Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Shop Grunt's Lament

As I walked out on Main Street in Jackson
As I walked out in Jackson one day
I spied a poor shop grunt all dressed in old Gore Tex
with a weird sense of humor and hair turning gray.

I saw by his outfit he'd been a tree hugger
with wide skis and big boots and poor classic form.
He'd tried to fit in, but sadly had blundered --
for years his reception had been less than warm.

He said to me, "Stranger, if you'd work in Jackson
keep quiet until you are told what to think.
Because if you boldly express your opinion
you'll blow it and your reputation will stink.

"I gave it a shot but I spoke out too quickly.
My brash overconfidence caused me to fail.
I had to say something and laid on too thickly,
so now I'm being run out of town on a rail."

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Jackson Ski Touring Foundation Retail Challenge

Northeastern Nordic skiing powerhouse Jackson Ski Touring is looking for a new retailer to provide products and services inside the touring center. This is extremely challenging because of Jackson's unique business structure and customer demographics.

Jackson Ski Touring is a bit like a religious institution. It isn't simply a large-scale commercial Nordic touring operation. It has some direct roots that extend as far back as the beginning of New England skiing, which is to say as far back as skiing in the United States. Yet it also has tributary streams that spring from each freshening of skiing interest.

The real nuts and bolts operation that exists today descends fairly directly from the founding in 1972 of the non-profit organization that oversees it. But some of the people involved at the time go way back. Just as the founding of the first organized Christian churches came decades (maybe centuries) after the death of the individual for whom the faith was named, so did the founding of JSTF merely pull together a number of threads in the skiing faith. And those original saints and martyrs, or their descendants, still live around there. This is hardly obvious to someone who might be a competent skier and technically capable, but who was raised an agnostic skier, without heroes, devils, or much supporting mythology.

The founders and their families represent just one group in the complex clientele. The customer population sorts out along many lines: skiing ability, financial status, resident, non-resident, seasonal resident, visiting tourist, visiting racer, visiting sport skier, and many more. Most local enthusiasts have favorite shops already, where they can shop before November and after April, when the touring center retail location cannot operate.

For the Jackson touring center shop, the bulk of the revenue comes from visiting skiers. These are mostly beginners and intermediates. Some are buying their first gear. Others are upgrading. Most Nordic ski customers tend to hold onto their equipment for a long time. Thirty years is not out of the question. Ten or fifteen years is common.

A small portion of income comes from sales of top-end performance gear. High performance skiers tend to like a lot of technical wizardry around their purchases, so they are easily discouraged from buying at any shop where they have the faintest notion that the person helping them is beneath them. Upgrading intermediates, however, are often happy to have a simpler summary of technical points, even if they're moving up to their first really expensive ski. They want to know how it works, often in detail, but they don't drop a lot of insider tidbits like code numbers for specific Fischer ski cores and flexes. They don't really care of you pull out the super-zoot ski flex tester and convince them the ski is tailored to them to the nearest gram.

Whoever works the floor in the Jackson touring center retail shop needs to be ready to deal with this entire range of customers as well as ringing up hundreds of sales of hats, lip balm, gloves and hand and toe warmers.

Because the retail provider is an outside contractor, whoever ends up managing the outpost will find him (or her) self squarely between the Foundation management, his own shop management, and those among the locals who like to try to call the shots whether they're in the chain of command or not. In various ways these secret shoppers can insert themselves into JSTF's decision making process in ways that may not be readily visible to the field commander. You soon find out that a lot of decisions are made well above your security clearance level.

Jackson faces the daunting task of finding a shop that reflects the image they are trying to project, of the most formidable cross-country ski center in the northeast United States. They've negotiated with some large names in outdoor retail. But a place like L.L. Bean, for instance, is going to want to put its stamp on the operation in a big way. This threatens to eclipse the independent greatness and heritage of Jackson Ski Touring itself.

Jackson might prefer to use a retailer with strong roots in the Mount Washington Valley, because the Valley has its own reputation in American skiing. Unfortunately, the most popular Nordic shop in Mount Washington Valley is barely in the valley at all. It sits at the bottom of the Mount Washington Auto Road, at the Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center. It is staffed by a crew of likable locals headlined by Nate and Eli, two really nice dudes who are also really great skiers. They've been with Great Glen from the beginning, as I understand it. Did I mention they're really nice dudes? However, they don't own their shop

For Great Glen to open a branch at Jackson Ski Touring would put both places at risk of losing their independent identities. Sure as fate, the word would start to get around that Great Glen was part of Jackson or Jackson had been taken over by Great Glen. Along with all the other things that are hard to explain about JSTF and how it all works, this would have to be added. No one really NEEDS to know, but curious people would WANT to know. The confusion could create unnecessary turbulence for both parties. Whose name goes on top? Who pays what to whom? And who gets custody of Nate and Eli?

