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Posted: December 01, 2011

Small biz: The Netflix of the ski rental industry

Mike Taylor

Joe Sternberg was managing a Steamboat Springs ski shop 10 years ago when country singer Alan Jackson called from the Sheraton Hotel asking if his rental skis could be delivered to his room.

"He said, ‘Hey, I need some skis, but I had a really long flight. I don't feel like coming down there,'" Sternberg recalls.

Sternberg's co-workers in back of the shop heard this and mocked the country singer - "You ain't no Garth Brooks, get down here!" - but Sternberg took the singer up on his request, and that's how Black Tie Ski Rentals was born.

Sternberg stayed up all night writing a business plan for a ski-rental delivery service, the first of its kind, what Sternberg calls the "Netflix of the ski industry."

The next morning Sternberg shared the plan with his friend and fellow Rochester, N.Y., transplant, Ian Prichard, who would become a co-founder. Sternberg was 35 at the time, Prichard 25.

They spent the first two years operating out of Prichard's garage, using his kitchen as their office. For deliveries they had one van. Today, Black Tie Ski Rentals is the largest ski-rental delivery business in North America. The original Steamboat operation boasts 40 employees and seven vans hauling skis, boots, poles and snowboards to vacationers throughout the resort and fitting them on the spot.

"Just call on us, and no travel, no baggage, no bringing skis on an airplane," Sternberg says. "Use us every year, and you get new skis every year. It makes that first day a whole lot easier. Because traveling with the family on a ski vacation is not easy."

Black Tie's revenues doubled in year two and grew another 45 percent in year three. At that point, Sternberg and Prichard expanded to Aspen. The same year, 2004, they licensed the concept to an owner in Big Sky, Mont. They've since inked licensing agreements at 12 additional locations, including all the major Colorado ski areas plus North and South Lake Tahoe, Mammoth, Park City and Whistler. Every outlet is independently owned and operated, with owners paying a $25,000 licensing fee plus about $7,000 to a marketing fund.

The concept really is Netflix-like. Before their trip, vacationers simply log on to www.blacktieskis.com, find their resort and place their order.

"They go online, set the time, set what packages they want, and they submit it to us," Sternberg says. "We send them a confirmation, and we go the night they arrive and set them up - pack everything up in very nice, classy Black Tie bags."

Although Black Tie Ski Rentals attracts high-end clients, the company's basic packages are no more expensive than the rental shops at the base of the slope. That's because owners of Black Tie Rentals outlets aren't paying for base-resort storefronts - although Sternberg and Prichard did open a small outlet in Steamboat two years ago called Black Tie Amenity Center to make it easier for clients to deal with issues like mid-day equipment exchanges or replacing a bent ski pole.

Not surprisingly, Sternberg and Prichard have served their share of celebrities. That was particularly the case when they were running the Aspen branch (they've since sold it to a local owner) and equipped the likes of singers Faith Hill and Tim McGraw; golfer Phil Michelson; Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Then there was Jon Bon Jovi. "We had to give him a woman's boot because he was a size 5. He's only like 5-6," Sternberg says. "So that was kind of funny. These stars, they love it because we come to them, and they don't have to get out there in the public."

Along with skis, snowboards, boots and poles, Black Tie offers an assortment of goggles, gloves, socks and other peripheral ski wear. Sternberg recalls Catherine Zeta-Jones requiring a special fitting.

"She bought a pair of gloves from us, and we had to get her a size bigger because her ring was so big," he says.

About 60 percent of Black Tie's business comes from repeat customers. There's no disputing it beats the crowded rental-shop experience.

"We try to get it done the night before when people are having a beer or a glass of wine and the kids are there," he says. "It's a really neat, interesting model."

And one that he and Prichard are proud to have pioneered.

"We pretty much invented the concept," Sternberg says. "There are four or five ski rental delivery companies in every ski area now. But we're always very proud that we were the first."
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Mike Taylor is the managing editor of ColoradoBiz. He writes about small-business money issues and how startups are launched. Email him at mtaylor@cobizmag.com.

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