Business juggling more than ski gear

Black Tie Ski Rentals concept catches on in Aspen, Crested Butte

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Black Tie Ski Rentals has achieved significant traction in the ski industry since Ian Prichard loaded his first van full of rental skis. That was in 2002, when the company operated out of Prichard's one-car garage in Mountain Vista Townhomes in Steamboat Springs.

Prichard and partner Joe Sternberg have since proven that Steamboat is ready for a personalized ski valet service that eliminates the need for vacationing families to stand in line to get fitted for rental equipment. The success of the young business was predicated on the belief that vacationing families would embrace a ski rental service that would come to their condominium prepped with the correct sizes of boots, snowboards and skis.

By this winter, Black Tie affiliates will be offering a similar service in four other ski towns.

Todd Siefken, general manager of Christie Club, a private residence club at the base of Steamboat Ski Area, said his guests have embraced Black Tie's services.

"The biggest perk they offer is that people can get their rentals in the comfort of their own unit," Siefken said. "Their equipment seems to be very competitive, if not superior, to what most of the shops in town offer."

The acceptance of Black Tie's service by vacationing skiers has resulted in more rapid growth than the owners anticipated.

"It's almost frightening how quickly our business has doubled," Prichard said.

Since the beginning of Black Tie's second season in 2003, the number of skis in its Steamboat inventory has grown from 1,000 to 2,000. The company also rents boots, helmets and clothing. The equipment can be shuttled back and forth between Aspen -- where they have another shop -- and Steamboat to balance the demand.

Affirming the business' success is the fact that its owners have expanded to other ski towns.

Since 2003, Black Tie has added locations in Aspen, Breckenridge, Big Sky, Mont., and North Lake Tahoe, Calif.

Bob Kuusinen of First National Bank of Steamboat Springs is Prichard and Sternberg's banker. He sees their ability to license Black Tie operations outside Colorado as a clear validation of their concept. Kuusinen also is a longtime former executive in the ski resort industry.

"They are two really bright guys who work hard," Kuusinen said. "They've done a fantastic job of designing their business from scratch and executing their business plan flawlessly. It's been really fun to watch from a banker's perspective."

The Aspen/Snowmass business is owned by Prichard and Sternberg. In the other markets, the two partners have licensed their business model to independent owners. Black Tie Ski Rentals of Crested Butte is owned by former Steamboat employee Roman Kolodziej. The North Lake Tahoe operation is owned by three men who worked as hotel bellmen in Steamboat -- brothers Adam and Scott Kmitta and Kyle Roybal.

Sternberg and Prichard put in their time in the trenches of Steamboat's resort business before starting their company. Sternberg managed Steamboat Ski and Sport for four years. Prichard came on board as assistant manager before transitioning into a role as a full-time representative in the ski area's group sales department. They recognized a demand for a different level of service in the profitable ski rental business.

Today, Sternberg works as vice president of operations for Black Tie, and Prichard is vice president of marketing.

Selecting highly motivated, personable ski technicians is crucial to Black Tie, Prichard said. Because the business doesn't have an impressive retail storefront, the quality of the equipment and the personality of the technicians have become the face of the business. Last winter, the company employed 24 people, and 18 of them are expected to return this year.

Black Tie is so intent on forming relationships with its clients that the customer database tracks which technicians worked with which customers.

"We always know who fit up the Jones family three years ago," said Luke Staunton, director of marketing. "They get the same technicians they had before. We think it's a nice touch."

Teams of two Black Tie ski techs pack up a giant rolling duffel bag with as many as four pairs of skis and related equipment and leave from the warehouse in a cargo van. They arrive at the guests' condo or lodge at the appointed hour and spend as long as an hour ensuring everyone has properly fitted equipment.

Ski techs dress in khakis and black polo shirts with the Black Tie logo. Neat hairstyles are encouraged, as is intelligent conversation.

Prichard says the rates for sport and high-end demo ski packages, as well as snowboards, are competitive with traditional ski rental shops. Black Tie works with nine major ski, snowboard and boot manufacturers.

The Internet also plays a major role in Black Tie's operation, and Justin Langness has come on board as the information technologies director. Ninety percent of Black Tie's customers make their reservations online.

Black Tie moved out of a warehouse near the Tree Haus subdivision this year into a more traditional storefront in the Steamboat Crossings shopping center. It offers a more professional office space for staff, as well as a loading dock at the back of the building. Most important is its central location near the Mount Werner Road interchange on U.S. Highway 40. In an era of high gasoline prices, it affords Black Tie's nine-van fleet easy access to the resort lodging at the base of the ski area.

Prichard said his young company isn't likely to grow as rapidly in the next few years as it has since 2003. Instead, it wants to focus on strengthening customer service.

"We want to focus on the locations we have and be the best at what we do," he said.

-- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205 or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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