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No Business Like Snow Business

Winter-sports companies fight to stay alive during summmer.

The owners of Headside, an outdoor sports shop, are nostalgic about the days when Japanese tourists flocked to their Kapahulu Avenue store in search of snowboard gear. "It was like a supermarket, where we stood behind the counter and they bought what they wanted," says Mike Egan, manager and buyer for Headside. But gone are those days. The industry "screwed themselves over by saturating the Japan market" when snowboarding’s popularity peaked in the mid- to late-1990s (thanks to the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan), he says. The result: downhill sales for snowboard-related businesses worldwide, including Hawaii.

Snow-sports businesses in Hawaii now have to think creatively. Especially challenging are the months between May and October, when the snow melts and winter gear is stored until the next season.

The sport today doesn’t boast the same coolness as before, but Headside managers this year hope Burton—a trendy Vermont label popular with Japanese riders ages 18 to 30 – will generate half a million dollars in sales in Hawaii. "What drives trends now are teams and pro riders – they want whatever board he’s riding, whatever jacket and color he’s wearing," Egan says.

Mike Eagen: a manager and buyer for Headside, reaches out to customers.

John Nakajima, vice president of outdoor gear shop Powder Edge, also recalls the snowboard craze, which hit a pinnacle when Powder Edge two years ago opened a store at Ward Village Shops. "It was huge in Hawaii, and everybody was carrying snowboards – even surf shops were carrying it," he says. "But then these surf companies stopped carrying snowboards because it became a lose-money thing after a while."

What keeps Powder Edge on the edge of competition year-round is a full range of outdoor equipment: backpacks, hiking boots, surf wear and, yes, even some snowboards. Patagonia, a California-based company, is the hottest-selling label at Powder Edge. But unlike Headside, the Ward Village store mainly caters to local clients and not tourists. "We concentrated on snowboards at first, but didn’t want to be seasonal," Nakajima says. "We wanted a business that will be around all year long, so we took the outdoor sports angle."

Local travel agents who thrive on winter-sports packages also are in the same boots. The summer months can be an uphill struggle, says Obie Olsen, president of PTB Travel, which has specialized in ski trips since 1978. "We just hold tight," he says. PTB Travel this year accompanied six ski and snowboard groups to Canada, Utah and California. Although the average number of travelers per group ranged between four and 10, Olsen in past years has led as many as 56 at one time. Canada was a popular destination this year. "I recommend Canada, because the airfares to Utah and Denver have been high," he says. Donald E. Tilden, an agent at King’s Travel, couldn’t agree more. One of the state’s few specialists on Canada, he says the majority of his kamaaina clients this year opted for Whistler, a ski resort 100 miles north of Vancouver. "The exchange rates in Canada make it very attractive, and in a sense, every third day is free," Tilden says. King’s Travel this year sold more than $100,000 worth of North America ski packages, at approximately $900 per person.

Spring break continues to be the most popular time for kamaaina ski vacations. The Travel Industry Association of America this year estimated that the number of spring travelers from the U.S. mainland increased 1.6 percent over the year 2000. "Spring break is a happy medium," Tilden says. "It’s not the cold, winter holiday season, and it’s not the warm summer crunch."

And for local snowbirds who missed that spring window, PTB Travel in early August is scheduled to host a ski and snowboard trip to New Zealand. "We usually get between 15 to 30 down there every year," Olsen says. "But every year, we wonder if they’re going to come or not." It’s an annual gamble, but well worth the effort, he says. Another summer package by PTB Travel this year involves a train trip across Canada and Montana, complete with fishing and river rafting. It’s a business strategy that stops revenues from melting in the summer.

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