Look for snow leopards on Mountain Travel Sobek’s new itinerary. // © 2017 Tim Fitzharris/DanitaDelimont.com
Feature image (above): Travelers can try the sport of fat biking at several resorts in the West. // © 2017 iStock
Lately, when I think of the mountains, I think of John Muir. A Scottish immigrant and a vocal proponent of America’s national park system, Muir helped preserve some of our finest landscapes — Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park among them. But he aimed to do more than just protect these natural wonders. He wanted people to get out and enjoy them, too.
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike,” he said.
In 1901, Muir viewed time in nature as a necessity; he described his peers as “thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people” who were finally beginning to realize that “going to the mountains is going home.”
And today’s mountain adventurers have so many ways in which to do so.
Skiing, Snowboarding and Beyond
Winter mountain-goers usually have their sights set on skiing or snowboarding downhill, and there are some great places to do just that. Agency network Travel Leaders recently polled more than 300 experts in ski and winter sports sales, and 84 percent of respondents say that Colorado is one of their top three winter mountain destinations, and 42 percent name Utah to the same list. International destinations called out include British Columbia, Switzerland and France, though agents report that, most often, clients opt to ski in the U.S. or Canada.
But traditional skiing and boarding are not all that’s available in the colder months. In addition to heli-skiing — which has become quite popular — Dan Sherman, vice president of marketing for Ski.com, reports growth in snowcat skiing, when a fully-tracked vehicle transports guests to untouched swaths of snow for killer runs through powder. Aspen Mountain in Aspen, Colo., and Powder Mountain in Eden, Utah, are among the favorite spots for this sport.
Another winter alternative is fat biking, which draws its name from the approximately 3-inch-wide tires that help cyclists glide down mountains like marbles on toy chutes. Though the first mass-produced fat bike was released in 2005, recent improvements in fat-bike technology and accessibility have resulted in increased interest. Crested Butte resort in Colorado is a leading spot for fat biking, Sherman says.
And at Silver Star Mountain Resort in British Columbia, the cost of a lift ticket includes other on-mountain activities, such as fat biking and tubing. For Sherman, inclusions point to the fact that mountain travelers are looking for more out of their vacations.
“To have a successful ski trip 10 or 15 years ago, all you needed was a hotel room, a chairlift and a bar,” Sherman said. “That’s all anyone expected. Now, there are all of these off-mountain activities — and this is a key trend that appeals to millennials in particular. Most people are coming for the skiing, but they want other things, too. Ski.com’s inventory is growing to reflect this.”
Of course, the mountains don’t melt away with the snow. As Mother Nature changes the season, mountain resorts transform, too. Perry Lungmus, vice president of Travel Leaders, says venues have become better at this metamorphosis over the years.
“Resorts have gotten good at offering a well-rounded summer experience,” he said. “Whistler in British Columbia has become a mountain biking mecca, for example, though the infrastructure was once just built for skis. Summer business is as robust as it is in the winter, because they have the infrastructure, plus new activities in a delightful environment.”
Outdoor festivals, hiking, fishing, ziplining, white-water rafting and stand-up paddleboarding are among warm-weather activity options picking up steam, both in the U.S. and abroad.
Shannon Stowell, president of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, points to stand-up paddleboarding in rivers and mountain lakes around the world as another trend. He calls it a growing “mini-industry” and points to Salida, Colo.; Payette, Idaho; and San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina, as great places to try the sport.
Meg Austin of The Travel Society, a Virtuoso Agency, in Vail, Colo., points to her city’s numerous summer events — such as the GoPro Mountain Games, Vail International Dance Festival and Vail Jazz Fest — pairing well with a vacation rich in hikes or bike rides.
Travelers interested in mountain sports are not solely confined to vacations in North America. International mountain travel is important to travel agents, as well.
At Mountain Travel Sobek (MTS), a tour operator based in Emeryville, Calif., trekking-centric trips have been in high demand lately. In response, MTS has added multiple new itineraries for 2017, such as Quest for the Snow Leopard, a 14-day adventure that includes multiple days of hiking and camping in India’s Hemis National Park. Another new trip by MTS is On the Smuggler’s Trail, a 12-day adventure in Patagonia that combines remote hut stays with treks past glacial lakes.
