Ep. 1: Black Tie Ski Rental Delivery with Ian Prichard
“Not wanting to wait in line never goes in or out of style, it’s a pain point that is always there with someone’s vacation.”
This is a summary of the original podcast with Ian from Black Tie Skis, some information has been added to provide context/links and to create a written format of our chat. I hope that you find this to be a helpful resource. I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments. Enjoy!
How did Black Tie Skis come to life? When did you start and how?
We started Black Tie out of my one-car garage about 18 years ago and it’s lucky enough to still be headquartered out of here. Back in 2002-2003 was our first season and it just it took off pretty quickly, We bought a used van and a new van and just through word of mouth to our friends, started running it and got some good feedback through some of our local connections.
Were you solo at that point or did you have a partner?
I did have a partner. I started the business with my business partner Joe Sternberg and we were lucky enough to have a great first employee and Justin Lang, who had a really good IT background. He helped us build our website and built a reservation system from scratch, which we are actually really now just coming off of amazingly enough. From there we just had some friends helping us out. And as we grew during that season, we hired on some more people but it started pretty grassroots. Very organic.
Joe had a condo up a little closer to the mountain without the luxury of a garage but a great location. So we were able to closet some gear out of his place as well.
Joe and I worked in ski shops going all the way back from Rochester New York where we met while I was still in college and as we got out to Steamboat, we worked at a shop right at the base of the Sheraton Hotel is owned by the ski resort and how the demand started.
What was the ah-ha moment to start ski rental delivery?
When Alan Jackson, country singer, at the time was very well known and still is in some circles, but he was in Steamboat and apparently during his lunch hour was getting hounded by some autograph seekers and hadn’t gotten to his ski rentals yet. So he called down from their suite in the Sheridan and asked if we could bring up the equipment so that he and his family wouldn’t have to go down and get it kind of hounded by autograph seekers again. So we kind of looked at each other and said yes. Let’s give it a shot. Why not? We went up there and did the fit and it went great and all got $100 tips and left that fitting and that’s when Joe and I reconvened, a couple of weeks later talking about, could we make this a business could we just do delivery and not have the expensive storefront of on snow locations. So that’s kind of where the idea really really took off and you know, once we started talking about it we decided to give it a go.
So then was it all celebrities after that?
Yes, Joe used to have a little joking term, “Fitters to the Stars”, because we opened a branch and Aspen a couple of years later, so we certainly had a good fun list of celebrities. They’re not so much in Steamboat, Steamboats pretty chill as far as the celebrities go.
What was the response from customers to skis being delivered?
We really didn’t know what to expect in our first year. We thought it would be a little bit of a slower start. But now that we’ve opened up other locations we did realize how it really was a perfect storm in Steamboat to launch this business. The town was hungrier for something better some of the shops there were kind of a little tired. Steamboat was categorized at the time at least as a “B Resort” in some of the retail shop’s world, it was not an A so they didn’t get all the good gear.
We came in and bought all brand new gear, really high-end stuff and we delivered it. So it made it a lot easier for the hotels that were on the edge of the steamboat horseshoe. The way the base area is designed is kind of like a natural Horseshoe, and the lodging that’s up on the higher end of the Horseshoe, it’s very inconvenient to get down to the base and get ski rentals.
It usually involves a shuttle to get there and then you fit up the gear and you got to get the shuttle to come back and take it back to the hotel and you do the whole thing over again when you return the gear so, to those properties we were a much-welcomed service, so that really helped it grow quickly.
I would say our home-run properties were the ski-in ski-out properties because for guests there really was no need to go into the base unless they’re grabbing some food or something and it’s actually more convenient to just leave your ski-in ski-out property. If you have all your gear, you can ski right down to the lift and not have to worry about you know going through the maze of the base area. So we allowed them to cut out some of the pain points, especially on your first morning of skiing.
Who is Black Tie Ski rental delivery best suited for?
Anyone with the family or a group, once they get a taste of having you come to the room and not having to go to the store and you know, they can relax and have a glass of wine or a beer while we fit up their kids. You know while they’re watching TV. It’s something you really can’t go back from.
The family’s benefit the most, those are the people that appreciate our service. Now, as a husband and dad with two kids, vacations are brutal. The travel and everything that goes along with it and by the time most of our guests have gotten to the resort, they’re going on ten-hour travel days. There are exhausted and to have us just show up and have us take care of everything is really a game-changer.
Is Black Tie Skis more expensive and only for premium skiers?
Our name doesn’t always help but we really are very competitively priced, the fact that we do delivery, we don’t charge a premium for that. There’s no upcharge for that because we have lower overheads than a lot of the shops that are right on the snow, we can keep our pricing very competitive.
So right along the same lines of the on the snow shops and sometimes even less.
