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“I am grateful for all feedback”

Text: Martin Obermayr | Photos: Aspen Skiing Company

Jonathan Ballou manages one of the world’s largest ski and snowboard schools. In Aspen Snowmass, Colorado, he is responsible for more than 1,200 instructors. At the Interski 2019 in Pamporovo he gave us insight into his views on experiencing snow sports: from e-learning to life-changing moments and the need for global cooperation of all resorts.

Carving Skischool Aspen

Insight Magazine: At the Interski we heard a lot about the growing power of the guest. What is your opinion on this topic? Jonathan Ballou: In my world everything is about the guest. As a manager for one of the major ski companies in the U. S., the Aspen Skiing Company, for me the guest is king. The experience of the guest is the most important thing for us. But we cannot provide that without nature. That is why 20 years ago the Environment Foundation was created in Aspen Snowmass. The purpose of this non-profit organisation is to protect and preserve the regional ecosystems, to offer educational opportunities and to seek to reduce the impacts of climate change.

Guests nowadays have multiple ways of giving feedback through rankings, ratings and social media. How do you deal with that?

Jonathan: Feedback from the guest is what I value most. I want every guest to tell me as much as he or she can. Good feedback is nice and makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside, it’s a reward that I can tell my staff. Growth however doesn’t happen just by feeling good, and one of my major values, and my company’s values, is excellence. Excellence comes from self-reflection and looking at what I could do better for the guest. It’s never enough to get the good feedback, I want all the negatives too.

Jonathan Ballou, Managing Director Skischool Aspen
Jonathan Ballou, Managing Director Ski School Aspen

What actions do you take to get and analyse feedback? Jonathan: All our social media channels are monitored by qualified people: Facebook, Instagram, Trip Advisor etc. Additionally, we have an online survey and ask every guest that spent time with us, two days after their lesson or guided experience, to give us very honest and direct feedback. So, any negative and even neutral comment is followed up by someone from our organisation. We analyse these issues, we work to recover the guest, we make sure to welcome the guest back and resolve any problems which occurred. We track all those measures over the seasons to look for trends where we are not quite hitting the mark. With this we can change our organisation, our product, our pricing, our guest service, our brand etc. to be what our guests expect – sorry: to be better than what our guests expect.

That sounds like a lot of work, a lot of ambition. Jonathan: Absolutely, but it’s worth it. I thank people for their positive feedback, but I am grateful for their constructive and negative feedback.

Let’s take a look into the future. Will the guest in 2025 be even more powerful?

Jonathan: During the process of learning the guest controls everything, because usually, people are learning a sport for their own personal desire. There is no real external reward for them. They are not there to get a medal or a promotion or a degree. So, we as an organisation providing the lesson cannot dictate what is to be learnt. We cannot dictate the experience that has to happen. The measure of our success is that the guest learnt somet- hing meaningful, had a good time and found value in that.

Simply put, we as snow sports professionals make the guests experience better. I, as does everyone else in our organisation, firmly believe that better skiers and better snowboarders have more fun. If you come to my school you will get better, because you can do more things, you are more relaxed, you are able to ride more terrain. This is the measure of success, not that you actually have the right technique, but that you enjoy it more. So, most of the time learning is only the gateway to that experience.

Snowboarding Aspen

What do you mean with that exactly?

Jonathan: Skiing,snowboarding,telemarking, being on the mountain and so on is a life- style. It’s addictive because of the freedom, the experience, the adventure. It’s ostensibly a social sport, there’s camaraderie. There are also inter- and intrapersonal experiences that can be life-changing. There are physical achie- vements on the mountain. And that’s what we snow sports professionals facilitate. But we have to tailor that very specifically to the desires and wants and, sometimes the even subconscious desires and wants, of the guest. Education is only a minor part of what we do. It’s the baseline, the entry level. What we really do is we create a life experience.

That’s a very holistic approach and it shows that there is so much happening behind the curtain and only a certain percentage is shown on stage.

Jonathan: That’s exactly what it is. And the real expertise is to not show everything. You show people only what they need and give them the experience they want. As a professional you have to have a tremendous amount behind the curtain, you need a giant back- stage full of all kinds of props for education.

I’m lucky enough to have that sort of staff. It’s not uncommon for me to have employees that work with us for 25, 30 years. It’s their life, it’s their career.

To jump back to the question of the guest in 2025. What kind of customer journey do you see in the future? Jonathan: What I’m getting to, is – let’s call it – “infinite customisation”. What we sell is not a product per se. 30 years ago we sold a technique. Think about just the range of skis you can get right now. When I grew up skiing in the early 1980s the question was: Do I ski on a slalom or a GS ski, do I take 1.95 or 2.01 metres? Those were my choices. Look on a rack in ski shops today, you ask yourself: Do I ski on a full rocker, a semi-rocker, a slalom, a GS, a recreational GS? Do I want to ski on 85 mm wide rocker-tip or no rocker-tip? And if you pay a bit more, you can get a ski completely designed for you. That is a good simile for what guided ski lessons need to become. We are not selling a group lesson or a private les- son, what we are selling is an experience. We need to reach the people and show them the infinite possibilities of these elevated experiences, but in ways that hit the uniqueness of people. So, they do not buy just a lesson, but they are participating in an experience that is meaningful to them.

Ski class Aspen

How do you make that possible?

Jonathan: That happens from new styles of instructors’ training, the multitude of ways to experience a lesson, variable start times or free online experiences prior, during and after the lesson. The guest of today is much more informed and much more discerning; therefore, we have to put the knowledge out there and create ways to frontload and customise the experience prior to the experience. So, people really know what they want.

You mean it’s not about using more digital and technological devices and data on the slope? Like tablets where you can see yourself skiing?

