By Rachel Walker
Think the general manager of the Vail Children’s Ski and Snowboard School taught his own kids how to ski?
With almost 20 years of instruction and management experience at the Beaver Creek and Vail snowsports schools, Greg Willis understands the value of professional instruction.
He talked about the Vail Children’s Ski and Snowboard School, how to keep learning fun, and more.
Let’s start with an overview of the Vail Children’s Ski and Snowboard School: what makes it unique?
Greg Willis (GW): Our instructors.
Our mantra is to inspire passion for the mountain experience, and we have a roster of industry leading professionals on the staff.
They literally helped write the instruction manuals that all the other schools can purchase.
Can you summarize the school’s philosophy?
GW: Our teaching model for kids is all about play, drill, and adventure.
If we keep the fun in there and the play with the drills, the kids don’t even know that they’re learning.
Are there any new changes to the Vail Children’s Ski and Snowboard School you want to tell us about?
GW: The proudest change we made this year was to go to voucherless technology with our ski school products.
Every lesson, rental, anything, that guests purchase is loaded onto hard card media and there are no paper tickets.
This is huge for the family buying multi-day lessons.
Having everything electronic ties the entire experience into EpicMix Academy and makes everything easier overall.
That’s great for parents. What about the kids? What do you do (beyond lessons) to make it fun?
GW: What don’t we do?
We have a regular Riperoo parade in Lionshead and Eagles Nest on Monday and on Gold Peak on Fridays; we have theme days like Bumpin’ Bash for moguls and race day Thursdays, and there are the Vail Adventure Zones scattered around the mountain where kids can build their confidence and skills.
What are the factors that go into making your ski school run smoothly? What are some challenges?
GW: The biggest challenge and our biggest goal for this year is to create one cohesive school.
With five different locations, we strive to have impeccable communication.
We want the experience to be seamless, regardless of where guests go for their lessons.
What are the most common concerns you hear from parents dropping their kids off at ski school for the first time?
GW: Probably parents’ biggest concern is the safety and security of their child.
How do you address that?
GW: Maybe the child’s never even done a full day of preschool before, so that’s a huge step to be in a ski lesson all day.
Or perhaps the kid still naps.
We have naptime built into the day for the younger kids, and we always confirm with parents that our philosophy centers around safety, fun and learning.
What can parents do to ease the process of dropping kids off at ski school?
GW: Sometimes when kids arrive late the night prior, they’re coming from sea level, they might not be feeling well.
It’s really up to the parents to try and get the kids well rested and hydrated.
Are lessons just for tourists? If not, why not?
GW: Absolutely not. Getting professional instruction is hugely beneficial, regardless of whether you ski five days a year or 50.
GW: Kids are extremely visual.
It’s helpful to get them in that group lesson experience and to give them the social aspect.
Kids push each other and they have fun and learn from each other.
Our instructors are trained to deliver that play-drill-adventure experience, and most students respond really well.
With Mom and Dad, kids know it’s easy to push their parent’s buttons.
Did you teach your kids?
GW: No. With my own kids I’ve learned to back off and not push it.
What type of training do your instructors get before they can teach?
GW: It depends on their experience. New hires get 10 rigorous days of training with three audits by more experienced professionals. And throughout the season, we do a multi-day follow up training.
What makes a good ski instructor?
GW: A great ski instructor is someone who loves children and has a passion for teaching and for skiing or riding.
Someone who can share that.
The skiing and the riding skills are secondary. We have the greatest trainers in the world and we can teach what they might be lacking.
What’s one piece of advice you could give parents who want their kids to learn and love snow sports?
GW: Leave it to the pros and let your kids take a lesson with us. That’s the number one way to get them going.
GW: Have reasonable expectations.
Don’t push the kids too hard. The key is just to keep it fun.
They are going to go through waves where they love it and it is all they want to do, and then they want a break.
Make it an adventure. Skiing and snowboarding should be the whole package of going to the resort and getting hot chocolate and getting out on the slopes.