What does the Black Tie Ski Rental delivery process look like?
We really try to change the old habit of thinking I have to get your gear the morning of because of the way we look at it. That’s a very small window of time that everyone wants their gear. That means they all want their gear between 8 and 9 AM so they can get on the hill when it opens to get to their lessons. Very early on we realized, it was way more convenient for the guests as well as us operationally to do all the fittings the night before. That’s really where all of our focus is, even though you’re catching people after they’ve been traveling, you knock it out nice and early, they’re in their condos and they’re relaxed and then they don’t have to worry about it the next morning and we don’t have to be as rushed either.
We can really spend some more time with the guests because we act like concierges. They’re asking us, where to go, what to do and so, doing all that the night before just makes it a much better seamless process.
That really is kind of one of the secrets that make our service so great that people don’t realize and it’s very hard for brick and mortar shops to do that because they’re getting all their returns and then they’re also trying to fit people and that all happening in the same space is very challenging.
We also have the ability to be open much longer because we’re not staffing as many people and we know when our fittings are so we tend to go all the way up till 10 o’clock at night, which our guests enjoy, it gives them time. That being said we certainly can do fittings in the morning and make sure that they’re scheduled and that we still have enough time to get them where they’re going.
At the end of the ski trip, can you leave the gear behind at the condo or at the concierge desk and take off, or does that have to be scheduled?
It’s case by case, really. There are snow lockers, a lot of times they can leave the gear there if it’s in a relatively safe area. They just leave it unlocked or we can get the code from the front desk if it’s a lock situation.
If it’s a ski valet environment, the same thing they can just leave it there. And we can coordinate with the valet give the guests names and collect the gear that way. So most of the time there really isn’t even a need for interaction or coordination with us and the guest on the return, which the guests really appreciate, one less thing. It’s like getting out of your Uber and walking away.
What’s the key difference in sport, performance, and demo skis? If you’re a beginner, what should you start off with?
Yeah, it’s a great question. It’s something again where we’ve kind of flipped the switch a little bit on the industry.It used to be that you’re married to your ability level when it came to equipment if you had never skied before, the guy would go in the basement of the shop and bring out the rusty straight skis and whatever is the junkiest stuff. And then the same side if you were an expert skier, they would get you the new shiny stuff or talk you into the demo package.
We really look at our packages very differently, we look at them as the newness of equipment. We say all the time if I have someone who’s never skied before I still want them in our premium package and we purposely don’t even use the word demo because it’s a very misused term. It kind of goes way back when demonstration skis came about and they were next year’s skis and they were like test skis and at that word just kind of stuck and it’s more of a retail-driven term.
Our top package, we call Premium and it has skis for all ability levels. It just happens to be new.
My Analogy is are you have a better time learning how to drive a car on a really fun Porsche or sports car or a brand new truck or rusty old car? We get compliments all the time by instructors saying we just love the newness of your gear and the fact that you give beginners skis that actually have edges on them that are appropriately sized.
What’s exciting in the ski and snowboard industry coming out either the past couple of years or come out this year?
There has been a lot of breakthroughs with boots, that is one thing I think is evolving more and more. They’re just more comfortable, easier to get in and out of, some of the manufacturers have done a really good job having like an easy step-in system. You barely even have to touch the boot and you can get in and out of it.
A space that we have gotten into and that is a pretty cool technology breakthrough is the heated boot. It’s actually heated boots, you can charge them up in their liner has some electrodes and it literally heats up and there is a button on the side of it, you can turn it up and turn it down.
Solomon was the first one to come out with one. We ordered them the first year they had them and it was great and they continue to improve them now. We take pride in
We pride ourselves at Black Tie, all of our locations now offer the heated boots and it’s something we want guests to know and fall in love with and come to expect it when they rent from Black Tie because it really is a game-changer when you have those cold temperatures to have some boot with some heat in it.
What does ski rental look like for you during the Coronavirus pandemic? What are some of the things that you’re doing to make 2020-2021 safer?
Disinfecting all of the gear, staff wearing masks and more. Those protocols in place for taking it very seriously.
Even when covid hit back in March, we immediately formed a covid committee within the black-tie ownership group. There are about four owners on that committee, along with myself and we have weekly calls and talk about everything we’re doing differently, whether it’s from an online reservation standpoint, operations in the room with our guests and with our staff.
We’ve brought in human resources corporate consultants out of the Vail who is an expert in HR who has helped us with some inserts with our employee handbook so that employees know what’s expected of them with the temperature checks, with all the quarantining, if that becomes something we have to do.
We’re following all the state guidelines as well.