Other contenders, like Reliable Racing or Gorham Bike and Ski, would have to see considerable advantage to themselves to be willing to undertake the hassle of setting up a shop that has to completely disappear no later than the second week of April, only to be painstakingly rebuilt the following November. Mount Washington Valley-based staff would be ideal, but how do you assure their allegiance to the home office and keep their quality control at a level that reflects well on the home office's image?

Valley-based staff for Jackson Ski Touring's retail shop would be able to take advantage of their local connections. They'd have a short commute, helping them arrive punctually and refreshed. On the down side, all outdoor sports are somewhat competitive, and Nordic skiing actually includes racing, so your local talent might have a few detractors as well as friends. Anyone who hires them inherits the bad with the good. In a little fish bowl like The Valley, some people have long memories and not a lot of forgiveness. So your retailer from away might accidentally hire someone who interviewed well but who had serious issues with some key people in the customer base or Jackson management.

On the subject of unforgivable transgressions, let's also mention in passing that a perfectly well-meaning boob might fatally wound a shop's chances with a few tactless remarks in the wrong place. These things can happen, believe it or not. It's less likely with likable local dudes like Nate and Eli, but that package comes with its own difficulties as detailed earlier. Any outside concern might blunder during the early period of growing pains. Open lines of communication not only between the two businesses, JSTF and retail but also up and down the chains of command in both businesses will be vital to creating a truly productive working relationship for them.

I've been aware of their dilemma since 2004, and acutely aware of it since the fall of 2005. I've even been sympathetic to it, but as long as no one was going to approach me to discuss it, I wasn't going to bring it up. I observed various potential candidates, such as the short-lived Hurricane Mountain Multisport shop. I figured them for a shoo-in, but it never happened. If JSTF had been smart about it they would have thrown that guy the bone, even if one of the local deep pockets had to bankroll him for a while and coach him on management and customer relations.

A local deep pocket could try to buy Nate and Eli away from Great Glen, but they would have to arrange summer employment, either by setting up Nate and Eli in their own shop or just by putting them on some sort of summer retainer. Buying the boys away from Great Glen would probably start some sort of ugliness between regional power players, so that's probably not a good option.

One solution could be for Great Glen to move the headquarters of its retail operations to the valley floor and run both the Great Glen Trails shop and a theoretical Jackson Ski Touring shop as satellites. That sounds expensive and complicated for Great Glen, with debatable gains. The only business they would gain that they don't already have is the transient trade at Jackson. Would that offset the expense required to obtain it? With three retail outlets under the Great Glen banner, it would be like three separate doors to one giant shop. We're starting to get into some big business economics now. This might be the seed of a regional or national venture. In for a million, in for a billion, I always say.

As you can see, someone faces a considerable challenge in sorting through all this. No retail provider is perfect. The powerful ones pose a threat to Jackson's own brand in the marketplace. Any lesser shop runs the risk of looking too dinky or like an upstart to the people who are really in the know up there. As always in business, are the risks worth the gains? A really big outfit like Bean or REI risks a much smaller percentage of their capital to extend a small feeler into what is actually quite a tight retail space. A smaller shop stands much more exposed financially for what could be proportionally greater gains, but also greater wounds in case of a bad snow year or other setbacks.

Whatever happens, Jackson will go on. Ultimately, for the people who really love it, Jackson is about the skiing, not the shopping. They do the skiing better than anyone in the region. Maintaining that alone is an exhausting job. The rest of the stuff has to be there because that's part of the Big Touring Center experience. Jackson Ski Touring started in the back room of a shop and now has a shop in the back room. Putting together the right blend of businesses and a level of services that not only looks impressive but actually works economically is not a simple task.

We wait to see what the next solution looks like.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Jackson Ski Touring was like Nordic Graduate School

In 2000, when I first arrived at the Jackson Ski Touring complex, I knew a lot more about dodging trees and skiing with various kinds of load on my shoulders than I did about the laboratory-perfect skating and striding a facility of that caliber allows.

Faced with the need to serve a varied and as-yet-unknown clientele, I knew I would have to get up to speed in a hurry. I had enough familiarity with a broad range of Nordic technique and technology to get started. The touring center itself provided the depth.

Thrown in at the deep end with a variety of stressors, I also had a number of resources to draw on. These included a ready supply of gear and a trail network that ran right by the door. Convenience like that is hard to beat. In addition, the facility had some highly knowledgeable and accessible people on the staff or among the regular clientele.

The popular term for my learning style is "autodidact." This is a nice way of saying "stubborn jerk who doesn't do well in structured learning situations." I speak only for myself, not for the respectable body of admirable autodidacts out there. Given the wealth of experience and knowledge trailside at Jackson I was able to glean knowledge and perform my experiments in a continuous thread throughout each ski season.

