For Jeff Lifgren, a ski or snowboard lesson starts long before someone sets boots to snow and ends long after the day is done.
“The entire day can really make or break the experience,” said Lifgren, director of skier services at Breckenridge Ski Resort. “Everything from the rental shop to the ski and snowboard meeting area to the lift lines to the restaurant they eat in — they all have an effect on the experience for the guest.”
It seems like a no-brainer, but these days, ski and snowboard lessons are deeper and richer than simply taking turns with an instructor. As Lifgren says, major resorts like Breckenridge consider the entire on-mountain experience when writing a ski school curriculum, and the lesson itself is just a small slice of the pie.
Breck’s approach is part of a larger push by the sport’s two professional organizations, Professional Ski Instructors of American (PSIA) and American Association of Snowboard Instructors (AASI), to get back to the basics of good customer service. For years, ski lessons were rigid and regimented, based on a set of one-size-fits-all skills and drills. Scenes of hard-nosed instructors in ski spoofs like “Hot Dog” and “Aspen Extreme” weren’t far from the truth.
“We’re trying to get away from calling everything we do ‘lessons,’” said Nicholas Herrin, the new CEO for PSIA and AASI. “We need to take into consideration the experience, not just how you link a turn to a turn.”
MORE THAN A LESSON
At Breckenridge, changes to old ways of thinking and teaching are as simple as something known as “rolling starts.” For adult group lessons — a growing segment of the instruction population — clients have the choice to start anytime between 9 a.m. and 10:45 a.m.
“If you want to get out on the snow early, we will be ready,” Lifgren said. “If you want to take your time and enjoy that cup of coffee first thing and then get out a little later, we can do that as well. It really is about making it easy for our guests.”
This dedication to flexibility is drawing more adult clients at resorts across the nation, Herrin said, and resorts now offer more lesson options than ever before. Gone are the days of beginner-only lessons, replaced with programs like Breck Guides, a half-day or full-day program that takes expert skiers to areas like Imperial Bowl and Lake Chutes to work on advanced skills with a veteran instructor.
“We take you to some of the most spectacular and challenging terrain that Breckenridge has to offer,” Lifgren said of the Breck Guides program. That kind of tailored experience doesn’t come cheap — a half-day program is $575 and the full-day program is $745 per person — but resorts have found that clients are willing to pay a little more for posh treatment. A major perk of skiing with Breck Guides: no lift lines, as you and the instructor have access to the special ski school queue at most lifts.
Along with new and expanded lesson programs, PSIA and AASI’s revised curriculum makes it easier for teachers to work with students of any ability, at any time, even when conditions are difficult. Look at the start of this year’s ski season, when lesson groups at Breckenridge, Keystone Resort and Copper Mountain Resort started on opening day, despite the fact all three mountains opened with hardly any terrain.
That is one of the great things about skiing and snowboarding: you don’t need specific terrain to work on your skills,” Lifgren said. “Every slope can be used to refine or improve your movements… Our instructors are doing what they are trained to do, no matter how much of the mountain is open.”
ON THE SLOPES
After clients pick the best lesson for their goals, the customization is just getting started. At Keystone, Greg Willis, director of the Ski and Ride School, encourages his instructors to buy into Herrin’s philosophy and do more than simply teach.
“They are constantly checking in with the guest to make sure the experience is tailored to their expectations, while at the same time helping the guest to understand what expectations are realistic,” said Willis, a 22-year PSIA veteran. “Most importantly, Keystone instructors keep it fun and make sure our guests are leaving with a smile on their face.”
Both Keystone and Breckenridge have dedicated ski school areas, just like most mountains, but modern lessons spend more time exploring than old-school lessons. Coaches at Keystone work on everything from tree skiing to terrain park jumping, and depending on the client’s ability level, practically no terrain is off limits.
“We can offer something for any ability skier or boarder right now,” Willis said. “But as we open more terrain, we can offer coaching to expand tactics for different types of terrain or conditions — whatever the guest is looking to master.”
No matter where the lesson takes a client, PSIA and AASI curriculum still outlines various skills and techniques for skiers and riders at every level. They range from basics, like balance and stopping drills on relatively flat ground, to advanced skills, like bump skiing and powder riding on extreme pitches. But there’s always a rhyme to the reason.
“Whenever we introduce a new task, we always back off on the terrain we choose,” Willis said. “This helps us to solidify proper movement patterns and technique, instead of creating bad habits that come from over-terraining ourselves.”
In the end, PSIA and AASI’s revised ski school curriculum and the resort’s lodge-to-lift experience both boil down to one thing: showing guests a damn good time.
“It really allows you to have a full understanding of what the guest experiences when they are first learning,” Lifgren said. “You can break down every movement and change what someone is doing to allow them to be more successful.”