This past April, 1,200 ski resort executives and representatives from lodges, hotels, and ski clubs from around the world converged in Snowmass Village, Colorado, for the annual Mountain Travel Symposium. The summit's goal is to advance the larger mountain travel industry, with talks and panels discussing every aspect of the travel business, from marketing to sales strategies and operations. Among the guests invited to bring some outside perspective to the summit was Erik Blachford, a venture capitalist who learned to ski on the slopes of Quebec's Mount Avila and has since become CEO of Expedia, Butterfield & Robinson travel, and TerraPass, a carbon offset company, while investing in a milieu of tech and travel companies and serving on the boards of companies as well as nonprofits like ecoAmerica.
Erik delivered a talk on the future applications for social media and online travel sales models for ski areas, and during the Q&A, was asked what he thought about the "800-pound gorilla in the room." Before the questioner had a chance to clarify, Blachford quickly jumped in. "Oh, you mean climate change!" Then he jumped into a small sermon on why ski resorts' biggest onus is to get out in front of their customers and 'connect the dots' on how climate change will affect their customers' signature passion should no legislative action take place. Blachford's blunt message shucked the industry's default approach to climate change, which has been to invest in efficiency and renewable energy measures, while staying largely silent on the looming impacts of a warming planet. We called Erik to get an outsider's perspective on what the ski industry could do for the larger effort to mitigate global warming.
The ski industry has a product that inspires passion like almost nothing else. When I think of other industries, the ski industry inspires passion the way rock and roll inspires passion, right? It becomes a key part of how people think about themselves—they consider themselves skiers. Whereas with most tech companies that I invest in, people don't assume a primary identity as a user of a given online travel site or something.
From a business perspective—listen, it's a snow farming business, and if it doesn't snow, it's very hard to see how you make it work. And that's the big, obvious connection to climate change. It's a little different from mountain biking or something. The trail will still be there.
I'll be honest: I had been trying to find a way to work it [climate change] in somehow with such an influential group. Somebody said, 'Well, what about the 800-pound gorilla?' And I said, 'Oh, you mean climate change!' They of course didn't mean climate change, but that was okay (chuckling).
The biggest part of skiing’s carbon footprint for most people is probably transportation to and from the mountain. Driving isn't such a big deal, it's more the flying. For upper-income Americans, it's by far the biggest part of their carbon footprint across the board…but when what your industry is doing is immersing people in nature and reminding them of why they love nature in the first place, I think that's doing more good than harm by helping people's awareness and enticing them to take action to protect the environment.
Either there's going to be a legislative solution…or there's going to be some kind of technical solution. And whether that's some flavor of mechanical carbon scrubbing or creative land use or whatever it might be, it'll be something that's going to stabilize carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. But what you're probably not going to do is have this be solved by individual action, because there are forces against that, like basic human self-interest, that are too strong.
When you bring up climate change [in the ski industry], people tend to feel like somehow you're accusing them of something. I'm picking my words here a little bit, but there seems to be this defensive crouch. The ski resort operators feel like they are being asked to somehow solve the problem by running perfectly renewable ski resorts. And the point I was trying to make at the symposium is that driving awareness among skiers and riders is a much more highly leveraged thing that the operators can do.
The ski areas should connect the dots between the sport that they love so much and climate change, which almost by definition in these high-altitude areas, is going to shorten the season. I love when ski resorts put in wind turbines and micro-hydro and get to net-zero energy, but listen…what they can really do—what they can really do—is stop the silence on the issue.
Aside from the occasional resort poster about their commitment to sustainability, you hardly ever see any real outreach to connect the dots and say, "Listen, you may not care about climate change for any other reason, but you care about it for this reason: you want to be able to ski."
It's really hard to get people to understand their connection to climate change. People connect immediately with how their lifestyle is unsustainable, flying a lot or driving a car that gets low mileage, but that just makes them feel bad and want to avoid the whole topic. But give them a reason for taking some kind of political action to mitigate climate change…and skiing's about as good of a cause [as you could hope for].
As for climate change skeptics, I'm not in the game of trying to convince everyone in the world that climate change is real—we just don't have time to do that. It makes a lot more sense to mobilize the people that already know it's real.