DARRELL UNRUH, PRESIDENT of the Bergfreunde Ski Club of Portland, Ore., remembers when he and his friends would close the bars at Squaw or Aspen or Whistler during club trips, then return to their hotel and party deep into the winter night. Now, more often than not, it's a few drinks, dinner, then bed. "When our club started, it was known as a very hard-drinking, party-hearty club, Unruh says. "But some members have been in the club for 20 years or more.
Priorities have changed. We just don't have the get-up-and-go we used to. At 60, Unruh is considered "one of the younger people by the old-timers in our club. And therein lies the problem. Unruh's club, like many, can't seem to attract enough new members to remain vital. Younger generations aren't joining ski clubs like their mothers and fathers did, and clubs recognize that enticing new members is the key to their survival.
"Most ski clubs built up their memberships in the 1960s and 1970s, and members just stayed on, says Bob Wilbanks, publisher of the National Ski Club Newsletter. "In order to attract 30-year-olds to ski clubs, you've got to get them to party with people in their 50s and 60s. That's difficult to do, because it's like partying with their parents.
Ski clubs have played a vital role in popularizing the sport almost from the time Bunny Bertram fired up America's first ropetow in 1934 in Woodstock, Vt. By organizing trips and events, they've traditionally been one of the main drivers of initiating new skiers. Thousands of ski clubs still operate across the country, from Miami to Seattle and Maine to San Diego, but their futures are in question.
Wilbanks estimates that the number of clubs nationwide has dropped to around 3,000 over the past decade—a decrease of about 15 percent. And while no one keeps exact statistics on membership numbers or demographics, Wilbanks estimates that the number of club members is down from "well over a million a decade ago to about 800,000 today. While that number might still sound robust, it's built on an increasingly brittle base of baby boomers over the age of 45, which may, in turn, mean a continuing decline in membership.
Traditionally, a major advantage of belonging to a club was its ability to offer discount group rates. However, since the advent of the Internet, skiers can often go online and secure similar rates themselves. The ski club dilemma is one thread in a general fraying of America's social fabric, a trend explored in the book Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam. Young people are less likely to join the kinds of groups their parents did. This means that many organizations, from ski clubs to bridge clubs to bowling leagues, are losing members, with many clubs gradually winking out of existence. "It wasn't so much that old members dropped out, at least not any more rapidly than age or the accidents of life had always meant, Putnam writes. "But community organizations were no longer continuously revitalized, as they had been in the past.
The ongoing decline of ski clubs means more to the sport than the loss of discount trips and après parties. Many skiers learned to ski during weekend club trips with parents or friends. Clubs also belong to councils and associations that act as advocates for the sport, lobbying the Forest Service, resorts and legislators about a variety of issues such as skier safety and environmental issues.
To become more relevant, ski clubs are trying new approaches. The Far West Ski Association, for instance, is emphasizing trips for families with young kids. Many clubs have beefed up their websites. Others have expanded their scope, changing their names to "ski and beach or "ski and travel clubs. The former Balboa Ski Club, based out of Orange Country, Calif., now organizes summer activities, and is called the Balboa Ski and Sports Club.
Others have opened "clubs within clubs, aimed at luring younger members. The Ski Club of Washingtton, D.C., motivated to act when its membership dropped from more than 7,000 in the mid-'90s to around 3,000 today, started a "TNT program (for Twenties and Thirties). The younger members hold separate meetings at a local pub and arrange their own trips. The youth group still takes advantage of the buying power of the overall club, but it prefers to work independently of the original organization and now numbers around 300. Similarly, the Bergfreunde club has spun off a "Next Generation group, though its average age is still a worldly 38.
While ski clubs try to find ways to rejuvenate, new models are sprouting up. A cyberspace ski club, the New England Virtual Ski Association, was started earlier this year. It offers group rates to members, who can travel wherever and whenever they want. For annual dues of about $30, the club offers discounts at 18 ski areas in the East, as well as a virtual ski lodge, where members can exchange opinions and—if so inclined—schedule trips.
But some in the ski-club world believe the future lies in another model that's gained momentum in the past few years: sports or adventure clubs that operate as a combination of travel agent and athletic league. One successful version is the Boston Ski and Sports Club, which was founded 40 years ago as a for-profit ski club. Its current approach is to offer high-energy, co-ed team sports, like softball and soccer, as well as to arrange ski trips and other travel adventures. A membership costs $60 per year, and club owner Gene Brezniak estimates that around 60 percent of his 6,000 members are younger than 35, with 75 percent under 40. "We find that the majority of people who play team sports are young. If we run a ski trip, we'll have a lot of 20- and 30-year-olds.
Ski club newsletter publisher Wilbanks sees these sports clubs performing the same healthy, head-outside social function that ski clubs did in the '60s and '70s. "I think that's where the future is, he says, "because that's where the kids are.