Slippery Slope: The Ski Industry Goes To Washington

Dec 20, 2018

The ski industry is an important economic driver in our region, but it's facing a lot of changes. Climate change, for one, is transforming ski resort leaders into activists and lobbyists.

In 2018, Aspen Skiing Company launched an edgy ad campaign called "Give a Flake."

As part of the campaign, they made a music video that shows action shots of skiers and snowboarders shredding up mountains while bright red letters in all-caps flash across the screen saying things like "If you love powder days, protect your passion, respect the mountain, join the movement."

Aspen Skiing Company's magazine ad for the Give A Flake Campaign
Credit Aspen Skiing Company

Christian Knapp is the head of marketing and sales for Aspen. He said they're trying to make people aware that climate change is affecting the industry. Then they're also giving them tools to get involved.

"There's a really cool Twitter widget," said Knapp, "where you can go in and put in your zip code and it will pull up your state senators and representatives."

The app shows the user how those politicians have voted when it comes to climate issues. "So you can see if they 'give a flake,'" said Knapp, "or they don't. And then you can choose to generate a tweet at them."

And for the non-digitally inclined, Aspen's printed ads in outdoor sports magazines that are actually postcards that you can tear out, sign, and drop in a post office box and send directly to three Republican senators "who are really swing votes on climate," Knapp said.

Aspen Skiing Company's magazine ad for the Give A Flake campaign. Postcard to Alaska's Senator, Lisa Murkowski.
Credit Aspen Skiing Company

Aspen is also working with the Boulder-based nonprofit advocacy group, Protect Our Winters, or POW, as it's known. A couple years ago, POW hauled a 1970s era phone booth to the base of Aspen mountain.

Torrey Udall with POW said they had people calling their elected officials from that phone booth "to urge them to protect the methane rule that was up for a vote in the Senate."

Udall said, "many of the people had never called an elected official on any issue and especially not on climate."

Offering people easy advocacy opportunities when they come to a ski resort, said Udall, is key to building a movement of people who care.

And they're not stopping there. Recently, POW took Aspen's Mr. Knapp to Washington.

Knapp was inside the halls of Congress on what turned out to be a historic day. Brent Kavanaugh was testifying in his bid to become a Supreme Court justice. So there was a lot of buzz in the Capitol, he said.

There were about 30 other members of the snow sports community as well — from ski resort representatives and gear brand owners to Olympic athletes.

A delegation of ski industry leaders together with Protect Our Winters meets with Representative Peter Welch from Vermont.
Credit Elyse Cosgrove / Protect Our Winters

"We had some great meetings with some of the senators and representatives on both sides of the aisle," said Knapp. "Talking to them about climate legislation that can help our future in the snow sports industry."

Going to D.C. isn't for everyone, though. Mike Nathan is the Sustainability Manager at Arapahoe Basin, or "A-Basin," a small ski area 80 miles west of Denver. He's has been active on more local environmental issues.

While Nathan says political activism is important, he said "I don't think we'd feel very right about touting this climate action and advocacy if we weren't actually doing anything here. You gotta walk the walk too."

That's why more and more resorts are trying to "green" their own operations. At A-Basin, for example, Nathan oversees several energy efficient buildings and a waste reduction program. He says it saves money but it's also about setting an example.

Solar panel array on the roof of a building at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area.
Credit Ali Budner / 91.5 KRCC

"If some guest that skied here on a Saturday goes home and puts a compost bucket under their sink," Nathan said. "I'm super happy."

But he said they do sometimes get pushback.

We'll have a Facebook post around some sustainability win or a new project or an event or something," Nathan explained. "And there's always like one person that's like Oh, pff. Great. A-Basin's political now. I guess I won't come. And then a hundred people jump on their back and we don't even have to say anything. They come to our defense."

Christian Knapp with Aspen Skiing Company echoes this sentiment. "I think more and more the millennial generation like to align themselves with businesses and brands that speak to their personal values," he said.

Values like environmental sustainability. He points to companies like Patagonia.

"They're basically an activist company more than ever. And their sales are at record setting levels," said Knapp. "Nike saw a 30 percent increase in their e-commerce sales the week after the Colin Kaepernick ad campaign broke."

In other words, he says making a stand politically on climate change can also help a ski company's bottom line. "We do hope it does have a halo effect on our brand," Knapp said.

They'll see just how much as the current ski season gets underway.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.