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COVID 19 UPDATE: Keystone and other Vail Resorts ski areas are adopting guidelines in response to the pandemic. These address face coverings, lift riding, required reservations for lift tickets, lunch areas, and online booking and conduct of ski lessons. Also, during this period instructors based at one resort may not teach at another. See snow.com for current procedures, which are in response to health agency guidance and may change.
"What's the biggest complaint you get from guests who are unhappy with a lesson?", the new-hire ski instructor asked his ski school director. "My teacher did not call me by name," was the answer. "But what about how well we ski?", pursued the new-hire. "Never an issue," said the director.
Tips on Choosing Your Instructor
There are some 30,000 members of the Professional Ski Instructors of America, and many other instructors who are not registered. Larger ski resorts such as those in the Colorado Rocky Mountains may have 500 to 1500 instructors in their ski schools. Which one do you want to ski with? Which one wants to ski with you?
Most instructors adapt their teaching/coaching strategies to the needs and goals of those who come to ski with and learn from them. Yet individuals learn best in their own ways and in their preferred environment. So it is important to find an instructor who best matches your own notions. One lady learner, for instance, said, "I want Hitler for my instructor; I want to be TOLD what to do!" She got the ski school director instead, was not satisfied, and lodged a complaint. Hitlers, after all, are in short supply.
Another story was the fellow who came to the ski school office; "I want to learn to ski fast," he said. It happened that the current holder of the world speed skiing record (at about 140 miles per hour then) was working at that ski school, and was assigned to the lesson. Be careful what you ask for!
If you have not already done so, see the section "Why and How To Take a Ski Lesson from a Professional". In particular, note the information there about how instructors may become certified within their own Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) organization to teach various skier levels. Knowing an instructor's certification level will give you a way to know how that instructor's skills rank against this national standard. Here is a general summary:
Links to Ski Instructor Indexes
To help you pick the instructor you can work with best, you may check out instructors at the links below. Some women, for instance, may prefer a lady instructor rather than follow the hackneyed "ski-bunny" tradition of seeking out a male hunk super-skier model for their coach, although others will prefer the latter. And some men will definitely prefer a lady instructor. We do want to have success, whatever the goal! But this website is about skiing.
Currently we find only the above instructor sites. Please send links to other instructor index sites to
Bill Jones for addition here.
Principles versus characteristics: Do you want to look good or ski good? Or both? Looking good while skiing is conforming one's body and motions to what appeals to the eye, giving us a characteristic look while skiing. But sometimes these characteristics have little to do with the principles that work in skiing and in cases will even hinder what works. So if you want to look good, find what the principle is that relates to skiing for each position or movement pattern. If you want to ski good, be sure your instructor can give you the underlying principle for the mechanical result of a position or action. Too often in skiing's past, instructors have dealt with characteristics without finding the principles involved. This is like the difference between a symptom and a cause if you were seeing your doctor. If you or your instructor can find the underlying cause (principle) of a skiing issue you are more likely to treat it so you develop the right characteristic.
Here is an example from an early experience by this author: At a skier's conference, teams from each of several ski schools in the west demonstrated on the snow in seminar style, showing how they skiied and explaining the progression of maneuvers they taught to their guests. At that time the ski schools were each commanded by a director from a different European nation and there were some directors from America. As the national teams came down the slope their team captains would explain the principles behind their characteristic styles of skiing. Questions from the instructor-audience ensued, with answers and discussions from the captains and their teams. Then a ski school composed of instructors from Austria came down. Their captain explained the characteristics of how they skiied. Now came the questions of "Why?" The captain was puzzled and did not seem to know how to answer. More questions were asked about what were the principles behind the characteristics and "Why do you ski like that?" but without answers. Finally, with revelation, the Austrian team captain blurted out "Because that is how Professor Krukenhauser told us to ski!"
What does "professional" mean in the ski instructing business? What is the role of the ski school and what is the role of the guest/client in compensation (tipping)? While any person earning income teaching skiing might be considered professional, working ski instructors have the option of becoming dues-paying members of the Professional Ski Instructors of America and attain certification to teach at specified proficiency levels, giving definition to the word "professional" that guests may apply. There is a connotation therefore that registered professional ski instructors are better-trained and more experienced than non-registered professionals and amateurs. At least it is easier to ascertain the level of their professionalism. The professional is in the business and attempts to make a living giving sound advice and being available. Ski schools, however, are not noted for largesse when it comes to salary (most instructors are hourly employees, earning only while actually teaching, and at many areas less-experienced instructors may gross little more than $50 a day, out of which equipment and other expenses must come; see "Skiing as a Career"). Even experienced, fully certified instructors may not earn more than $100-$150 per day in wages. And that is only for a few months in winter, a commitment which compromises getting a good-paying job the rest of the year.
