Bernie Weichsel is the country’s major producer of ski shows and expos. He founded BEWI Productions, Inc. in 1979 and has successfully marketed snow sports to audiences in the US and internationally. He assists with fundraising for the U.S. Ski Team and other non-profit organizations. Bernie also is a valued member of the SeniorsSkiing.com Advisory Council.
How did you start skiing and become a major player in ski promotion?
Skiing is my first love. I was lucky, my parents, both refugees from Germany, passed on their love of skiing and the Mountains at any early age. We lived in Manhattan, and I got started at Belleayre Mountain, in the Catskills, when I was four. Due to my mom I got introduced to Trailside Ski Camp, at Killington, during High School – Brooklyn Technical, where I had organized the school’s first Ski Club – where I washed dishes in exchange for lodging and transportation from N.Y.C. Around the same time, I took on the duties of promoting the New York Ski Show that the owner of Trailside – Mike Cohen – had committed to do (in exchange for Trailside’s booth). That action, in turn, led me to get to know Harry Leonard, the creator of ski shows. Harry loved the “stunts” we did to promote his how – like the time I got a group of friends to stencil “Go Go Ski Show” on Manhattan sidewalks. Wasn’t popular with the police, but Harry loved it!
I ended up working for Harry for six years. The shows were in the Fall. It gave me time to “ski bum” – pursuing each winter a different “vocation” (ski guide, rep, etc.), which I did with enthusiasm from Aspen to Innsbruck.
In 1974 I got involved with the International Freestyle Skiers Association (IFSA) tour which was sponsored by Chevrolet & Skiing Magazine. It was the first organized professional Freestyle Skiing competitive circuit with events at five resorts nationwide. Huge crowds would show up to watch the stars of “Hot Dog” Skiing – like Wayne Wong and John Clendenin compete in mogul skiing and aerial acrobatics on skis. It really was the beginning of Freestyle, which is now a major Olympic event.
My ski expo experience led me to create and produce other large scale gatherings promoting sports and travel and music. The longest lasting was the New York City Winter Festival, held annual – weather permitting – in Central Park, from 1979 thru 1996!
I founded BEWI Productions, Inc. in 1979 and soon after purchased the Boston Ski Show from Harry. Audiences had declined, but we figured out how to bring them back.
The number of skiers in the US has been stagnant for 20 years. Why?
The good news is that it hasn’t really changed much. Estimates of how many people ski or snowboard vary between 8 and 22 million; the number is probably around 12 million. As to why it hasn’t grown, there are several reasons, I believe.
Snow sports are not really a sport with teams like baseball. It’s recreation, and it’s a physical activity. That makes it intimidating to many people.
I also believe our society’s perception of winter, and cold weather,— always loudly promoted negatively—pushes people away. It’s a fact of life today but most people just don’t like winter and cold weather. We’re actually taught to “beware it’s going to be cold and snowy,” starting with our parents and the news media, especially television weathermen. It’s something the industry doesn’t talk enough about, but I think it’s a big reason people don’t engage in snow sports.
Then you throw in the economy, having to travel on winter roads to resorts, the perception that skiing is an elitist sport and add in competing family activities, you find the number of people willing to commit to snow sports is small. But, once you get started, chances are you’re going to stick with it.
What role do older skiers have in sustaining the ski industry?
Seniors have a huge role. Chances are they bring their families into the sport. They are more social, skiing in groups and, most important for ski resorts, skiing mid-week. They dine at mountain resorts with friends and family. And manufacturers are making more products for seniors. In a way, they keep the whole industry going. With cheap season passes for seniors, it’s easy to remain active. On the other hand, I notice that when one spouse or another decides to quit, they other one will, too. So, the challenge is to keep them going.
Why do you think older skiers don’t get more attention from the ski industry?
It’s really a strategic business decision to focus on the younger market and youth culture. The industry is over-focused on flashy, free-style, extreme-skiing videos and the like. Maybe it’s because most marketers are young. Frankly, I don’t think marketers know how to approach the senior market. After all, seniors can be counted on to buy season passes, so that segment is almost a “given”.
You were involved with Y.E.S. to get inner city kids on the slopes, and the New England Ski Museum honored you with its “Spirit of Skiing Award.” What are your proudest accomplishments in the world of skiing?
Couple of things. I try to ski my age every year. I’ve done that most years. I slipped a little last year, only 57 days and I’m 68, but I’m going to be trying for 70 days when I’m 70. I’m proud of being able to do that.
I am proud of starting Ski USA, an overseas marketing venture. When I started promoting skiing in Europe in 1981, only a small number of people were coming here to ski in North America. Now, 10-20% of Vail’s business comes from international skiers, and Nationwide the figure is close to 10%. And on a personal level Ski USA opened up doors around the world to friends in so many countries!
I am also proud of the BEWI shows, especially our expos in Boston and Denver, and being able to run them successfully for so many years. And the US Ski & Snowboard Ski Hall of Fame, where I served as chairman for six years. So many things.
What else would you like to add?
I feel very lucky to be involved with snow sports, a healthy, fun-filled activity that I can do with my friends. It’s a life-long sport, and I’ve formed life-long friendships because of it.
One big worry of mine, though, is climate change. That’s something the industry has to be thinking very seriously about right now. After all, it’s happening now.