In every case I try to share what I have learned unstintingly with anyone who hasn't encountered it yet. I don't care if they admire me for knowing it. I don't care if they even know my name. I just want them to know what I know so they know it themselves and can take advantage of it. So from that standpoint, Jackson was a banquet of experience translated into shared knowledge.

It was always about the skiing. Exposed on the sales floor it was also like improvisational theater. Under the spotlights, before a live audience, play your heart out. Many customers thanked me or members of my staff for the full, complete and honest presentation. We matched up a lot of skiers with carefully chosen gear. A number of them continue to seek us out. Sometimes this involved staying well after closing time. Our schedule hardly rivals the grueling days of the center's executive director or the brute labors of the patrol, especially in lean snow years that require a lot of shoveling, but in terms of hours awake and time spent thinking about how to make it work the job very soon expanded to consume a lot of life outside of official business hours.

In the spirit of cooperative enterprise, retail staff would often have to answer questions about the facility when Foundation staff were either overwhelmed by other customers or momentarily absent. It's like working in Walt Disney World: everyone has to know the layout of the park and the location of the nearest restrooms or snack bars. We did this without being asked.

Mind you I only lasted one summer at Disney World. I prefer my rides less structured and predictable.

I can be pretty blunt when sharing my opinions. Try as I might to be informative and entertaining, I have to face the fact that I also just piss some people off. Thrown on stage in a setting like Jackson, where the business structure can be confusing even to those somewhat familiar with it, let alone visitors from away, when I stepped on someone's toes it had a disconcerting way of echoing across miles and miles of New England, sometimes even rattling windows lightly as far away as LL Bean headquarters. I never did get used to that. Who really could? Even stranger, I often would not hear a sound until months later when I was knocked off my feet by a shock wave.

None of that has a single thing to do with skiing. When I found I could not control it, I ignored it, concentrating on what I could do instead. I remember a friend in college, a graduate student in French, telling me hair raising tales of departmental intrigue, politics and hostility. People get caught up in the importance of their own little universe and start playing all kinds of games with each other's heads. One grad student in that program committed suicide. Things that start out centered on something that's supposed to be light hearted can turn surprisingly poisonous.

Any season could have been the last. Because of that I always tried to value the experience of skiing there and experience it as often as possible. It's simple on the snow. Just ski.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Great Trails. Difficult People.

I had to seriously revise this post. Some idiot thought it was about parking. Still, I like the raw frustration in it. And hey: no one has objected directly to me about it, just talked to someone else. Par for the course.

Working with the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation is like getting on the Tilt-A-Whirl: it seems like it should be fun, but long before the ride is over you're ready to puke and just want it to end.

All Nordic areas, particularly in the eastern USA, labor under various handicaps.

Corporately-owed areas like Bretton Woods and other networks attached to alpine areas often find themselves treated like useless appendages or even hemorrhoids by their corporate owners. Nordic never turns impressive dollars compared to lift-served sports, golf and land rape.

Small private areas hope they can find the right size for their niche to allow them to survive the stresses any small business faces, compounded by the similarity between operating a touring center and operating a small farm. You need the weather to cooperate so you can produce the crop. Then you need people hungry for it to show up and consume it before it shrivels.

In Jackson's case, the particular handicap is the management of the non-profit corporation by a board of directors, and the relationship the touring center has with the town from which it takes its name. They're big, with the appetite of any large organism, but held together by tenuous agreements and a never-ending battle against encroaching development as well as the usual whims of weather and fitness fads.

As a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation, the Foundation can only derive income from limited sources. In order to preserve its delicate balance with local business owners, it also has to be careful about how it introduces competitors into the local economy. Yet, as a big-time cross-country ski area it wants to be able to offer a high level of skier services to the vacationers and day trippers it ceaselessly trolls for with its marketing campaigns and relentless attempts to get inserted into the news hole of various print media.

Because a private service provider like the retail concessionaire has to be a separate entity, the Foundation has to coexist with an entirely independent business under its roof. We're all in the fun business. We all want to keep the sport of Nordic skiing alive and well, if not growing. But the diverse and secretive board, filtering its wishes through the persona of the executive director, has a great deal of difficulty managing this symbiosis.

As the retailer there for the past nine years, the shop I work for has operated under the critical observation of many sets of eyes. Because the board seems to relish its anonymity, they do not share with us who might be active on it from year to year. Only individual members of it might mention their status to qualify for a discount. In fact, I can find no readily accessible published list of the board. There's no easy link from their website, nor is it published in a sidebar in the newsletters piled on the front counter, as other non-profits frequently do.

If the foundation and its board dealt openly and cooperatively with their retail contractor, the touring center could be a great place to work. Instead, their management displayed a competitive and condescending attitude toward us from the outset. Whoever tries to fulfill the retail role will face the same critical scrutiny as they try to run their business in an enclosure reminiscent of a pony ride at a spoiled little girl's birthday party. In spite of this I personally did not start out with a negative attitude toward them. I'd heard stories over the years, but I was going to wait and see. Others in my organization either lost their patience early or never had any to begin with.

