Carving a lifestyle
The chance to ski once in Europe, Canada and Chile would be a dream come true for most powder-hungry, skiing enthusiasts. Imagine doing all three in one year. And getting paid for it.
Welcome to the world of Chris and Jenny Fellows. The Tahoe locals and founders of North American Ski Training Center have been traveling to resorts like Chamonix, Portillo and Whistler annually for close to a decade, and they’ve been making a living doing it.
“We’re living a lifestyle in the mountains that’s pretty unique,” Chris said. “You’d have to be making $250,000 to $300,000 a year to do what we’re doing – traveling and skiing and getting gear.”
The pair enjoy such freedoms as a result of their business, NASTC, which is one of the first total immersion, multi-day ski schools for intermediate to expert skiers. The organization debuted in 1995 and now runs 28 clinics at 17 resorts for 10 months of the year.
“We guide people beyond their self-perceived limits and take them to places that broaden their world view of skiing,” Chris said. “We really immerse them in the world of skiing and the world of learning to ski better. It’s the difference between reading about a tropical rain forest and going to the Amazon and spending a month.”
That philosophy was rare in the States when Chris first learned about it during Bundesstorthein, a ski camp in Saint Cristoph, Austria.
“Chris went over there for a full immersion program,” Jenny Fellows, his wife, said. “He lived and breathed and ate ski instruction.”
The effect of Chris’ experience was something like reading Ghandi must have been for Martin Luther King – it opened his eyes to a better way to teach skiing and he couldn’t let go. The result – NASTC – debuted seven years later .
“The idea was originally to give Americans more than the quick-fix, McDonald’s-have-it-your-way-now approach,” Jenny said. “That works well for beginners who are just looking to try [skiing] out, but in skiing, you can reach a level where you plateau and you need day after day of repeating the same movement pattern under the skilled eyes of trainers.”
Though the business idea sounded strong, leaving the corporate umbrella of Squaw Valley, where Chris worked as a ski school supervisor, was tough.
“Whenever you’re an entrepreneur trying something new, it’s always scary,” Chris said. “There’s no guarantee you will make money. You have to have confidence in your idea and yourself.”
NASTC’s initial clinic in British Columbia proved it could work. There, clients like Patrick Ikeda, who, after three years on skis believed the 90 minute lessons at a local resort offered were insufficient, discovered an alternative.
“I was ready to give up skiing and start snowboarding,” Ikeda said. “NASTC kept me from the ‘dark side.'”
NASTC’s ability to recognize the needs of clients like Ikeda and fill in where resorts leave off paid off quickly. By its fifth year of business, the company had logged more than 600 skier days (determined by the number of skiers participating multiplied by the number of days of the clinic). This year that number topped 1,000 and more than 70 percent of the skiers were repeat customers.
The Fellows have found success by overcoming the challenges of seasonal demand, Tahoe’s high cost of living and the areas small, year-round base. Critical in that has been avoiding investing in a physical plant, like lodging at one resort.
By working out of their home, the pair dodge office expenses and allow clinics to be run in foreign places like Portillo and Valle Nevado, Chile, which extend their season from six to 10 months of the year.
“We’re unique because we’re small enough and agile enough that we haven’t homogenized yet,” Chris said. “We have the alacrity to change quickly and provide what we believe is cutting edge in terms of location and instruction.”
Chris credits the latter as the true cornerstone of NASTC’s success. His staff, which has grown from two to 20 full- and part-time instructors, provide clients with consistent coaching and long-term relationships. Instructor Mike Hafer, who’s worked with NASTC for five years, said he stays in contact with close to 40 percent of his clients year round.
“You develop a relationship with clients because they’re seeing the same coaches,” Hafer said. “[Each clinic] is a continuous progression.”
Jill Steeley, who’s participated in nine NASTC clinics, credits the staff with bringing a “zen-onenees” to their training approach that encompasses psychological, physical and emotional aspects of the sport.
“This was no – ‘keep zee knees togezzer’ – drill instruction,” Steeley said. “It was clear that the trainers were evaluating each student individually and working towards developing a teaching style that worked for each of us.”
Though Chris and Jenny hope NASTC continues to grow as it has the past two years, when it rose by 25 percent, that level of customer satisfaction is something they never want to see change.
“It goes back to the lifestyle,” Chris said. “The minute we want this to become a larger economic model, we’re going to lose something. We’re not into the huge dollars – we’re into creating a cool lifestyle for ourselves, our clients and the people that work for us.”