With participation in their sport relatively flat over the past two decades, ski industry officials are actively pursuing customers in the nation’s growing Hispanic population.Hispanics represent the fastest-growing demographic in the United States; the U.S. Census Bureau announced May 1 that the nation’s Hispanic population increased by 1.4 million between July 1, 2006, and July 1 of last year to reach 45.5 million — or 15.1 percent of the estimated U.S. population of 301.6 million.
To reach potential new Hispanic snow riders, ski area operators are taking steps to ramp up their diversity programs. Vail Resorts, whose four Colorado ski resorts account for about 10 percent of all the skier days nationwide, has teamed up with the nonprofit SOS Outreach program to provide free ski and snowboard lessons to at-risk youth and kids from inner-city areas or low-income households.
“I didn’t start skiing until I was 25 because I couldn’t afford it, so I never went even though ski areas were not too far from the valley,” Sen. Ken Salazar said at an SOS event this past ski season. Salazar grew up on a ranch in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, which is not far from Wolf Creek ski area and Durango Mountain Resort.
“There are ways that programs like SOS make it possible for kids to get these first opportunities, which builds character and confidence more than anything,” said Salazar, one of just two Hispanic senators elected since 1977. “I always say to kids all over the country, ‘If you develop confidence in one thing, you can do anything. You just have to be confident that you can do one thing well and it will spread.'”
In 2004, industry statistics placed Colorado’s minority participation in snow sports at 6.7 percent, trailing the national average of 10 percent; statistics on Hispanic participation as a share of that overall number are not available. Recruiting young Latinos to snow riding will help change cultural impediments and develop a love of the mountains for generations to come, industry officials say.
“A big part of this is connecting the mountains, which are one of the greatest recreational opportunities in the country and certainly in Colorado, with everybody down in Denver,” Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz said. “And it’s something we really started last year. We did a comprehensive program across all of our resorts connecting with the public school kids who otherwise couldn’t make it up here.”
That program includes free lift tickets and lessons from volunteer instructors, with gear, transportation and clothing provided by other vendors, Katz said. SOS, founded in 1993 by a group of Vail snowboard instructors, including Eagle County Commissioner Arn Menconi, is one of the most successful youth development programs for winter sports in the country. The organization taught skiing and snowboarding to more than 3,000 kids at 30 mountain resorts in eight states last season.
Roberto Moreno, founder of the Denver-based Alpino Mountain Sports Foundation, an organization dedicated to increasing diversity in the ski industry, ran Vail Resorts’ diversity program prior to SOS taking over last season. Moreno, a former ski patroller in Summit County, Colo., who grew up in East L.A., said much more needs to be done to increase access for city kids to the mountain resorts of Colorado.
“People in mountain communities do not understand that the growing lack of youth participation and exclusivity in mountain sports is making our mountains irrelevant to most Coloradans,” Moreno said. “Consider the fact that today, 95 percent of Denver kids never get to the mountains during their entire youth.”