Greg Ralph would have become a surfer had surfers been a little nicer.
“Surfers aren’t the friendliest, most encouraging people toward beginners,” said Ralph, who grew up in Southern California. “It’s sort of that ‘my wave’ mentality, and I always seemed to be jumping on the wrong wave in front of the wrong guy, so I didn’t get the warmest welcome from the surf crowd.”
Instead, he took up skiing, and has been “masquerading as a professional ski bum” for 40 years.
Ralph, 60, was hired three years ago as Purgatory Resort’s vice president of sales and marketing. He comes at a pivotal moment in the ski resort’s 52-year history.
James Coleman, who purchased the resort in 2015, is making notable improvements to amenities, and has added Purgatory to a family of four other ski areas in the Southwest – Arizona Snowbowl, Sipapu Ski & Summer Resort in New Mexico, Pajarito Mountain in New Mexico, and, most recently, Hesperus Ski Area, 11 miles west of Durango.The ski industry experienced record skier visits last year, but it’s fighting for millennials, who have more options than ever when it comes to entertainment.Global warming threatens to reduce ski days, which means less income for resorts.Ralph, who averages 80 ski days a year (36 so far this year), has skied at nearly all resorts in six states: Colorado, California, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming and New Mexico, as well as major resorts in Canada.
“Pretty much everywhere in the West, I’ve got a visit,” he said.
He has worked in various capacities of marketing, including as a private consultant. In doing so, he has made it a priority to learn every facet of the industry, including parking cars, checking tickets, flipping burgers, loading lifts, making snow and helping in rental shops.
“I feel it’s important to understand all areas of the operation, not only to know it for marketing and promoting it, but also to understand what my fellow employees are going through and what they’re up against,” Ralph said.
Crash courseRalph made his first turns in 1976 during his sophomore year in college when a roommate found a four-day trip that included skiing, lodging and a bus ride from Southern California to Utah – all for $99. He skied at Alta, Snowbird and Park City during that trip.
It took him 3½ to 4 hours to make it down his first run, he said, but what stood out was how friendly skiers were compared to surfers.
“When you flail across the run to the other side, fall, gather up your equipment and put it back on, other people are asking you if you’re OK and if you needed help,” he said. “That helpful culture was totally foreign to the surf culture I experienced in Malibu.”
Ralph packed up his Pinto station wagon and enrolled at the University of Colorado.
“I drove into Boulder just as the sun was setting, and it was gorgeous, and I fell in love with Colorado,” he said.
He averaged about 25 ski days during his junior and senior years at CU.
Upon graduation, he returned to Los Angeles to work for an ad agency. Soon after, he took a marketing job with the U.S. Ski Association, which gave him the chance to travel to ski resorts across the West.
He helped conceptualize events for the first Winter X Games, held in 1997 at Snow Summit in Southern California, where he was vice president of marketing and sales. In the mid-1980s, Snow Summit was quick to embrace the new sport, which, in part, is why the first games were held there, he said.
“But the Colorado thing was always calling,” Ralph said. “Colorado is home of the ski industry. Twenty percent of the skier visits in the nation are done in Colorado. Colorado is by far the biggest market for skiers, by far the most innovative place.”
Ralph moved to Denver in 2000 and started his own consulting firm. His clients included Telluride, Mountain Travel Symposium and a public-relations firm out of Vail. His consulting work took him to more ski areas across the West.
He then worked at Monarch Mountain for nine years and helped increase skier visits by 30 percent. From Monarch, he joined Purgatory Resort.
Purgatory is ‘user friendly’Having visited nearly every ski area in the West, a few things stand out about Purgatory Resort – all of them having to do with how “user friendly” it is, Ralph said.
Positioned in Southwest Colorado, with a base at 8,793 feet in elevation and a peak at 10,822 feet, weather conditions are more hospitable than at ski resorts at higher elevations, where the air is thin and the wind howls, or at ski areas at higher latitudes, where the sun hangs low in the sky for much of the day, he said.
The mountain offers a variety of intermediate, or blue, runs, he said.
“It’s not everything for a hard-core skier. It’s not everything for a beginner skier. But it’s pretty close to everything for an intermediate skier, and most of the market falls into that category,” Ralph said.
Finally, its location offers easy access from Arizona, Texas and New Mexico, he said.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have limitations or room for improvement, he said.
The resort is working this year to improve food and beverage offerings, and lodging is a challenge.
Most of the condos near the base are individually owned, which means they’re unique and renters don’t always know what to expect. A hotel that offered the type of rooms visitors expect with a little more uniformity would be nice, he said.
The resort also needs to expand parking, which overflows on busy days, even though there are no lift lines on the mountain, Ralph said.
And the resort must keep adding value to its season pass, perhaps by partnering with other ski resorts that Purgatory customers want to visit, and vise versa, he said.
“While we’ve done a great job of on-mountain stuff, we need to refine those amenities a little more,” he said.
Ski industry faces changeThe industry as a whole faces challenges.
Climate change is forcing resorts to invest heavily in snowmaking equipment to ensure a good early season.
Ski areas also are seeking ways to offer year-round activities, which helps sustain employment and provides revenue during the summer months.
“It’s getting harder and harder to pay all your bills off winter revenue,” Ralph said. “In the past, ski areas would make their money in the winter and bleed all summer long, get a line of credit to get through the fall, and then hope to have a good enough winter to put a little money in the bank.”
The popularity of snowboarding leveled out about three years ago, he said.
“Snowboarding brought excitement and fun into the business. Now, we need to continue that,” Ralph said. “That young demographic has a lot of options out there, and how do we as a ski industry make enough noise or create enough excitement about what we have that those people are interested in what we’re doing?”
The industry also needs to reach out to ethnic populations. Mexican nationals are a growing market for Purgatory, Ralph said, and Asians are interested in the sport.
And in the age of social media, customers want to be connected with friends and family in real time, Ralph said. Purgatory is trying to increase its Wi-Fi offerings.
“If they can’t post a picture of themselves skiing for their friends to see it, to share in that experience, that hurts their experience,” he said. “... So we have to make that easier for them.”
Staying positive While much has changed during the past 40 years, one thing remains constant: People are friendly toward each other on the slopes, Ralph said.
Ralph said he remembers the kindness he experienced his first day skiing, and he tries to emulate that attitude every day. He’s that guy on the chairlift who starts a conversation, asking everyone how their day is, where they’re from, how often they ski, what other mountains they enjoy.
“My favorite thing when I go up to the resort is when I see a guest who sort of has that deer-in-the-headlights look, sort of lost, maybe needs directions or a hand up or something. I love helping those people out, leaving them with the same impression that I was left with when I started.
“I wouldn’t give up this lifestyle for anything,” he added. “You look at the places we get to live: The mountains, the things we get to do – skiing, cycling – it’s outrageous. There are people in the world that work their asses off for 50 weeks a year to get to come to where I live for two weeks on vacation.”