Charles Désourdy stood on Ski Bromont.com's main slope adjoining its water park, with a quiet smile as he watched flakes from the year's first snowfall drift lazily onto his hand.
"We've been making snow for weeks, but natural snow is important," said Désourdy, the company's president and majority shareholder. "Even if the hills are open, people don't start thinking about skiing until they see snow in their driveways."
Ski hill owners are in an inherently risky business. A few extra weeks of good or bad weather can make or break a season. A cold spell is credited with the 2.7 percent drop in revenues that brought the Quebec ski industry's sales down to $181 million. But Désourdy has been close to the business most of his life, and has learned to minimize the risk elements.
During the six years since he took over the hill that his father and uncles founded in 1964, Désourdy has invested almost $20 million in a bid to make Ski Bomont.com into one of the top stations in the province. In the past year alone the station has added significant day and night skiing capacity, coupled with a brand new quadruple chair lift, which picks up skiers right at the parking lot.
And all indications are that Désourdy is succeeding. Revenues have almost tripled during his tenure to $15 million during 2003-2004. And the number of visitors to the ski operation shot up to 738,000 last season, compared to 300,000 three years earlier.
Désourdy's strategy has been to focus his efforts on building Ski Bromont.com's revenues beyond its traditional weekend skier base. Five years ago Ski Bromont.com -- like most hills,-- had plenty of customers who wanted to ski on Saturday's and Sundays, but who then complained about how crowded this hill was.
So Désourdy poured his efforts into marketing off peak services, especially night skiing. During the past four seasons, he has doubled the number of lighted trails from 15 to 30. Customers responded and night skiers now comprise more than 60 per cent of all visits. This summer, Désourdy added lighting on an additional 10 runs.
"I think we lit up a few more trails than we really need," said Désourdy with a smile. "But we are celebrating our 40th anniversary this year, and we wanted to bring the number up night skiing trails up to 40."
Désourdy also adopted an innovative approach to generating traffic on off-peak periods by marketing $100 season passes. The passes gave holders the right to ski on either weekdays or at night. The program was a huge success, boosting the number of pass holders from less than 5,000 during the 1999-2000 season to more than 40,000 last year.
According to one industry expert, Ski Bromont.com's low-cost approach had been tried in other markets such as Ontario and Colorado, but Désourdy's strength was in realizing it's potential here in Quebec.
"He is one of the most aggressive marketers in the province," said Claude Péloquin, general manager, of the Association des Stations de Skis du Québec. "And he's forced other operators to look at the way they do business."
Off-season activity has also been a big part of Désourdy's growth plan. During the past few years, he has poured close to $3 million into its waterpark and mountain bike operations, which now account for 20 per cent of the facility's revenues.
But despite Désourdy's success, there are dark clouds on the horizon for Quebec's ski industry due to changing demographics and the stronger Canadian dollar.
Quebec's ski stations generate about 10 per cent of their traffic from outside of the country, mostly from the U.S., and the dollar's rise has significantly affected the relative cost advantage those tourists had. Worse, the strong loonie, is likely to spur increased activity by the snowbirds, who just might be looking south, at the precise time, that Désourdy wants them to be thinking about the slopes.
The other problem that Quebec's ski operators face is coping with the province's aging baby boomers, the first of whom will begin turning 60 next year. Many experts say that boomers will be far more active in retirement than the previous generation, and you'd think that skiing is one activity that they'd want to spend time on. But he jury is still out on how that trend will play out.
In the meantime, Désourdy, isn't thinking that far ahead. He's looking up at the sky, and hoping that the snow will just keep coming.
Sidebar: Quebec's ski industry at a glance
o Revenues (2003-2004): $181 million
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