We spoke with Paul Hanlon to learn more about what it's like to operate an international Ski School. As a lifelong skier that has had the opportunity to test the powder around the world, we loved learning more about his experience abroad in the industry.
How long have you been skiing/instructing?
Paul: I have been a ski instructor for the past 9 years, but the first 3 years was on a part-time basis, while I was studying at university. I started skiing when I was 9 in Andorra, with my family and I skied around one to two weeks per season in Europe growing up.
What is your favorite ski destination?
Paul: This is a hard question! Engelberg in Switzerland certainly has some of the best terrain I’ve ever skied, however with 500-600 inches of snow falling in Hokkaido every season, it’s hard not to love skiing here in Japan.
For the last six seasons, I have mainly skied at the Rusutsu Resort and I’m yet to get bored of the terrain or powder. It’s a pretty special mountain and despite getting busier in recent years, I still have a few secret powder stashes where I can normally find fresh tracks on my days off. Also, there is some great backcountry terrain around the resort, which is not to be missed. The lift accessed tree skiing at Rusutsu is pretty special and packed full of fun features. Typically, in autumn Hokkaido is hit by typhoons, which often knock down trees etc. This can often make the woodland terrain feel completely different year after year.
Also, Hokkaido Sapporo Teine has to be one of my favorite mountains. It’s a real local’s hill close to downtown Sapporo, which gets a lot of powder. It definitely has some of the steepest lift accessed side country terrain in Hokkaido. You can be on the lift in around 30 minutes from the city center and even get there via the subway. It’s a real hidden gem for powder.
When did you discover your passion for skiing and snowboarding/ what is your favorite part of your job?
Paul: I have loved skiing since my first winter holiday and have tried to ski as many days as possible since. I decided to train as a ski instructor to spend a season on the snow. It sounded like a great adventure and a real challenge. However, after shadowing some lessons I really felt ski instructing or working in a teaching environment would suit me.
My first week ski instructing was spent in Italy and it was one of the best weeks skiing ever! Seeing my students improve their technique and become hooked on skiing was a great feeling. I soon realized that this was the right industry for me.
Although I don’t spend as much time on my skis as I used to, it’s great to be involved in an industry I feel passionate about.
What role do you envision technology playing in the future of the ski industry?
Paul: Technology is already proving helpful within lessons with many instructors can provide video feedback to their clients. Videos clips and feedback emails with tactics, advice and recommended drills, helps clients take more from their lessons.
Also, communication technology help instructors and clients keep in contact year on year and build professional relationships.
Technology now allows clients to easily book a lesson via their smart phone, select their instructor and arrange a meeting point without ever going to a reception desk. This makes booking lessons quick and easy. Clients can also check instructor reviews or select a previous/recommended instructor to ensure they get the right instructor for them.
Hopefully technology will make it easier for customers to book a lesson and reduce operational costs for schools.
What are the biggest challenges you face in the ski industry?
Paul: Integrating technology to improve efficiency and improve the guest experience is high on our priority list. Until recently, the Rusutsu School used an antiquated paper0based system and customers were required to physically visit the school reception. We are now upgrading the system, which should make the guest experience much smoother.
Visa issues are always a big issue in Japanese ski schools. Instructors need to be eligible for a Working Holiday Visa or require visa sponsorship. To be eligible for a sponsored visa, instructors are required to have over and eight to ten seasons, or 36 months teaching experience.
This restricts a lot of younger instructors who are not eligible for a Working Holiday Visa. Hopefully, in the future the visa regulations for instructors will be relaxed to meet the increasing demand for international instructors in Japan. I think a slight relaxation of the visa restrictions would allow us to retain more staff year on year and create a better product for our international customers.
What else would you like to see in the future of the ski industry?
Paul: I would like to see a focus on delivering more products, which focus on intermediate to advanced clients looking to improve their skill all over the mountain. Often people tend only to take lessons for the first few weeks and tend to plateau as intermediates. This can often lead to picking up numerous bad habits.
I think lessons helping people develop their off-piste skills and help them develop skills to ski/ride the whole mountain. Not just on the trails.
I would also like to see clients drive new lesson types with suggestions and feedback. This would help schools find out what the clients want and offer new products based on this data.
What are the benefits of taking a ski lesson through ski school?