[At $100 per day and a season of 100 work days with no holidays (and holidays that are worked generally give no more compensation), income of a professional ski instructor would be $10,000; yet the average income for Americans for a year of 260 days (including paid holidays) in 2014 was $50,000. Said another way, the 2009 American poverty level was defined for a family of four as $22,050, about the income level of the ski instructor in this example if he/she worked the full year.]
Although the cost of ski lessons has gone up over the years, the wages of many if not most instructors in real-dollar terms has actually gone done. In 2009-2010 actual wages went down almost 6 per cent at some resorts, in response to the poor national economy and its effect on skier travel in winter 2008-2009, when volume went down as well. (Note that instructors get paid mostly only when they work and that winter they worked less, with a drop in actual income of 30% and more.) They also face the possibility of a season-ending or career-ending injury.
Some clients see in this situation where ski lesson charges by the resorts are a lot greater than wages to the instructor that they might hire an instructor directly. But this is rarely possible as most ski schools have exclusive franchises at their mountains (see "Ski Slope Access for Paid Instruction" at "Why Take a Ski Lesson from a Professional").
The role of gratuities: Many guests/clients of instructors recognize the compensation dilemma and provide extras to cement and continue relationships that are satisfactory. So, tipping by these guest/clients, as in many guest-service jobs, helps keep instructors going who otherwise might not be able to continue pursuing their passions. Even so, many top-notch instructors have been unable to stay in their profession of choice and their clients have lost their mentors.
Unlike some other guest-service sectors, a consistent scale for gratuities is only now developing for ski instructors, and there is scant guidance available for those who would reward a job well done or for an extra measure of service (extending a lesson, providing equipment, videoing a performance, etc.). Instructors are sometimes asked whether tipping for a lesson is customary and if so, how much is appropriate. This is a bit of an awkward situation for all, including the ski instructor-author of this website, so here guidance is referenced from published sources. This guidance pertains to North American skiing. In Europe the situation is different; for instance, one instructor there reports receiving a wage of 20-25 euros ($18-22USD) per hour for each student in the class! Tipping in Europe is therefore less a requirement, and so folks who have skied in the Alps have been said to tend to tip less than others when they come to America to ski (although in recent years instructors there are not being compensated as well as formerly).
The magazine, Ski, made an effort to clarify the tipping protocol in its October 2000 issue, in "The Art of Tipping" by Everett Potter. Potter interviewed ski school supervisors and instructors at several resorts both east and west and found wide variation in tipping. About the only solid figure was a recommendation by a ski school director to tip instructors as you would waiters: 15 to 20 percent of the cost of the lesson. (Such guidance might be the minimum appropriate in that waiters at resort areas--with tips on expensive meals--often earn more than ski instructors, yet the ski instructors have jobs that require extensive training and experience, require costly equipment purchase, deal personally and over a long time span with their charges, and are performed in a difficult to hazardous environment.) Examples are cited of tips to instructors of 100% and more, of expense-paid tours given rather than cash, gifts of objects, and of no tips at all. Tips are said to be appropriate even if a free lesson is provided, and to instructors of children. Private lesson clients often buy their instructor's lunch if taken with the instructor. And the article notes that tips might not be appropriate if the lesson was not a good one.
The website page, "Breckenridge, Colorado, The Perfect Mountain town", once included this "Tipping Etiquette" guidance for ski instructors: "While tipping is not expected as it is in a restaurant, it is recommended, if you enjoyed your experience. $20 is suggested for a full-day class lesson. $80-$100 is suggested for a full-day private lesson." [This is 14-18% of the lesson cost as paid to the resort.]
Advice consistent with the above guidelines is in the Barking Bear Forums of Epicski.com; search on "gratuities".