“While classic destinations such as the Alps are still popular, we are seeing that people are keen to get off the beaten path and go back to simplistic roots,” said Kimberley Daley, CEO of MTS.
While international ski trips may not be a huge market for U.S. travel agents, Japan is an exception. Sherman of Ski.com says the company’s Japan sales have been incredibly successful — and it just started offering trips to the destination this year.
“Skiing and snowboarding aren’t new to Japan, but for the past seven years or so, a lot of pro athletes and ski media have been producing content there,” Sherman said. “That has trickled down, and now the more common destination skier is very interested in going.”
He says the biggest draw is the snow, as some parts of the country receive up to 700 inches of snow per year — significantly more than Colorado’s average of 300 to 350 inches. Niseko Village, on the island of Hokkaido, is a top resort pick to test out the powder, Sherman says, followed by Hakuba in Nagano Prefecture.
Mountain travel experts in the U.S. report a boom in other mountain adventures throughout Asia, with more clients seeking adventures in countries such as Nepal, Bhutan and China.
Shane Paquette, a travel agent with En Route Travel in Pacific Palisades, Calif., also mentioned Patagonia as a favorite destination with his well-traveled clients, especially those with a desire to get off the beaten path. For a trip here, Paquette loves Quasar Expeditions’ Overland Jeep Safari, which can be self-drive or guided. Highlights of the nine-day version of the trip include hiking in Torres del Paine National Park and horseback riding in Los Glaciares National Park.
Qualify the Client
When it’s time to match clients to a mountain destination, travel experts agree: Qualifying their likes and skill level is of the utmost importance. For agent Austin, that means making a phone call.
“You can’t decipher someone’s activity level in an email or a text message,” she said. “You need them on the phone — or in person — so you can ask questions, listen to the answers and tack on new questions. Get to know what they have done in the past so that you can set them up for success.”
For agents who are new to selling mountain travel, there are plenty of training materials and resources available. Ski.com has long worked with the agent community, connecting them with 70 mountain vacation specialists to assist with trip planning. Then there are agency networks such as Travel Leaders, which offers agents in-depth educational opportunities, including an adventure travel specialization program.
“Mountain travel fits perfectly into that training,” Lungmus said. “Agents spend six months going through it, learning about the marketplace, the clients looking for this type of travel and how to go about making a business out of being a specialist in this area.”
Learning about mountain travel is more than a smart business move for agents; it also provides the satisfaction of knowing you are helping people go home to nature.
Inspiration From the Experts
Perry Lungmus, vice president of Travel Leaders
Recommended Destination: Whistler Blackcomb, British Columbia
Why: Visit in the summer and ride chairlifts to access 70 mountain-biking trails.
Dan Sherman, vice president of marketing for Ski.com
Recommended Destination: The Powder Highway, southeast British Columbia
Why: This route connects several uncrowded, low-key resorts.
Meg Austin, The Travel Society, a Virtuoso Agency, Vail, Colo.
Recommended Destination: Telluride, Colo.
Why: Heli-ski with Telluride Helitrax, which runs $5,000 for a one-day trip for up to four guests.
Donna Cheek, Bentley Hedges Travel, Travel Leaders, Oklahoma City, Okla.
Recommended Destination: Estes Park, Colo.
Why: Try snowshoeing or ice climbing in the winter, and ziplining, hiking and fishing in summer.
Valerie Lederle, Travel Leaders, Colleyville, Texas
Recommended Destination: Lake Louise, Alberta
Why: Book a stay at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. During the winter, there are sleigh rides and children’s snow activities. In the summer, there’s great hiking and biking.
Shannon Stowell, president of Adventure Travel Trade Association
Recommended Destination: Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort in Buena Vista, Colo.
Why: This is a great place to practice keeping your balance on a stand-up paddleboard.
Kimberley Daley, CEO of Mountain Travel Sobek
Recommended Destination: Alaska
Why: Camp under the stars and brave major rapids on MTS’ Rafting and Hiking the Alsek River trip.
Shane Paquette, En Route Travel, a Virtuoso Agency
Why: Triple Creek Ranch is a luxury property that teams up with local outfitters to offer rafting excursions, horseback rides in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark and more.