Educating our guests
And educating our guests also because it has to go both ways, making sure that they know our expectations when we come into a room, we don’t want to come into a room where all the doors and windows are closed and it’s 90 degrees and no one is wearing a mask. That’s not fair to our staff either so really making sure that our guests, understand to wear a mask. We will have extra disposable masks offer to them if they’ve lost one or don’t have one.
Different levels of delivery
We’re offering all different levels of limited contact all the way up to completely contact-free for the ski rental fittings. Dependent on what their comfort level is, what their needs are from, how much interaction needs to occur during the fitting.
If it’s a repeat guest and we know all their size information it can be literally leaving their stuff at the doorstep. If it’s a brand new family that has no idea which direction a ski even points, then we’ve got to get creative while still keeping our distance. Some instructions and make sure that their gear is adjusted properly and safely.
What to wear skiing if you’re planning a trip and renting skis/snowboard?
It depends on our locations, meaning in some of our locations, we do rent the clothes as well. Which again, we’re taking a lot of steps to make sure that those are professionally washed and cleaned.
Your checklist of ski gear certainly with how amazing forecasts are now looking at forecasting. How cold is going to be and how wet. Do you need more Gore-Tex? Do you need more insulation? In our line of work, ski socks are incredibly important. We do bring a retail bag to most all of our fittings.
We carry really nice ski socks. We partnered up with point six, making sure you have a really good wicking ski sock is an important thing.
Goggles, that’s obviously another one. We do carry those as well. If for some reason you forget your own helmets, we do rent. So those again go through the rigorous disinfecting procedures.
Renting helmets, if you don’t own one is something you certainly want to make sure you do as well.
Other things that you may want on your ski trip checklist are:
- Long underwear
- Baselayers in the form of a light fleece or wool top
- Ski or snowboard jacket
- Waterproof ski or snowboard pants
- Neck gaiter or balaclava
What are some of your favorite ski resorts and areas?
That’s like asking me to pick my favorite kids! A couple of things that come into play. It’s the town and then the ski hill itself, but as a start in Colorado, I’ve got a pretty solid soft spot for both Telluride and Crested Butte. Incredible ski towns.
They still have that really cool small feel both of them with the downtown atmosphere where you got the restaurants in what used to be someone’s house, you know, and I think that that is super cool. Telluride from a logistic and ski experience is pretty hard to beat the town Gondola. Absolutely incredible. I mean you get to Telluride you’re not getting in a car the whole time you’re there. No shuttle, no car, the gondola takes you know back and forth between mountain village and downtown.I’ve been to Europe a number of times in the summer I’ve not had the chance to be there in the winter but I like to think that Telluride is kind of one of the closest things we have to European ski experience, we can take gondolas to different places.
Obviously, I’ve been in Steamboat for 20 years. I still think the snow in Steamboat is the best in the world when we get our light champagne powder days skiing the trees and Steamboat is as unsurpassed in my very very biased opinion.
Then you go out to the other, the more extreme mountains, the Jackson holes, which we’ve just opened a location there. So I have not skied there in many years. So I’m really looking forward to spending some time there.
What I put in that similar category, is Big Sky and I have had the luxury of skiing there pretty recently, and that that mountain is pretty amazing. I mean with the steeps and the where the tram is situated if you’ve ever been lucky enough to see there. It’s a pretty incredible experience.
And then you have the California resorts. Tahoe again, when they get snow. And, Mammoth is a very underrated mountain. It’s one of my absolute favorite mountains. I had no idea how extreme and expansive it was before I skied it.
In Canada, Whistler and Banff, again incredible mountains, especially when the snow is going off there.
Here is something you didn’t know about Black Tie Skis
Even though there are 16 locations 41 ski resorts, each one of those locations is independently owned and operated. One of the huge things that make Black Tie so unique along with our excellence of equipment varieties, is the fact that all of our locations are individually owned and operated and that I think really is the key thing that not only separates us from our delivery competitors but certainly our brick and mortar competitors and our large corporate competitors.
Every single Black Tie, each owner is personally invested in the company and their boots on the ground. They live in the resorts in the markets, they’re out doing fittings themselves, they’re answering phones and they’re handpicking the gear that’s perfect for their market. These are all passionate skiers and riders and it’s really an incredible group. I just oversee the whole thing. They’re all licensed owners like a franchise but without all the stringencies and strictness that come with the franchise. There’s a lot of individual spirit within Black Tie and within the owners, which I think again is a really unique quality that keeps the room the energy really high really fresh.
When you go to a Black Tie you’re going to get the consistency of service but you’re going to get an individual spin on it. The uniforms aren’t all going to be matching from each Black Tie you go to my joke in, you know Big Sky, they rock the Carharts up there and in Vail they have the pressed, black slacks and Steamboat we got the the the big metal cowboy belt buckles. We really try to keep individuality for each location. And I think that’s what has helped us, get to where we are and makes it a really fun company to be a part of.