Here is a calculation comparing a restaurant waiter/waitress to a ski instructor, recognizing however that wide variations may occur. If the waiter/waitress serves 4 tables per hour with 2 to 4 persons each (say 3) and an average cost per entree of $20, gross receipts to the restaurant would be $240 per hour and if tipped at 15%, the waiter/waitress would receive $36 along with a tipped-workers' wage of about $3 for the hour, totaling about $39 per hour. If the waiter/waitress worked a 6 hour shift as a ski instructor might, the take for the shift would be $234. A ski instructor on the other hand for the same 6-hour shift would be paid somewhere between $10 and $20 per hour (say $15) and thus would get $90 in pay to be added to any tips, which in one case averaged $26 per day, for a total of $116 per day. (This compares to the waiter/waitress days' take of $234, although an experienced instructor who brings clients to the resort could get as much total as the waiter/waitress on a given day, yet a less-experienced one might make only a third as much.) Maybe that is why so many ski instructors also wait tables in the evenings after their ski day, especially when some will not have gotten work (or pay or tips) instructing during slow times. Would you have your son/daughter be a ski instructor or a waiter? Would you be one?
Some popular instructors are able to select the clients they will ski with from among those who request their service, and a factor such instructors might use is which clients tip adequately (one such instructor was heard to say his minimum to accept a client to ski with was a tip of $60 per day and this was some years ago so his standard is likely higher now).
The book Ski Like a Diva (pp. 57-58) by Jennifer and Jeff Bergeron of Breckenridge and the company Boot Fixation suggests tipping for good lessons, especially if you plan to use the same instructor again, but not for disappointing lessons. They say twenty percent of the lesson cost is common; more if you want. They note that tipping is less common for group lessons than for private ones, but feel tipping should be done for either if the lesson was a good one.
Searches in Yahoo and Google on the term "ski lesson tipping" or "tipping your ski instructor" produce several entries. One suggests tipping ski instructors $10-$15 per hour. Another posted by Rusty is as follows: "When tipping instructors, 15-20% of the lesson price is appropriate for a well taught lesson. Some students have been known to tip higher when the service is exceptional or if a major breakthrough has been facilitated...Tipping is generally expected for private lessons. You are rewarding for personal attention and the quality of the experience just like in a restaurant. The tip should match the level of service received... Some of the "unusual" tips that Rusty has heard of include: new vehicles, new ski equipment (used once during the lesson), trips to other (even foreign) resorts, days at the golf course, a condo, lifetime season passes." Belniak.com recommends "I would tip 15% for an average lesson and 20% for an outstanding lesson." Alli on the website Trip Advisor states: "In a private lessons tips are more $50.00+". Smushie on Trip Advisor states: "Most folks tip between $40-100/day for a full day private lesson and perhaps a bit more on the last day if you've had the same instructor each day." Several commentators suggested not tipping at all, believing that instructors are well paid either in wages or in being able to work their dream. Still, as noted above, few instructors make an adequate living from their ski school wages and ski-town bills do not get paid with scenery and fun, nor have the equipment expenses paid by their employer.
Vail Resorts adopted this statement for the 2015-2016 season as shown on its website and on its product brochures: "Gratuities for coaches are not a requirement but an appropriate and appreciated gesture. A 15-20% gratuity based on the cost of the lesson will make your coach feel very appreciated and valued."
A former ski-lesson taker who is now a Vail ski instructor posted this comment in 2016:
With all that said, there are instructors who, when their wages and tips are combined, make an adequate living teaching skiing. These are generally ones with the most experience who can give the highest-quality lessons and who have repeat clients from prior seasons--and who have clients who also tip well. To get to that situation, however, usually required years of teaching at low pay levels. New instructors are generally not able or willing to put in the time required to reach this point. Recognizing this problem, instructors at some resorts have created unions and others are exploring that. The Communications Workers of America union is involved in this currently at Beaver Creek, one of the Vail Resort operations. The Keystone instructors explored uinionization several years ago and there have been similar probes by staffs at some other resorts and by some ski patrols, too. It is a movement being carefully watched and considered by both area managements and staffs. It might seem the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) would be an avenue to address its members' issues dealing with ski area management, however this has not been a purpose of PSIA. Partly if not largely this is because PSIA 's leaders in many cases also hold management positions at ski resorts which might put them in odds with what the instructors would have, although the aims of both should really be the same.
Bill Jones, Ski Instructor,
637 Blue Ridge Road,
Silverthorne, CO 80498.
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