Mountain biking brings new boost to Vermont tourism economy

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Mountain biking brings new boost to Vermont tourism economy

Fri, 10/11/2019 - 11:42am -- tim

Photo: Mountain bikers getting ready to ride at Killington. Photo: Chandler Burgess.

by Joy Choquette

When the phrase “Vermont revenue sources,” come up, most often a few things come to mind: the ski industry, maple syrup production, and tourism, particularly in the summer months. But another revenue source has quietly entered the scene in the state: mountain biking.

Vermont’s mountainous terrain is the perfect pairing for the sport, which can be performed on downhill ski trails in the off-season months. Riders and their bikes are taken up the mountain by lifts and then bikers ride the trails down.

Resorts like Killington Resort, Mount Snow, and the trails at Smugglers’ Notch are some bikers’ favorites according to singletracks.com, a well-known mountain biking website.

Biking has played a significant part in the reinvigoration of Mount Ascutney by the Ascutney Outdoors volunteer group.

Speaking demographically, what does a typical mountain biker look like?

Tim Tierney, former director of the pioneering Kingdom Trails in East Burke, said that on average 72 percent of mountain bikers are male while 28 percent are female. That is the highest percentage of female ridership in the country.

The average age of a typical mountain biker is 42 years and the average group size of bikers settles at five. Visitors from out-of-town or state typically spend 2.3 nights in Vermont, Tierney said, and that “reunion activities,” are popular in the sport.

“Mountain biking is a reunion activity whereby people from five different locations meet up to do the activity.”

Mountain biking is becoming prevalent in more parts of the state. In addition to the nationally-renowned Kingdom Trails, there are many other popular mountain biking destinations like Perry Hill in Waterbury, Pine Hill in Rutland, Aldis Hill Network in St Albans, Blueberry Lake Trails in Warren and the Bennington Area Trail System in Bennington.

Existing Tourist Destinations Focus on Mountain Biking

David Young, marketing manager at Killington/Pico Ski Resort Partners, LLC, noted that interest in the sport has grown tremendously over the past several years at the resorts where he works.

Photo: A happy mountain biker at Killington. Photo: Chandler Burgess.

While the main focus of Killington Resort is lift-served downhill mountain biking, it also offers electric bikes which are frequently used in different tours around the mountain.

Young said that there is an effort to keep these bikes off the trails though, as it interrupts the flow of downhill riders.

The resort has offered downhill mountain biking since 1991 but that much has changed over those 28 years, said Young. Radical improvements in equipment, staff’s understanding of trail building best practices, and more have all effected the resort’s mountain bike offerings.

“Our biggest period of growth though, has been the last five years,” Young said. “We’ve really focused our energy and investment on growing the sport and growing our bike park visits and it’s paying off.”

Young said that, “Annual visits increased 1,400 percent from 2013-2018, and they’re still going up.”

There are plans to grow the mountain biking program at the resort further, too.

“We continue to invest in new trails, larger rental bike fleets and additional programs to bring newcomers into the sport,” Young said. “This past summer we launched a series of youth and adult mountain bike camps, including our popular Divas of Dirt women’s camp, and we plan to expand that offering in the future.”

Not all mountain biking is done downhill, however. There are other options for both recreational day-use riders and those who are harder core in their approach.

Other forms of mountain biking include cross-country, which is the most popular in the state, and enduro mountain biking, which requires a little more uphill pedaling.

In cross-country mountain biking, riders are generally using flowy, single track (single file) trails. Many of the trails mentioned earlier—from Perry Hill to the Bennington Area Trail System—include these types of trails in differing levels for more or less challenging rides.

Mountain Biking and Growth

Like the mountain bike program at Killington Resort, the Vermont Mountain Bike Association (VMBA) has experienced significant growth in recent years.

In 2018 alone, the group increased its membership size by 17 percent. It has enlarged its numbers from 1,250 members in 2013 to approximately 6,500 members currently.

VMBA is made up of 27 chapters throughout the state, the largest being The Fellowship of the Wheel which boasts 1,400 members in Chittenden County. Smaller chapters in more rural areas have between 40 to 60 members.

One of the reasons that members are so passionate about the organization, stated Executive Director, Tom Stuessy, is because they can see their money staying locally.

Photo: Mountain bikers in East Burke. Photo: Erica Houskeeper.

“A very high percentage of revenue is going back to chapters every years,” said Stuessy.

In fact last year, 97 percent of membership funds raised went back to chapters in the form of grants and services in 2018.

Partnerships between businesses are an important outreach effort on behalf of VMBA. The Vermont Outdoor Innovation Coalition (VOICe), offers opportunities for companies with outdoor-minded employees to partner with VMBA. How? Through grant-naming and trail workday projects for its employees.

These projects build comradery amongst staff and pride in outdoor spaces that they’ve helped to develop.

“Stewardship: the value doesn’t necessarily have a price tag on it,” said Stuessy. But adding meaning and value to employees’ passions, recognizing them and supporting them through the care and promotion of the landscape they love, is greatly beneficial.

“Then these businesses are stewarding relationships and talent,” said Stuessy.

Additionally, said Stuessy, “Bringing outdoor businesses to Vermont is great. But not every trail-lover works for an outdoor business. All businesses though have outdoor-minded employees.”

By supporting the outdoors, businesses are also supporting their team members, gaining further respect and loyalty to their company and retaining top-level talent all at once.

There are other ways for businesses to become involved with VMBA too.

Cabot Creamery Cooperative has been a very active supporter of the program, Stuessy said. He noted that Cabot Creamery Cooperative helped VMBA through a number of growing pains.

