With its mud pits, cargo nets, rock climbing and rope swings, Montana’s Big Sky Resort looked very little like a ski area.
Of course, it was July. And this was the Kids’ Adventure Games. But next week, it – or another ski resort – might be the setting for a Spartan Race. Or even a national mountain biking championship.
The transition between winter resort and summer playground is nowhere near as uncommon as it once was, as an increasing number of snow-centric venues look to extend their reach into sports tourism during what was previously the slow season.
You might even say the resorts are becoming the four-season athletes of the venue world.
“We have been incredibly busy this summer,” noted Sheila D’Amico, public relations manager at Big Sky.
Whereas ski resorts previously worked to make enough money in the snowy months to survive with a skeleton staff (or less) in the summer, current venues are actively soliciting warm-weather sporting events that can take advantage of the acres of outdoor area with its challenging natural terrain.
Brian Duncanson, vice president of real estate for the Spartan Race, noted in a recent Inside Events article that for his purposes, the events planned at ski resorts often meet with success because they touch on the exact combination of wilderness – and amenities – needed by organizers.
“We have to find something an area that is a little remote. In an ideal world, that would be close to a major metropolitan area; unfortunately, that’s frequently counterintuitive,” Duncanson noted. “All the things we need – the interesting terrain with the hills, the water, the mud, the rocks – it’s all found at ski areas. Then they have the wide open spaces for the post-event festival, large parking areas, plus a lot of places to stay, eat and have fun. They really have everything we need from the event perspective. And these days, to stay in business, ski areas need to operate 12 months of the year so it really works for everyone.”
The potential for economic impact is growing exponentially, according to event organizers. The 2015 GoPro Mountain Games, which took place in the Town of Vail on July 4-7, 2015, attracted 62,079 spectators, according to an independent survey prepared by Intercept Insight, LLC. The survey also reported an economic impact of $4.87 million to the Town of Vail.
Let’s let that sink in for a second: $4.87 million. For the town of Vail. You know, Colorado. Around the Fourth of July.
Vail, to nobody’s great surprise, has already contracted for next year, which will be a celebration of the event’s 15th anniversary.
This year’s Games included competition in nine sports and 25 disciplines including cross-country and road cycling, freestyle, 8-Ball, sprint and extreme kayaking, R2 raft sprint and cross, World Cup bouldering, stand-up paddle sprint and surf cross, as well as trail, mud and road running, disc golf, dog comps, the Ultimate River Challenge and the Ultimate Mountain Challenge. In addition to the athletic events, the GoPro Mountain Games included a mountain photography competition, adventure film school, film festival, five interactive exhibition and demo areas, live music, and mountain lifestyle parties.
In other words, when events require big acreage, major ski resorts can deliver.
Big Sky, for its part, is embracing further opportunities for sports tourism, having installed ziplines and implemented mountain bike tours and coaching. In September, the resort will offer The Rut, a trail running competition with courses of multiple distances. The conference, Total Archery, was also held at Big Sky. Other activities offered include skeet shooting, paintball, disc golf and more.
“Ski resorts are finding revenue in the summer months,” noted D’Amico, “whereas, traditionally they would make all their money in the winter and try to float through the summer.”
The USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships were held this past July at Mammoth Mountain, California. According to USA Cycling national events director, Micah Rice, the venue was able to host competition in cross-country, short track cross-country, downhill, dual slalom and the group’s newest event, enduro.
“Because of Mammoth’s size and layout,” said Rice, “it was possible for people to travel around and see the different events, as well as to go to the lodge. Ski resorts are starting to do a lot of summer tourism, so we’re seeing a lot of those places investing in mountain bike infrastructure and making relationships with organizations that put on events because they want to be a destination in their off-season times. Mammoth did a really good job of it. We were able to have a number of events that required completely different layouts and space.”
Mammoth is continuing to capitalize on its bicycling clout, hosting both its Gran Fondo and the Kamikaze Bike Games in September.
But it’s not just out west that ski resorts area enlarging their horizons. In many areas, resorts are leveraging features that get less use in winter to bring in sports tourism as the weather heats up. Garrett County, Maryland, hosted the 2014 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships. The area, home of Wisp Resort (the state’s only ski venue), markets itself as a four-season destination with events such as the SavageMan 30.0 Triathlon. In the off-season, the ski resort offers mountain biking.
Once the competitions are over, the proximity of ski resorts to natural parks and other attractions increases their appeal as summer destinations, with everything from whitewater rafting to fly-fishing tournaments to open-water swimming to trail running.
And spectators to those events are about to have their eyes opened. In fact, the survey of spectators done during the GoPro Mountain Games revealed that 38 percent of spectators do not visit Vail other times during the summer, and that 43 percent of spectators do not visit Vail during the winter.
Count on that to change.