A kindergarten for skiers
Mont Rigaud built its business by focusing on newcomers to the sport

Ask Luke De Stéphano and he'll tell you a skier's first day is the hardest. Newcomers to the sport need to get accustomed to complex equipment. They must learn how to get on and off a ski lift. Then they must deal with the often-terrifying prospect of looking down from the mountaintop, wondering how they will get to the bottom in one piece.

De Stéphano should know. He's general manager of Centre de Ski Mont Rigaud, a hill that bills itself as "la maternelle du ski au Québec," (the skiers' kindergarten). Like several of the province's smaller ski centres, Rigaud targets the young and those trying the sport for the first time.

"A skier's first experience is the most important," De Stéphano said. "If he doesn't enjoy it he won't come back."

Mont Rigaud is located just off Autoroute 40, about 20 minutes West of Montreal, adjacent to the town of the same name. De Stéphano bought the business, with the help of his wife and two in-laws in the Fall of 2001.

The foursome has turned the hill's size to their advantage. Its 120 meter peak and gradual slopes, are more comforting to new skiers than the steep, imposing inclines on many competitor hills, as is the centre's go-glow policy which is enforced by up to two dozen ski patrollers.

The strategy seems to be working. According to De Stéphano, the centre's revenues are on track to jump close to 8.0 per cent this year, to more than $1 million. A call to the ski-school in early January revealed that group lessons were already fully booked for the season although there was still some availability for private lessons.

Although De Stéphano had no direct previous experience in the industry, he knows Mont Rigaud and the surrounding community well from his many years as manager of the local Caisse Populaire. It's a day job he still holds, but which he will be leaving this Summer.

"We are close to the West Island, which is a growing community with upwardly mobile families who have young kids and a lot of money," De Stéphano said. "These are the kind of people that like to ski."

De Stéphano is doing what he can to make sure that the first time they try the sport it will be at Rigaud. For one, like other hills in its category such as Mont Saint-Bruno and Mont Gabriel, the centre keeps prices down. A one day ticket at Mont Rigaud will set you back a mere $25, which makes it one of the cheapest hills in the province. That compares to close to $60 at Mont Tremblant.

However you get what you pay for. Rigaud trails are short by industry standards, between 155 and 925 meters long, and the hill has just one chair lift and one T-bar.

But that doesn't seem to matter much to new skiers who just want to learn the sport in a quiet safe environment. The parking lot has been full several weekends this year, and De Stéphano had it expanded. According to one expert, Mont Rigaud's focus on its ski school, which generates close to 30 per cent of its revenues, is a smart idea.

"Most centres lose money on their ski operations, and they try to make it up on other services such as restaurants, real estate or rental services," said Claude Péloquin, president of the Association de Stations de Ski du Québec. "Ski schools are one of the key strategies to grow the business. It's also a good way to (get lifetime) customers."

During 2001-2002 the Quebec ski and snowboarding industry registered 6.2 million visits, down 10 per cent from the previous year, while Canada as a whole had its best year ever with 18 million visits.

According to Péloquin, the Quebec ski industry, which got off to a good start due to some early snowfalls is off to a far better year this time around. But competition is tough.

"Ski hills need to specialise," Péloquin said. "They also need to reinvest. Many hills are have older equipment, which they need to update."

De Stéphano agreed, and recently hammered out a deal to buy Mount Glen's tube sliding lift equipment which will be installed this Summer on Rigaud's West side, a $250,000 investment.

That said much of the industry's success is tied to the weather. "We have full snow making capacities here," De Stéphano said. "But last year when West Islanders were looking at their grass in the middle of winter, not many of them thought about skiing."

Running a family business suits De Stéphano fine, because most of the family also have jobs at the hill, which means he sees them a lot despite his long hours. His wife is a bookkeeper, her brother is in charge of the lifts and outside equipment, and his sister-in-law works in the cafeteria. Both couples have three children, and of the six four have part-time jobs either in the restaurant or on the slopes.

Although they bring different skills to the table, the four partners don't count each other's hours, draw equal salaries and make key decisions by consensus. "It all comes down to trust, and the fact that we like each other," De Stéphano said. "That makes working together much easier."

Photo caption: Luke De Stéphano, who co-owns Centre de Ski Mont Rigaud, along with his wife, her brother and his wife, is building the business by focusing on entry-level skiers.

 

Sidebar: Getting ahead

o Luke De Stéphano bought Centre de Ski Mont Rigaud in the Fall of 2001, partnering with his wife and their in-laws.
o The centre takes advantage of Mont Rigaud's small size by marketing itself as the ideal hill for young kids and new skiers.
o Mont Rigaud draws its clients from an area ranging from the Ontario border to downtown Montreal, but focuses strongly on the growing population of young upwardly mobile West Island families.
o De Stéphano and his partners operate on a consensus basis and place a great deal of trust in each other. They do not track each other's hours, and although they bring different skill sets to the table, they draw identical salaries.
o The partners are constantly reinvesting in the operation including $250,000 for a new tube lift and tube sliding equipment to be installed for next season.

 

peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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