“They’ve been a very meaningful partner in our progress in Vermont,” said Stuessy. He noted that the company spends a lot of money each year supporting Vermont in general and making sure that what the state has to offer is found by millions of people annually.

Partnerships with Vermont Bike Shops

Another important partnership that VMBA has cultivated is with local bike shops. Bike shops in Vermont offer a hands-on approach to riders no matter what their level of experience.

These businesses can’t remain in business long though, on repair income alone. So, while bike shops strive to provide mountain bikers with great riding experiences, VMBA created a special partnership to promote local business and get more riders out on mountain bike trails.

“Our shops are among our favorite partnerships,” said Stuessy. “Vermont bike shops are incredible and participate in helping us grow.”

The Jay Cloud Cyclery, located in Montgomery, is one such shop. Ethan Dull, owner, stated that it can be challenging to keep business booming during the off-season. One unique thing the shop did was to partner with an unlikely business, sharing a historic building in the center of the town.

“Our biggest partnership is with the Blue Bike Café which operates inside the shop and serves breakfast and lunch. We host events at the shop/cafe in collaboration with the mountain bike club for fundraisers and events,” said Dull.

Likewise, “Our partnership with Jay Peak Resort is essential for fat bike rentals in the winter.  We are able to rent the bikes at the resort for riding on their Nordic trails so patrons do not have to travel at all and have a great experience.”

Additionally, the shop works with local inns and groups to provide both rentals and ride information to people visiting from out-of-town for weddings, hockey camps and more, said Dull.

He said that the partnership between The Jay Cloud Cyclery and VMBA is extremely important and a win-win for both.

“VMBA is working hard to obtain funding through grants and government programs to build more and more trails in a huge number of communities,” Dull said. “We have some of the best terrain and trail networks any biker could dream of.”

The Vermont Mountain Bike Retailer Alliance, formed through VMBA, partners with 28 bike shops located throughout the state. These shops support the annual membership fee for the first 25 riders (and often even more) that purchase a bike with a retail price of $1000 or more.

“It encourages a local to purchase local,” said Stuessy. It also connects people to a local shop and a local mountain bike chapter, he noted. “We want to get all that done as quickly as we can to get them integrated into the family.

Other Mountain Bike Partnerships

Other important relationships exist between mountain bikers and private landowners. VMBA works with landowners to gain access to hills, fields and off-road trails. In exchange, members of VMBA maintain a Responsibility Code which includes basic etiquette like staying only on open trails, leaving no trace and not frightening animals, among other rules.

This code of conduct is important as 70 percent of the VMBA chapters’ sanctioned trails run through private land.

Partnerships between businesses, too, are an important outreach effort of VMBA. The Vermont Outdoor Innovation Coalition (VOICe), offers opportunities for outdoor-minded companies to partner with VMBA on grant-naming and trail workday projects for its employees.

These projects build comradery amongst staff and pride in outdoor spaces that they’ve helped to develop.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, is the partnership that VMBA and a number of other recreational organizations in the state enjoy: volunteers.

“The volunteer force in Vermont is really the cotter pin to this entire system,” said Stuessy. He noted that trails in Vermont are primarily led by volunteers. “The kinds of things we’re getting done, you just don’t see anywhere else,” said Stuessy.

He noted that 30,000 volunteer hours are logged on average every year at VMBA, “But there are many people who don’t log their hours. They just go do it.”

How Can Businesses Capitalize on Mountain Biking in the State?

Mountain biking is increasing in both popularity and numbers and further growth is expected. Stuessy noted that 21 percent of riders come from out-of-state, a percentage which has remained “very steady,” of the past few years.

“We are attracting more out-of-state riders. There are more participating than there was five years ago,” Stuessy said. Bike shops too, are seeing this increase in demand, employing more staff each year because of the growing popularity of the sport.

“Incorporating mountain biking into your business can open up a whole new customer base.  Even if your business is not directly—or indirectly—related to mountain biking, sponsoring your local chapter of VMBA or VMBA as a whole shows your support for trails. Mountain bikers want to support and spend money with business who do that,” said Dull.

Developing local trail networks strengthens the community, as well as building recreational opportunities and tourism, said Dull.

“Take a look at the number of cars that pass by with bike racks on them – are they headed to your town to ride, or passing through to somewhere else to ride?”

One of the unique features that VMBA added to its website is a tool which allows mountain bikers to customize their travel and riding experience. It also brings businesses into the mountain biking mix.

Using the Ride VT feature on the top left of the VMBA website, visitors can personalize the experience they are looking for by filtering attributes of their visit.

Riders choose the geographical location, type of biking they intend to do, the accommodations, food options, whether or not their looking for guided rides, bike shops nearby and more with a few clicks of the mouse.

This has brought additional revenue to area businesses and makes the riders’ trips more enjoyable, as well.

“Businesses can get found by riders coming from out-of-state to find what they need,” said Stuessy. “It’s a one-stop shop where riders can go.”

The bottom line is that mountain biking is a boon to Vermont’s economy and the outlook for further growth is good.

Whether riders stop at a local gas station, visit a gift shop or bookstore while strolling after a locally-eaten lunch, or have an overnight stay, there is opportunity to be had by area businesses.

“Mountain biking is experiencing huge growth across the nation, and especially here in Vermont,” Dull said. “We have an amazing array of trail networks in nearly every town...so there is the huge tourism piece- both from out-of-state people coming in, and Vermonters traveling around the state to ride.”

As the sport continues to grow it offers innovative business owners in the Green Mountains further opportunities to grow revenue right alongside the sport.

Joy Choquette is a freelance writer from Franklin County.