Ski Instructor Ronin

ronin [ˈrəʊnɪn]

n Japanese history

1. (Historical Terms) (Government, Politics & Diplomacy) a lordless samurai, esp one whose feudal lord had been deprived of his territory.

ski instructor ronin [ski ɪnˈstrʌktə ˈrəʊnɪn]

n  Ski industry

  1. 1.     (Individual Sports & Recreation, Skiing, small business) A teacher of skiing who offers his or her services for a fee independent from a ski resort’s ski school.
Famous Samurai ronin Miyamoto Musashi

Famous Samurai ronin Miyamoto Musashi

You’re a well-heeled businessman in Cleveland getting ready to take a ski trip with your family at a posh ski resort out west.  Everything’s first class, including the slope-side condo costing $5,000 per week.  The price includes your own maid.  You’d like your two kids (ages 8 and 10) to get some private ski lessons one day so you and the wife can hit the black diamonds.  You look up how much day-long private lessons would be for your kids and feel shocked that it’s $700 per kid.  That’s $1400 for 6 hours of skiing for the kids so you and the wife can be alone.  Yeah you can afford it but that still seems pretty steep.  Later, you’re talking with your buddy at work telling him about your problem.  Your buddy likes to ski too and had the same problem at the same resort.  “I know someone who can help you out,” he says and goes on to say “I know someone who can teach your kids for $475 per kid.”  He looks up a number on his 4G, writes it down and hands it to you.  “Give Mary Jane a call at this number and set it up,” he tells you.  “She works independently and she’ll send a fully certified ski instructor to your condo on whatever day you want.”  You thank your buddy telling him you’ll check it out.

A few days later you give the number a call and a female voice answers with a simple “hello.”

“Is Mary Jane there?” You ask.

“This is she,” the female voice replies.

“I’m taking my family skiing out your way and I heard you offer discounted private ski lessons for children,” you inquire.

“Yes we do,” she answers.  Mary Jane goes on to tell you she contracts with a number of local ski instructors who work independently.  She assures you these are fully certified and experienced instructors accustomed to teaching children.

Convinced, you say “Sounds good” and you set up the appointment.

Six weeks later you and your family are enjoying your ski vacation.  It’s Wednesday and the kids anxiously look forward to their private ski lesson day.  At precisely 8:30 AM the doorbell rings and your wife answers the door.  She finds a clean-cut man in his 20’s who smiles and says “Hi, I’m Josh and I’m here to teach your children skiing today.”  Josh is dressed just like any other skier.  Nothing about him says he is a ski instructor.

“Come on in,” your wife says.  She offers him a cup of coffee.  This is her way of checking him out before entrusting her children with this stranger.  Josh knows this.  It’s part of the routine.  He smiles, and says “Sure.”  He tells you he’s an instructor at another local resort and does this on the side to earn extra money.  He’s married and working his way through college.  He’s a Level II ski instructor who has been teaching for five years.  He’s a member of the Professional Ski Instructors of America and certified to teach children as well.  Your wife smiles, feels satisfied, and checks on the kids to see if they’re ready.  While she’s doing that Josh has you sign a liability waver.  If something does happen and you decide to sue anyway, Josh nevertheless carries his own liability insurance.  After signing the waver Josh takes your check for $950.  The kids are ready and off they go.

You and your wife then head out for your date with the black diamonds.  At lunchtime you ski back to the condo.  You find your children and Josh there eating a lunch prepared by the maid.  The kids are excited and happy.  They tell you about the runs they did and what Josh taught them.  Josh briefs you on what he’s teaching them and what he plans to do with them during the afternoon session.  They go back out and at exactly 4 PM the children return tired but happy.  You feel pleased with how it all worked out and want to give Josh a tip.  However he says “That’s not necessary, but tell your friends about us.”  He doesn’t need the tip because Josh will receive $800 out of that $950 fee you paid.   Not bad for a day’s work at any job.

No wonder ski resorts have what they consider to be a problem with independent ski instructors poaching their slopes and stealing sheep away from their ski schools.  Even well-heeled skiers are not foolish with their money.  Why spend $700 when you can get the same thing for $475?

As a still naïve second-year instructor I was surprised to learn there is a thriving gray-to-black market for free lance ski instructors working independently of the ski resort.  One of my colleagues basically told me the not-so-fictional story I just presented.  I learned some of my other ski instructor colleagues have done the same thing and learned free lance ski instructors have been around for decades.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised this is how most resort ski schools got started in the first place.  Before ski schools somebody wanted to learn how to ski and went up to the guy who looked like he knew what he was doing and asked “Can you teach me to do that?  I’d be happy to pay you for it.”

