Indoor Ski Center Operator The Buzz


If you love to ski and enjoy teaching others, operating an indoor ski training center can allow you to combine these interests. But even though indoor skiing requires no snow, be prepared for slow summer months -- it's best to combine your training facility with another related business.

Indoor ski training centers allow people to learn to ski or snowboard without the wet and the cold. They can also be used by skiers to rehabilitate after injuries, or by experienced skiers to improve their techniques.

Training takes place indoors on ski decks, which are like large, carpeted treadmills set on an incline. These ski decks were invented in England for ski racers to train and remain conditioned throughout the year. Both ski and snowboarding equipment can be used.

Learning on the indoor ski decks is an ideal setup for beginning skiers or boarders. It's warm and dry, and, according to Mini Mountain's manager Ed Kiser, 200 minutes of simulation is all it takes to make someone a skier or snowboarder.

After their indoor training at the facility in Bellevue, Washington, Kiser's clients are ready to ride the chairlift to the intermediate slopes at their favorite mountain.

This type of training helps beginners avoid spending half their ski vacation learning the sport. It also allows experienced skiers to experiment with snowboarding without sacrificing on-snow time to learn.

This training is particularly effective with children. "We take away falling down [and] getting wet and cold by teaching them inside," Kiser says. "Then when they go up there they have confidence...and they just take off."

"It even benefits people who have skied all their lives," says Graham McCoy, a Sun and Ski Sports manager in Texas. "Skiers can develop bad habits on the snow, but the carpet surface is more demanding, so turns must be executed properly."

The Summer Blues

Tom Walderon founded Mini Mountain in Washington over 20 years ago. Jim Chase has been teaching at the indoor ski school at Sun and Ski Sports for even longer than that. Both agree that indoor ski training is most profitable when combined with another business.

Walderon stresses that this is a very seasonal profession. It is busiest in the fall and winter. Chase echoes his thoughts. "When the grass gets green, people lose interest," he says. Sun and Ski Sports tried to provide indoor ski services year-round, but found it most effective to offer the training only from October through March.

To combat the seasonal nature of skiing, Sun and Ski Sports focuses on selling inline skating, swimming, camping and other summer sports paraphernalia during the warmer months. During the ski season, it sells skis, boots, clothes and accessories. It also rents ski equipment.

Chase notes that the ski lessons help generate a lot of business for the stores, since it is not unusual for students to buy clothes and rent equipment there as well. About half of Sun and Ski's stores now offer indoor ski training, and he feels the ski schools helped the chain expand to its current count of 14 stores.

Mini Mountain is also a full-service ski shop. It has batting cages and recently added a rock climbing wall to generate business during the summer months.

Starting Up

An indoor ski center requires a big enough facility to house the large ski decks. The biggest ones are like indoor mountains, about 12 feet wide and 40 feet long.

Mogul Slope North America custom builds two smaller versions, which go for $41,000 and $53,000. Mini Mountain has two indoor ski decks all year-round, with a third added in the winter. Mini Mountain sells ski decks for around $80,000.

The location of the indoor ski center is an important consideration. Walderon thinks the best location is near the ski mountains. He feels people will be more interested in learning to ski if they have access to on-snow skiing.

Mini Mountain is about two hours away from the nearest ski hill. It offers packages that provide a series of indoor lessons followed by an on-snow lesson to help with the transition to the real thing. It also offers weekly bus trips and on-snow lessons during the ski season.

The Sun and Ski Sports shop in Texas, on the other hand, is successful despite being 10 to 12 hours away from the nearest mountain in New Mexico.

Qualified trainers are essential to the business. Chase, who is certified by the Professional Ski Instructors of America, says it's a battle to get top-rate ski instructors in the South. Walderon also knows the importance of trainers. He feels his master's degree in physical education has been a valuable asset to running a business that revolves around teaching a sport.

Marketing is Key

This is a business full of potential. There is little competition amongst existing indoor ski schools. There are several scattered across the U.S., but neither Chase nor Walderon could name more than a few.

A bigger problem may be clients' unfamiliarity with the concept of indoor training. "People are still skeptical about skiing or snowboarding on carpet," says Kiser. "They don't see how a technique simulator is going to represent the real thing."

Mini Mountain generates interest in its center by using a portable ramp at fairs and other events -- it allows people to see how easy it is to learn to ski or snowboard.

Effective marketing is one of the keys to recouping start-up costs. Mini Mountain is geared towards children and families. It offers training packages for kids as young as three, and hosts children's birthday parties that involve ski or snowboard instruction and use of the batting cage.

Walderon feels snowboarding will become a more family oriented sport as younger kids learn. "Dad will have to learn, too," he says. Despite the growth in boarding, Mini Mountain still teaches more people to ski than snowboard.

Taking the Long View

What Walderon enjoys most is the teaching aspect of the business. "I love helping people learn something they may not think they can do, then watching them do it." He says it is especially rewarding to work with children.

But he points out that it takes a while to establish a customer base and generate income. "Take a long view," he says, "because you are not going to be profitable overnight. Then you need to have enough business sense to stay around to do it."

Links

Mini Mountain
Information about the business, plus links to worldwide snow conditions

Ski Area Management
Searchable archive of articles and a research center with participation statistics and industry links

Professional Ski Instructors of America
Learn about ski areas, ski schools and equipment