'Louisa Albanese'
Outside Business Journal

Rise of the Rentals

As skiers and snowboarders travel more to distant mountains, the gear rental market is booming to keep up

Carolyn Webber

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While hauling his luggage out the door, Eric Derflinger ticks off each item from his mental packing list.

Jackets, pants, and gloves? Check, check, check. Skis and poles? A split second of panic, then he remembers he’s renting this time around. Old habits are hard to break.

A few years ago, skis would have been the first thing Ohio-based Derflinger tossed in his car before driving to the airport for a ski trip, but hefty baggage fees have convinced him to give renting a try. Lugging gear around an airport and to the resort was always a hassle, anyway.

He’s not alone: resort town ski shops are bursting with people renting their gear. By all accounts, the number of skiers and snowboarders hopping flights or driving across state lines in search of stoke is up, and more of those powder-hungry winter enthusiasts are leaving their gear at home. Instead, they’re renting and demoing on (or near) the mountain.

Flying Solo

“Rentals have been extremely successful, and increasing,” said Bill Irwin, a seasoned rental manager for Elan USA Corp. In his 25 years of visiting ski shops and resorts around the U.S., he’s watched the rise of rentals sweep across the industry.

Why? Convenience, for one. “I always rent when I fly,” said Roddie Haley, a skier picking out demo gear at Jackson’s Base Camp in Park City, Utah, one day last December. “It’s a pain to take my gear with me and pay extra.” With round-trip baggage charges ranging from $100 to $200 and a demo package of brand-new products running about $50 a day, the math makes sense.

Nick Sargent, president of SnowSports Industries America, has been watching the trend unfold as the next generation of skiers hits the slopes. He defines the group as “cost-savvy, time-sensitive, and technology-driven,” which translates into unique customer habits: they follow the snow and book their trips last-minute.

What’s more, skiers are increasingly purchasing multi-resort passes, allowing them access to unprecedented terrain around the globe. With Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass (access to 65 resorts) or Alterra Mountain Company’s Ikon Pass (38 resorts) in hand, trips to Whistler Blackcomb, Keystone, and Squaw Valley in one season are that much more doable.

rental counter at Jackson's Base Camp at Park City, Utah.
The rental counter at Jackson’s Base Camp at Park City, Utah. (Photo: Carolyn Webber Alder)

Try Over Buy

There’s one more reason skiers and riders, especially experienced ones, might be tempted to travel without gear: to take high-performance demos for a spin. “If they were to bring their skis, they’d only bring one pair,” said Sam Beck, director of marketing and communications for Nordica. “But if they’re renting or demoing, they can trade it in or out according to the conditions.” Skiers and riders lust after testing the latest technology, and shops are keeping up with customer demand by offering a wide selection of high-quality performance skis.

The old trope of beat-up rental skis is on the outs as ski shops, particularly at destination resorts, upgrade their rental and demo fleets more often. Jackson Knoll, owner of Jackson’s Base Camp, replaces his 168 pairs of skis and boards with new products every single year.

Jack Walzer, general manager at JANS Mountain Outfitters in Park City, has begun changing his fleet to cater to this experienced demo crowd, swapping out the novice-friendly sport skis that used to be popular for high-performance demo models. “We had about 260 sport skis a couple of years ago, and maybe 150 high-performance [packages],” Walzer said. Now, the shop maintains a more even split.

The costs graph for epic, ikon and mountain collective passes
The breakdown of Epic, Ikon, and Mountain Collective ski passes. (Photo: Courtesy)

Give ‘Em What They Want

A subset of skiers—often city dwellers who travel once or twice a year to ski—like demoing and renting so much they’ve gone all in, choosing to demo indefinitely over purchasing their own set of skis. Industry leaders say Europe has already moved in this direction and, based on numbers, the U.S. is likely to follow.

“It’s a steady increase in rentals balancing a steady decrease in retail,” Irwin said.

Nordica recently updated its most popular retail skis (which are increasingly used for demos) to have a thicker topsheet for added durability, Beck said, answering the call for gear that can stand up to repetitive use and continuous tuning. In the 2018-19 season, Nordica released its rental-specific ski, the Drive; the tail shape, ski width, and rocker were all designed so beginners and novices could more comfortably navigate off groomers. And in F19, the brand will launch its new boot line, the Cruise for adults and Speedmachine J3 for juniors. The boots are lighter and more comfortable, and include a dual soft flap opening to make slipping them on and off easier. Rockered heels and Gripwalk technology in the soles are aimed to improve walkability.

Elan has experimented with a new way to increase flex and maintain durability in skis. The resulting technology, called U-Flex in junior skis and Groove Technology in adult products, has lines cut into the topsheet that flex like little hinges.

This technology is in the F17 junior Explore ski and the F18 adult Element ski, which are available now for rental and retail. The bumped-up durability is breaking into the company’s rising demo market as well. “Over the last two years, we’ve doubled our performance rental market share,” Irwin said. “And this year, I think we will go higher than that.”

Demo skis have also become an increasingly important part of DPS’s sales, said spokesman Alex Hunt. The brand recently partnered with Aspen Skiing Company to provide its innovative base treatment, Phantom Permanent Waxless Glide to be used on the company’s demo fleet. Once ski shops apply the one-time treatment, they eliminate the time-consuming process of re-waxing skis and boards.

As the travel-to-ski trend gains steam, it can’t hurt to make it easier for footloose skiers—and the shops that serve them—to rent and demo gear. And brands that embrace it might just gain the upper hand.