Ski instructor ronin often work off-the-grid at word-of-mouth businesses like the one described in the story above.  However, the transaction can be much more informal.  Teach skiing long enough and somebody at some point is bound to ask for a lesson “off the books.”  It’s a mighty tempting prospect for an underpaid and nearly starving ski instructor.  [Question – What are so many ski instructors married?  Answer – They’d be homeless otherwise.]  Imagine this scenario.  Let’s say you’re an off-duty ski instructor from Ohio on a ski vacation in Colorado.  You’re sharing a gondola up the mountain with a married couple.  [Rule #1 for the would-be ski instructor ronin – don’t poop where you eat.  That is, thou shalt not free lance at the resort where you work.]  During the conversation on the ride up you mention you’re a ski instructor back in Ohio.  The couple says they’ve been wanting to take a lesson but it’s so expensive.  They spontaneously then ask if you’d be willing to give them a lesson.  They offer you a seventy-five bucks for two hours of your time.  You’re young and could use the extra beer money.  You reply  “Uhhhh, OK.”  It’s that easy to get started and many legitimate instructors have done just this very thing.

By in large, free lance instructors earn substantially more than instructors at resort-sponsored ski schools.  Resort sponsored ski schools typically take 75% of the lesson fee.  In the story presented above, a resort-based instructor might have earned only around $200 for that day’s work, including the tip.  Instructors become fed up with ski resorts taking the lion’s share of lesson fees.  Who can blame them for wanting to go into business for themselves?  Take Scot for example, who is pictured below.  Scot is the only ronin in the U.S. bold enough to have his own website.  He’s a Level III instructor (the highest ski instructor rating one can achieve) with 20 years of experience.  For $400 per day plus the cost of his lift ticket he’ll teach you or your children how to ski at any resort in Utah.

Of course ski resorts frown on ski instructor ronin.  Like the Samurai ronin of medieval Japan, ski instructor ronin receive about as much love as a ski slope’s brown-tainted slush on a warm day.  Ski areas know there are guys like Scot around and their response to the ronin vary.  Some posh resorts apparently just turn a blind eye to it.  As long as it is discrete, they are not about to bust a ronin in the middle of teaching some rich-and-important person’s children to ski.  They figure at least they’re getting the price of the lift tickets.  Other ski areas have been more aggressive in hunting down these ski scabs.  A few years ago ski instructor ronin became too prevalent for Vail’s taste so they set up a sting operation in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service.  It turns out it is illegal to operate a business on federal lands without a permit.  Consequently, one can’t teach skiing for money without a federally issued business permit.  Vail Corporation nabbed a number of these ronin in Colorado and California, who then received fines of about $500 from the U.S. Forest Service and a life-time ban from ever skiing at any of the Vail resorts again.

Ski instructor ronin Scot

Ski instructor ronin Scot

Independent ski instructors have a greater acceptance in Europe than in the U.S.  Go on the Internet and you will find a number of websites where sole proprietors and small businesses offer ski instruction at the European ski resorts.  In fact, the European Union has professional guidelines for independent instructors.  In addition, ski instructor ronin are not complete pariahs at all North American resorts.  Some smaller ski resorts in the pacific northwest have been known to contract with independent ski instructors and independent small businesses to provide ski instruction at their resorts.  To do this legally independent instructors need obtain business permits from the U.S. Forest service (if the ski area is on public lands).  They then need written consent from the ski area to operate their business on their slopes.  Finally, these instructors need to carry liability insurance and have their clients sign liability wavers.

One can view ski instructor ronin as either a problem or an asset.  By operating an unlicensed business the ronin trespass on private property.  It’s like going into Best Buy and telling their shoppers you can sell them a cell phone cheaper than what the store offers.  Or how about this, how would you like it if somebody starting selling lemonade on your front lawn without your consent?  There is also no quality control or consumer protection with ronin instructors.  Anybody can pose as a ski instructor and sell ski instructional services.  Patrons of a resort ski school are guaranteed to get what they pay for, a certified and experienced instructor.  Customers have recourse at a resort ski school if they’re dissatisfied with the product.  That’s not the case with the ronin.

On the other hand the ronin does offer a product the market wants.  They thrive because the market thinks ski resorts charge too much for private ski lessons.  Ronin offer a healthy competitive alternative that could ultimately benefit consumers.  Competition between ski instructors and ski schools at a ski resort should lower the price and improve quality according to economic theory 101.  Ronin communicate another message ski resorts need to hear – pay your instructors better!  Taking 75% of the lesson fee is a bit greedy don’t you think?  If you paid them better they wouldn’t feel a need to supplement their income by selling their services on a black market.

Ski resorts aren’t about to lower private lesson fees nor pay their instructors better anytime in the near future.  Consequently ski instructor ronin will continue to be a hidden presence at the ski resorts.  For those hoping to save a buck and want to hire such an instructor remember, caveat emptor (let the buyer beware).

About skibums

Psychologist, skier, ski instructor, photographer, bicyclist.
This entry was posted in Skiing, Sports and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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