The most innovative skis, snowboards, and gear are all showcased at this event for ski shop owners and representatives alike.
STRATTON, VT. — Imagine three days of skiing on skis that nobody else will touch until next October. It’s a special kind of a feeling that only a handful of people get to experience and two weeks ago, at Stratton Mountain Ski Resort, I was one of them.
Every winter, industry representatives and shop employees from all over the Northeast gather to test the equipment they’ll be selling next year. With press credentials around my neck, I was more than willing to dive in to ski the latest innovations.
On the morning of February 4, I hiked from Stratton’s parking lot with a heavy backpack and skis and was lost in the crowd of ski testers, industry reps and vendors. The scene was overwhelming. The entire slope in front of the gondola and American Express lift had been turned into a tent city clustered with trucks and vans. Various banners and flags blew in the wind and the sun off of the snow was blinding.
The event was presented by Eastern Winter Sports Reps Association and New England Winter Sports Reps Association, of which 106 shops with 885 employees were preregistered for the three-day event. There were 115 vans (55 for skis, 36 snowboards, 24 accessories vans with helmets and goggles), and 40 booths (27 for skis, 10 for snowboards, and three for boot fitting) representing over 100 companies.
As a rookie at these events, I asked the nearest brand rep just what was going on.
“For hard goods, this is the single most important event of the year,” Kelly O’Flaherty at the Giro Helmets and Goggles tent told me. “The whole idea is to try it before you buy.”
Sounded good. I decided to talk with some of the people doing the actual trying before buying and wound up meeting Tyler Burak, an employee at East Coast Alpine in Danvers and Boston, Mass., who was ready to demo a glossy new pair of Rossignols. Burak has been working in the ski industry for eleven years and this was his third year at the on-snow demo with East Coast Alpine.
As we skated towards the gondola to meet some buddies of his from the Smith Optics crew, he told me he had high hopes for the skis on his feet and shared some of his observations on new ski technology.
In the progression of ski design and shape, Burak said he’s watched the shape of skis move in a direction somewhat opposite to what it had been – away from the shaped skis and towards a straighter – but not necessarily narrower shape. He said wider skis are gradually becoming more flexible, making them easier for lighter or smaller skiers.
“Unless someone’s 170 or 180 pounds, there are some skis I wouldn’t put them on because they’d get thrown. It’d be just too much ski for them,” he said. “These skis (fat skis in general) are becoming more friendly for skinny people like me.”
At the top of the gondola, before we took the day’s first run, I asked him how important these events are in planning for next season at his shop. His answer was candid:
“When the customer asks what I think of them, I have to know and be able to tell them honestly,” he said.
It’s hard to not be happy when the latest and greatest is right there for you to try a year before the rest of the country. In a previous interview, Steven Cohen, of Masterfit Inc., described the experience as “like a kid in a candy shop,” but in all seriousness, it’s an important three days for retailers and reps alike. In an industry that works well in advance of the next season, decisions made by the testers of each individual shop will have lasting effects in the months to come.
It seemed like every shop was looking for something different.
Steve Cody manages the rental shop at Windham (N.Y.) Mountain and relies on a handful of brands to create a dependable line-up. The brands he prefers give him a starting point for his testing, but he said that doesn’t necessarily make the task any easier.
“I know what I like to ski,” he said. “But it’s tough to find something that I can trust and that I think customers will trust as well.”
Meanwhile, Frankie Palacone and Tyler Breuer were looking for next year’s skis and equipment for their four shops on Long Island. They told me finding the right skis that appeal to their customer base is becoming more of a challenge and that getting the right gear into their shops early season was key to sales. As a result, Palacone said they had to move faster and work harder to get the goods on the floor. On Tuesday and Wednesday, he was among the first to arrive.
Fortunately, the weather cooperated. On Tuesday it was hardpack and clear; on Wednesday it dumped snow all over the state, and Thursday it was a bluebird special.
“This is the best possible situation,” said Ryan Cook on Thursday morning, skiing for Paul’s Ski and Sport in Salisbury, Mass. “To go from a bluebird day to a powder day back to blue sky with even more snow gives you the best possible sense of what these skis and boards are going to do.”
While I admit I’ve never worked in a ski shop, I’d like to think my experience as a ski instructor and 22 years on skis (I started at 2) allows me to know a little bit about quality skis when I click into the bindings.
In three days, I sampled some great pairs of skis from both major manufacturers — including Atomic, Volkl, K2 and Line — as well as smaller brands, such as Liberty and Icelantic. All performed amazingly. Every pair was in factory condition, perfectly tuned and gave as true a performance as intended by the designers.
Many of the skis I tried, which were updates to existing models, are in production and getting ready for summer distribution. Next season, skiers can expect upgrades to popular skis like the Volkl Mantra or the K2 Rictor. Common updates include increased torsional flex, reduced weight, more rocker versus camber and, of course, new graphics.
For the retail reps, such events equate to long and busy days.
Geoff Bruce is a sales rep for skateboard companies Matix, Globe and Dwindle in his territory of New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland. He also owns a headwear company called Pukka and a line of men’s underwear called Brass that’s earned the endorsement of rap superstar Snoop Dogg. To get one of the biggest names in the music industry to endorse your brand takes some serious legwork and Bruce is one guy who’s willing to go that extra mile. As a result, he spends lots of time on the road, traveling to Atlantic City, Orlando and Denver, depending on the sport and the season. And he said he was ready for a break.
“I try and stay with companies that are all independent that don’t have a sales staff of their own,” he said. “So they have a hired gun come in and do it for them, and that’s me. That’s why I work with a lot of cool midsize companies.”
No matter the size of the companies or the retailers inspecting the goods, the reaction to the scene was positive.
David Nihun was working as a rep at the Icelantic tent, which is a small independent company making all-mountain skis. He also works at a shop in Portsmouth, N.H., giving him experience as both the industry rep and the guy on the floor selling the goods.
“People are always coming into our shop and asking who’s got the best skis,” he said, while adjusting the bindings for my boots with a cordless drill. “I tell them that these days, everyone’s got good skis. You can’t lose.”
Ten minutes later I was ripping through fresh powder with those Icelantics underfoot and let out a few hoots and hollers. I think the guy might have a point.