A picture may be worth a thousand words, but owners of ski areas are finding that a computer network may be more valuable yet. It is a vast new outlet for ski areas that in the past have relied on brochures and advertisements to enrich their businesses.
It is the Internet, a public information highway connected by telephone to 32 million computers worldwide. For the ski industry, that means boundless ways of selling itself. And for the skier, it means an easy way to get information -- to look at a trail map, arrange for a ski lesson, check out a lodge, rent equipment or learn new techniques.
Two months ago, Sugarloaf/USA in Carrabasset, Maine, became the first ski area in the East to set up its own multimedia electronic site on the Internet. A sophisticated display of text, graphics and sound includes a 50-page information package. Video will be on-line, too. A snow condition report is updated four times daily. And computer browsers can ask questions by electronic mail.
The Aspen Skiing Co. in Colorado set up a similar multimedia site for its resorts this season. Other ski areas appear on the Internet, but mostly with limited text references to basic resort information. They tend to appear collectively by states, in areas titled "Ski New York" and "Ski Colorado."
"The ski industry needs to get into this marketplace because destination travel is going to be competitive," said Bill Joy, vice president for research of Sun Microsystems. "The demographics people on the 'net' is an age group that is still skiing."
Mr. Joy, whose office is located in Aspen, Colo., has been instrumental in setting up the Internet site in that area. Besides the ski resort, it also focuses on Aspen as a community. Its Internet address is: http://infosphere.com/skiaspen.
Bob Middleton, network manager for Aspen Skiing, said that Aspen is setting up computer kiosks, or outdoor stands, at the Aspen resorts so skiers can have instant access to on-line information. Sugarloaf has embellished its Internet site with a photo gallery. An Internet viewer can call up landscapes of Sugarloaf that show the ski area's terrain.
Tom Patterson, a spokesman for Sugarloaf, said that within the first three weeks of appearing on the Internet, the ski resort logged 17,000 "hits" by computer users.
Aspen recorded about 10,000 hits in its first week. In computer jargon, that means being noticed by Internet surfers -- people who browse through the computer network looking for topics of interest. Sugarloaf's Internet address is: http://www.sugarloaf.com/biz/sugarloaf/.
One of the Sugarloaf viewers left this message: "Wow, this is too cool for words. I'm living here in Guam. I haven't been back East for two years, and I haven't been up at the 'Loaf' in about four, so I miss the place. This web page brings back lots of great memories of my youth spent grinding my knees to hamburger on Winter's Way."
Other browsers left messages asking Sugarloaf for more information and to make reservations. The resort is working on that. Skiers will be able to call up a list of lodges, then select one they would like to see. The computer screen will show an exterior picture of the inn and then an interior photo of a typical room.
For skiers who want to know ahead of time what a particular slope looks like, there will be short, on-line video clips showing, for example, a skier schussing down a trail. Sugarloaf also plans to enlist Julie Parisien, a two-time Olympian, to demonstrate skiing techniques through 10-second video clips.
S-K-I Ltd., the company that operates Sugarloaf, plans to place its other resorts on the Internet this winter, including Killington, Vt.; Mount Snow/Haystack, Vt.; Bear Mountain, Calif., and Waterville Valley, N.H.
Others in the ski industry also are arranging for network interaction. Snow Country, for example, a national ski magazine, plans to go on-line next summer on Unet, a new service for participatory sports. It will be accessed through its own subscriber service, or on a gateway through the Internet.
Besides on-line services, information on ski areas is also available through software companies that market CD-ROM packages.