Ski Resorts Work To Turn China's Middle Class Into Snow Bunnies

Colorado ski resorts are ramping up efforts to draw skiers from emerging markets like China. About 12 percent of skier visits to the state's ski areas come from overseas. And, with China's growing middle class, Colorado resorts are looking to profit. At one resort, employees are decked in headsets, learning Mandarin Chinese in an effort to improve customer service.

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Colorado's ski resorts are looking far and wide for potential customers, including emerging markets like China. About 12 percent of visitors to the state's ski areas come from overseas. And with China's middle class growing, Colorado resorts are looking to profit. Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen reports.

MARCI KRIVONEN, BYLINE: Inside the offices of the Aspen Skiing Company, Candace Sherman is learning Mandarin Chinese...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KRIVONEN: ...using a Rosetta Stone audio course.

CANDACE SHERMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SHERMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KRIVONEN: Sherman is the international sales manager for the company, and she's preparing for new visitors to Aspen. At her desk, she practices Mandarin about 30 minutes each day.

SHERMAN: (Foreign language spoken) Yeah, it's definitely - uses a different part of your brain. You know, it's a challenge. It gets you real outside of the norm.

JEFF HANLE: There's vast amounts of wealth being created in China in a new middle and upper class that's booming.

KRIVONEN: Jeff Hanle is also with the Aspen Skiing Company.

HANLE: So it's not a secret that the whole world wants part of that. And for us, we'd be remiss not to look at that and not to realize it.

KRIVONEN: China is the United States' number one emerging market and ski resorts in Colorado are focusing their sights on it. Jaoshan Liu(ph) skis at Vail Resort with family and friends.

JAOSHAN LIU: (Through Translator) Before, I would only spend one week in Colorado. But now, I spend three weeks in Colorado every year.

KRIVONEN: Liu is part of China's middle class. In fact, he owns a ski resort there. Resorts in the U.S. aren't looking for first-time skiers but rather world travelers who have already skied in Europe and Canada. Bob Stinchcomb is with the company Vail Resorts.

BOB STINCHCOMB: We are targeting a very affluent Chinese skier that has the means and the desire to come over to America to try our skiing.

KRIVONEN: A company sales rep based in Beijing works to attract skiers to resorts like Vail in north central Colorado. Stinchcomb says the company wants to break down cultural barriers.

STINCHCOMB: In our ski school, we do have multilingual staff. And within that multilingual staff, we do have a number of instructors that either speak Mandarin or have other Chinese language skills.

KRIVONEN: Last year, 1.5 million Chinese tourists visited the U.S. That's a 500 percent increase in visitations from just 12 years ago. The U.S. Travel Association says Chinese tourists typically visit iconic destinations like New York City. Now, some are starting to branch out to places like Colorado. But it will be a few years before there's a steady stream of tourists at Colorado's resorts.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KRIVONEN: Back in the offices of the Aspen Skiing Company, Candace Sherman in the sales department wraps up her Mandarin language lesson.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SHERMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KRIVONEN: Chinese travelers spend more than some of their international counterparts. They tend to fork over an average of $7,100 per person per trip when they come to the United States. For NPR News, I'm Marci Krivonen in Aspen.

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