Steamboat’s Black Tie Ski Rental grows through licensing
November 2, 2013
Steamboat Springs — If you walk through the door of the Black Tie Ski Rentals location in Big Sky, Mont., you'll find employees hustling to load vans and deliver skis wearing a uniform of branded gear and tan Mountain Khakis.
It's a little different than the black jackets and specific denim worn by the employees of Black Tie in Steamboat, but it works for Big Sky, said Ian Prichard, co-founder of Black Tie Ski Rentals and president of its licensing company.
The Black Tie in Big Sky was the first licensed location for the business that was founded in Steamboat, and the differences in uniforms show the personal touches that come out of having 13 independently owned and operated locations.
Now represented in ski towns in California, Utah, Colorado, Montana and British Columbia, Black Tie's decision to start licensing its brand and system has proved successful for the Steamboat company and its individual owners.
When Prichard and Joe Sternberg started Black Tie 11 years ago, any ideas for expansion were envisioned as chain locations owned by the co-founders.
But when Seth Turner approached them nine years ago with an idea to license the ski delivery business and take it back to Big Sky, Prichard and Sternberg gave into his enthusiasm.
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The branding, the proprietary scheduling software built for ski delivery, Web services, and the experience and support of the founders all went into the deal.
Now, the licensed locations also pay into a national marketing fund, customers benefit from the ability to share account information across locations, and all the owners take a yearly retreat together.
Unlike a franchise, the licensed locations have a lot of flexibility.
"We offer recommendations, not requirements," Prichard said.
Owners can experiment with what works for their market and share those successes and failures with the rest of the locations.
While Prichard is the president of the licensing company and oversees items like the national marketing fund, he said the relationship is generally collaborative among owners.
"I'd never say ‘no’ to something that will make the company more profitable," he said.
But without the rigidity of a franchise agreement, maintaining the high level of service Prichard has tried to create with Black Tie requires placing trust in the owners.
"It makes the interview process that much more important," he said about vetting prospective owners.
Ownership has its own benefits: Prichard said owners will make the best decisions for their businesses.
Steamboat is still the highest grossing location in the family, Prichard said, and he works to continue to test new ideas and refine the model to share with the other owners.
Black Tie opened up an amenity center in One Steamboat Place to offer customers the ability to swap equipment at the mountain, cater to walk-in business and have some retail space.
The Steamboat location also has a valet center for the residents and guests of One Steamboat Place. Black Tie employees receive skis and have a rental and fitting shop on the slope-facing side of the project. They then put the skis out in the morning in front of the entrance to One Steamboat Place.
Other locations, such as Telluride, have followed into the high-end valet market.
The biggest potential growth area for the company is for other locations to enter this market, Prichard said.
Locking down exclusive referral deals with properties is difficult, he said, and a delivery ski rental company might not be the right fit for every customer.
The valet arrangement has fit with Black Tie's model, and being in One Steamboat Place has benefits of its own, according to Prichard.
"It's kind of helped us raise our game," he said.
Among Prichard's other new initiatives are some custom Black Tie Ski Rentals skis from Meier, a Glenwood Springs company that turns beetle-killed wood into powder boards.
If the custom skis do well, it could be another idea to pass on to other owners.
Becoming a Black Tie owner is a self-selecting process. The kind of people who want to be a part of the brand are those who are drawn to what differentiates Black Tie from other ski delivery companies, according to Prichard.
When the licensing concept was just gaining steam, Prichard said, there was a rush to find owners for different locations because they thought it was necessary to be the first in the market. Between 2005 and 2007, seven new Black Tie locations opened.
Now, Christy Sports has a delivery option and Park City, Utah-based Ski Butlers has spread to 10 locations, including Steamboat, but Prichard said he's secure that Black Tie has a place in the market.
Black Tie can be a little picker now with licensing, he said. He now knows from experience where the business model likely will work.
There are two locations he'd still like to be in: Jackson, Wyo., and Sun Valley, Idaho.
"The number 15 is such a nice, round number," he said about the total two more locations would give the company. "But I would be totally happy with 13 if we never opened another."