Jonathan: It could be. Some technological systems absolutely make sense from an educational view, for example, to be able to review in real time what you do. I agree with that, as long as it’s short, quick and immediate. So, it gets people back into learning very fast. One of my hesitations for adding too much technology to the slope is, why do we go to the mountains? Is it to get more involved in our phones and computers or to be more involved in nature? So, anything we do has to go back to enjoying nature and the thrill of skiing and snowboarding more, not to get involved in our phones more. We are already slaves to our phones. We have digital devices already everywhere. Things we do on the mountains have to take us away from our phones. The digital experience has to enhance the adventure on the mountain and not the other way around.

During the Interski there were also talks about enhancing the gaming experience, especially for younger people. How about that? Jonathan: Our youth is experiencing the digital environment so much already now. The question is, how can we use this to push them into the real, social and adventurous world and not pull them into the digital one. We have to create a symbiosis between those worlds. Our devices should set us free, not enslave us.

You mean, I do my online lessons at home and then say: “Yeah, I want to go there and do that!” Jonathan: In instructor education this is one way devices can help us. Are you familiar with the concept of the flipped classroom?

To be honest, I am not.

Jonathan: Ok, when I was at university, I was a music student, I went to my lecture of music history “17th Century Baroque Music”. I was listening and taking notes. After the lecture I went back to my practice room at my dormitory and then I actually did the “work”: studying, researching and applying my knowledge. Which means I received the information in my supervised environment and then I practiced the implementation of it in my unsupervised environment. This whole process was backwards and a complete misuse of the teacher’s time. With the flipped classroom we turn this upside down.

How do you apply that to instructor education?

Jonathan: If people want to become an instructor, they gain the information online, before they come to the course. We have now launched e-learning programmes for the U. S. and New Zealand for almost all courses. When the students come to the course, they already have the information and ask questions. So, the trainer’s time is no longer spent standing on the side of the hill or spouting out theory in front of the classroom. Furthermore, the students have to engage with the teachers. And engaging with people is one of the most important things in teaching. The effect is, that students are applying their information better than when we were in school. And with that, we are creating higher standards of education.

What is the next step?

Jonathan: If we are creating better teachers by doing that, the next step is to put all this to the consumer facing level. We put the theory and information – the hook of learning – out to the recreational skier, before they come to us professionals. Because as a snow sports professional I don’t want people coming to me and saying: “I need to spend time with Jonathan Ballou to get what he knows.” No, no, I want people that say:

“Hey, this is what I want to learn. I know something about it, but I need your expertise to get better in this one area.” So, we can spend our two hours or three days on the hill developing and working with it. All this gives the total power to the guest, because the instructor supports the guest to where he wants to go. This is the best use of the coach’s time.

What do you take back home from the Interski 2019?

Jonathan: A consistent theme was to value learning over teaching, and to value the result and experience of the student over the actions of the teacher. I am a great fan of that. If we follow that, we truly become student-centred, guest-centred. I am hearing that from almost every nation – not in those exact words, but in that sense. That is so

exciting. I’ve been to other Interskis and heard about progression, didactics and methodology, but what I am hearing now is about experience – on different levels and from different nations.

Can you give examples.

Jonathan: For example, understanding and assessing the student through psychology and neuroscience. Or creating decision-making models for instructors that allow them to change their perspective, based on the needs of the student – because this is really about interpersonal skills. Or the approach that the teacher is not on top of the hierarchy, but that everyone is equal, which creates group dynamics, group learning. There were a ton of great ideas, because we all recognise that the main thing we do, is to inspire the guest to spend more time on the mountain and spend more time with us.

How do you see the future of snow sports in general? What are the most important things to consider?

Jonathan: I work for the Aspen Skiing Company and officially I compete with resorts like Vail and Courchevel. But that’s not really true, because we as an industry compete with everything else somebody could do. Skier visits is a flat number around the world. It’s not a popular statement to make, but it’s a fact. The U.S. has the most skiers in the world, number 2 is France, Austria is 3rd, followed by Switzerland and Italy. And each one of our countries has a flat number, not for 3 years, but for 40 years. The population on the other hand has gone up around 35 percent in these 40 years. We are keeping people, but not increasing our numbers. People are choosing to do other things. They are taking cruises, they go to the beach or to amusement parks, they are playing with their phones, they are staying at home during their vacation.

So, we as an industry need to come together and not compete against each other but compete with everything else somebody could do. From my side, I love skiing and snowboarding, it is the most fun thing I can do, and I like to share this with other people.

How can the numbers of skiers be raised world-wide?

Jonathan: We have to do it together. If one resort goes up and five go down, that’s bad for the industry. That’s good for the one resort and they can be happy, but ultimately, they will also be affected by the fact, that we have less people participating. If a resort goes out of business, it’s good for the remaining resorts, but it’s bad for the industry. And eventually, when the industry goes bad, it’s bad for everyone.

Do you see some trend or technology on the horizon that will influence the snow sports world in a tremendous fashion? Jonathan: There are a lot of technological ideas out there, but I don’t know which one it will be. I think greater online accessibility to information and less expensive ways to engage in the sports will make a difference. We also have to go past the sports and hit the emotional experience. It’s not about the technical processes, it’s about fun, that is the key part. When you become a better skier you have more energy and you can even have more fun.

Is there a message you want to send to the world of snow sports?

Jonathan: The only thing more fun, more addictive and more inspiring than skiing and snowboarding is skiing and snowboarding better all the time. And if we embrace that and all the social components that go along with that, we inspire future generations of skiers, snowboarders and telemarkers to inspire others. Sharing the sport is probably the only thing more fun than doing the sport. Think about that time you’re heading off to enjoy sports with your best friend or your girlfriend – that sport becomes so much more fun, because you’re sharing it.


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