of Skiers and its many clubs is to support Black athletes as they pursue the upper echelons of winter sports. The group has assisted X Games athletes — like gold-medal snowboarder Zeb Powell — and several elite skating and bobsledding Olympians, but skiing and snowboarding remain a very white endeavor.
The most recent surveys of resort skiers collected by the National Ski Areas Association shows 89% of skiers identifying as white, 5.7% as Asian, 5.5% as Latino and 1.5% as Black. Those percentages have not shifted much in the past decade, though the association’s surveys show a slight decrease in resort visits by nonwhite skiers in the 2020-21 season.
A bit of promise for more diversity on the slopes can be found in Generation Z, defined as people 25 and younger. That generation makes up the largest share of the U.S. population and it is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in the history of the country. And Gen Zers like to ski. They accounted for 35% of the highest-ever 60.7 million visits in 2021-22.
Increasing youthful participation is a big goal for Brion Jackson, the head of the 100-member Texas Ski Rangers club in Dallas.
“We want to bring in younger leadership with new ideas and those new ideas can lead to new opportunities,” Jackson said.
A main obstacle for drawing more young members to the Ski Rangers is the cost of skiing, Jackson said. Lift ticket prices have tripled in the last decade as the resort industry works to push a majority of its skiers into discounted season passes that operators sell long before the snow flies. For first-timers exploring the sport, that means paying $800 to $1,000 for a season pass and committing to skiing for a season or spending upward of $250 for a single day.
“We need to find a better way to introduce young people to this sport. We know we bring a lot of money to the ski resorts with our summit. We need to figure out a better way to partner with ski resorts so this is a win-win,” Jackson said. “They get to introduce the sport to newcomers who could become lifelong skiers and we get better lift tickets or lodging prices.”
Jackson hopes to spend this week connecting with higher-ups at Vail Resorts, not just sales teams.
The Town of Vail and Vail Resorts have been preparing for NBS for several months. On Tuesday, the town council welcomed the group with a proclamation celebrating the NBS mission to “break boundaries in the world of winter sports.”
Town economic development leaders went to Snowmass Village last year to court the group for its 50th anniversary. Vail organized its Soul On Snow concert at Golden Peak on Tuesday with Ne-Yo, the Beastie Boys’ Mix Master Mike and DJ Logic. The town commissioned paintings by artist Lamont Joseph White to accompany White’s curated exhibit at the Colorado Snowsports Museum called “NBS Style Through the Decades.”
The National Brotherhood of Skiers set a record in Vail in 1993 when more than 4,000 attended the group’s annual summit. The group also gathered in Vail in 1977, 1997 and 2005.
“Everyone who was around remembers 1993. What an amazing time that was,” said Mia Vlaar, Vail’s manager of economic development. “We are rolling out the red carpet again, between us and Vail Resorts and spreading this celebration across all our businesses in the villages.”
Beth Howard was working at Beaver Creek in 1993 when the NBS rolled through Vail. Like just about everyone who was around at that time, the now vice president and chief operating officer at Vail ski area remembers the vibrant energy, the parties, the parades and laughter.
“That resonated with me. With us. It still does,” she said. “Our company has been on a journey to really listen, learn and understand how we can be more inclusive as a company, as a mountain and as a sport. This is such an opportunity to learn from NBS.”
Howard is sensitive to complaints that cost is a barrier to growing skiing and including more participants. Vail Resorts last season hosted 8,000 youth at its 37 North American ski areas, spending $8 million on transportation, gear, lessons and lift tickets for the first-time skiers. Most of those kids were from mountain towns but more than 2,000 visited the company’s ski hills outside Detroit, Minneapolis and Chicago.
This season the company expects its Epic for Everyone youth access program to host more than 9,000 kids for free visits at its ski areas.
And the company has long touted its Epic Local and Epic Pass as more affordable pathways into skiing.
“That pass in and of itself draws more people and allows more access fundamentally,” Howard said.
“How do we champion the future of our industry and it’s really being able to be more inclusive and make the sport more accessible to all,” she said. “That, for us, is really important.”
And hosting NBS and joining the group in its annual celebration, she said, “lines up so well with how we are looking at the future of our industry.”
There was reticence in the NBS ranks about the high costs of Vail for the 50th anniversary, Jackson said.
“Going forward, we have to come up with a smarter, more economical way to expose ski clubs to the ski industry. This is not a sustainable model when it costs a family $1,000 a person for a three-day vacation,” Jackson said. “We need to get creative. We have to change the old paradigm. We need to help leaders and owners see that when they open it up and make their resorts an attractive spot not just for minorities but everybody, then they will help everybody in their industry and in their communities.”
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Jackson, who is serving his first term as president of the Texas Ski Rangers, said he is on a mission to “be a change agent” and hopes to connect with operators who will give NBS clubs discounted lodging, ski rentals and lift tickets. He thinks the annual summit this week in Vail is an opportunity to show resort industry brass that welcoming a broader audience of skiers will help create “a lasting, sustainable model” for not just NBS clubs but the entire resort industry.
“If they are serious about changing the dynamics of their world today, they need to open up their vision beyond their bottom line,” Jackson said. “I realize the challenge in that. But looking beyond the bottom line can expand your future. If we can come with a way to package this with a long-term vision, we can help play an important role in creating much more robust clubs and a stronger ski industry.”
Fire and Ice, the San Jose club, has worked to attract more youthful members by expanding into year-round activities with gatherings for hiking, biking, boating, picnics and family-friendly events.
Fire and Ice recently partnered with San Jose State University to bring college students — many of them first-time skiers — up to Lake Tahoe for the NBS Western Region’s annual Urban Winter Fest.
Most of the students could only afford day trips to the Heavenly ski area. Bruce, the former president of the club who served six years as vice president of the NBS Western Region, wonders how compelling the day trips were for the students.
The cost of trying skiing remains a deterrent for first-timers, even with NBS support, he said.
A bus ride from the Bay Area to Lake Tahoe costs $75. Then there’s clothing and gear rentals and lift tickets. And even if the kids enjoy the sport and want to try it again, the second time is much more expensive than the learn-to-ski introductory packages.
“It just seems impossible,” Bruce, the former Fire and Ice leader, said. “We do a lot of fundraising, but it’s hard to get past the biggest challenge, which is the price. I think the resorts realize this but I’m not sure how we can help them see it more clearly.”
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A couple decades ago, Bruce was able to call up resort executives and hammer out agreements for NBS regional rallies.
“But when it became more corporate, it’s harder to maintain those relationships like we had years ago,” she said. “Back then it really seemed like the mountains were happy to have us and really wanted us around. It’s become more difficult to negotiate as the industry becomes more corporate.”
Scott is helping to adjust the ski club model to meet changing demographics. His 2-year-old BIPOC Mountain Collective includes “a lot of Latinos and Asians,” he said.
“That’s a bit different than the traditional Black ski clubs but we want to be more inclusive,” said Scott, proudly displaying his new Pit Viper shades, one of several new sponsors that are supporting his new-school club. “When I grew up, with my friends, it wasn’t a color thing, it was just about liking each other. If more people felt that way, we can change so much. Let’s just all have fun together. I feel like so many people don’t really know what they are missing and I gotta help show them and tell them. That’s my goal.”