Jackson Ski Touring does a lot of things well. Unfortunately, this gives some in the organization and among its supporters the misconception that they can do no wrong. Only others can do wrong. These wrongs will usually not be pointed out in a constructive fashion.

A large number of extremely cool people ski at the facility. It's just the small number of whiners, snobs and stuffed shirts who make a poisonous atmosphere in which to work. Of course there are always difficult people among the transient visitors during any season as well, but that just goes with running an amusement park. Welcome to the Happiest Place on Earth! (smiley face). It's the local sneaks and snakes who create the insurmountable difficulty of unrealistic expectations.

This was my gut reaction to the news that The Board had finally decided to sever our retail arrangement. People can take it in a bad way as an affront and an attack or they can step back and analyze what they might be doing to inspire such feelings. Whether they intended it or not, some of their tactics amounted to psychological warfare. In the best psychological manipulation, the manipulator preserves deniability and the victim can never be sure what's intentional. That's what makes it effective. But it could also just be a lack of social and business skills on the part of the people originating it, in this case known and unknown players in Jackson.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Waxing Analytical

One major reason cross-country skiing has been in decline since the late 1980s is that it involves five or six different forms of three different substances that do two different jobs, all called "wax."

All Nordic skis require, or at least benefit from, applications of one or more of these substances. The entire study of techniques related to selecting the right ones and applying them is referred to generically as "waxing."

Snowshoeing, anyone? All you do is strap those on and go.

Those who love Nordic skiing love it in their own way, with all the complexities, not to say flaws, their chosen form brings with it. Some people learn a little about the world of waxing. A few learn to tell them all apart and can use each one appropriately. A smaller number than that gets really deep into the tweaky aspects of it, spending up to $180 an ounce on some waxes.

Outdoor recreation industries all make the same mistake when presented with a boom. They act as if the good times will roll forever. The inevitable decline always takes them by surprise. It happened to bicycling twice, coming out of the 1970s road bike boom and again when the 1990s mountain bike boom crashed. It happened to backpacking in the 1980s, too, when all the major manufacturers of quality gear became clothing companies that had gear lines on the side.

Nordic skiing faces an additional handicap by depending on natural snow. First you have to get it. Then you have to be able to wax for it. When all skis needed grip wax, skiers learned a whole lot in a hurry about how different one batch of white stuff might be from another, and how it changed further from day to day. This led to the invention of the "fish scale" or "no-wax" ski. All well and good, but if there's no snow those skis look like a waste of money. Learning to care for them and operate them is a waste of time.

All booms end. They usually leave behind a number of new participants who become loyal and dedicated to the activity in question, but the small number of survivors going forward can never support the kind of commerce the fashionable frenzy did.

In non-boom times, activities attract a small, steady number of recruits. As numbers fluctuate from year to year, any survivors among the businesses that formed around the boom lean eagerly forward, waiting for the frenzy to begin again. To amuse the regulars and entice curious outsiders, companies fiddle with the equipment. Rather than creating silly-looking ski shapes or fragile, complicated bindings, how about coming up with catchy, distinctive, memorable and DIFFERENT names for all the things currently called WAX?

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Pilot vs 666

Friday we tested skating skis equipped with the two competing systems, Salomon Pilot and Rottefella NNN. It was not the NNN triumph our Fischer rep had hoped to achieve.

We put the boots on at least four people. Only one thought they had potential to become comfortable on his foot. He also liked the ride on the skis with NNN, but has not skated extensively on any technique-specific equipment. Anything would feel more precise than pushing himself around on 200+ cm classic skis with low-topped, soft racing classic boots.

In the rigid-soled boots, on that strange, flared binding plate, I felt isolated from the ski and the snow. The boot didn't hurt as much as I thought it might. It would have hurt if I'd skied a long time, but we wanted to compare the two systems back-to-back to get the sharpest impression.

NNN suffers from the inherent handicap of any single-bar binding for skating. The boot is rigid and the binding has those wings on it to make up for the tenuous connection provided by only a single bar. If they have to stick to a single bar, perhaps they could place it farther back under the foot to limit lift and maintain sole contact to increase lateral control. It would not have to be more than a couple of centimeters to achieve this effect. On the down side, the strain on that bar would be considerably greater than on anything currently in use. But hey: that's what engineers are for. Figure it out. Helpful hint to start you off: the boot sole would have to be a bit springy to enhance the spring of the binding itself. This flex would also increase the comfort of the boot.

To the laboratory! Quickly!

Skiing the Salomon felt as supple and sweet as ever. Until the Rotten Fellas get a better act together I know where I'll be. Unless I'm somewhere else entirely.