Paul: I think having a good time is always the most important thing when skiing/snowboarding. When taking a lesson, your instructor will be working hard to ensure you have the best time possible. Instructors carefully select the appropriate terrain, speed and turn shape. They also carefully assess the condition of their clients and schedule stops/coffee breaks to minimize risk and create a safe, fun environment. Once you are having fun and comfortable, you are the right environment to learn and improve.
Also, a lesson is also great way to see the mountain, get local info on the resort. Often instructors can recommend best trails, off-piste terrain or even the best local bars and restaurants. This can really change your overall experience.
Ski school isn’t just for beginners, so how can more advanced skiers gain from these lessons?
Paul: With skiing, you can always improve, refine your technique and learn new skills. The terrain and snow conditions are always changing. Taking a lesson is a great way to refine your technique and keep up to date. I think it’s important to keep learning, as we can always improve.
In Japan the powder can be exceptionally deep and often even highly experienced skier/snowboarders are not used of this type of snow. A lesson is a great way to get familiar with the powder in a safe, fun environment.
At Rusutsu, we have recently started a special mountain guiding program where our most experienced instructors, guide advanced/expert level clients to the best lift accessed terrain in the area. They use their experience and local knowledge to find guests the best and deepest powder away from the crowds.
Is there a certification process for your instructors? What does it entail?
Paul: At Rusutsu, we only recruit instructors with an internationally recognized ski/snowboard certifications. We also provide Japanese training and exams via the SAJ (Ski Association of Japan). We require all our international instructors to sit these exams over the course of the season.
The SAJ skiing/snowboarding style is pretty different when compared to some other ski/snowboarding instructor associations, but I think it’s good for instructors to challenge themselves to learn something new. Instructors always tend to enjoy the training and it’s a great way for them to try some basic Japanese phrases they can use on the mountain and bond with Rusutsu’s fantastic Japanese instructors.
What makes Rusutsu’s International Ski School special?
Paul: In recent years, the Rusutsu Resort international school has grown significantly, but we work hard to keep a fun, close, team environment. We organize regular social nights, which create a fun working atmosphere. Also, we try to keep a Japanese feel as almost all other resort staff are Japanese. We encourage our instructors to learn some basic Japanese to get to know the Japanese staff and working culture. I think it’s good for all instructors visiting Japan to get a real authentic Japanese experience.
We have a growing number of returning staff each season, which is great to see. I think happy and highly motivated teams deliver the best lessons. This improves the experience for guests and staff alike.
At Rusutsu all instructors teach exclusively private lessons, which creates a better experience for instructors and clients. Also we provide free accommodations, a season pass and subsidized meals. This helps ensure all our instructors can have a comfortable season even in quiet periods.
Personally, I think the night skiing is pretty special. Our staff accommodation is located right next to the lifts. Even after a busy day at work, I can grab my skis and ski under the lights until 20:00. Last winter some of my deepest turns were after work.
Could you tell us more about Rusutsu’s culture and atmosphere?
Paul: People often describe Rusutsu as an outlandish Disney inspired resort with a great ski area. I think that is a pretty accurate description.
Rusutsu is certainly a very unique resort! Before arriving here, it’s hard to imagine skiing through a snow-covered amusement park or seeing a resort with a two-story carousel and numerous animatronic dogs. The great snow, terrain and eccentric resort attractions help to make Rusutsu Resort a truly unique and memorable destination.
In addition to expert powder lovers, the resort caters for exceptionally well for families and beginners, with many activities and attractions catered for non-skiers. Rusutsu is popular year-round destination with a large amusement park, four, 18-hole golf courses and many seasonal events and attractions.
Why do you think Rusutsu’s has been so successful?
Paul: Rusutsu has long been popular with Japanese guests; however, in recent years it has become renowned as one of the world’s best power destinations. Increased international exposure has certainly helped it develop a strong global reputation. In the last few seasons, Rusutsu has welcomed numerous pro skiers and snowboarders, filming their latest edits. It’s great to see pro athletes in January waiting the lift lines skiing and the same terrain.
I think for experts, Rusutsu has one of the best snow records in the world. The world renowned Hokkaido powder combined with a modern, efficient lift system and no crowds mean lift lines are rare and it’s easy to get fresh tracks. Rusutsu is also one of Hokkaidos largest ski areas with a large amount of varied terrain spread over three interconnected mountains. Recently, the management’s progressive attitude to side-country/tree skiing has really helped Rusutsu gain international acclaim and popularity.
For beginners and families the resort has great learning facilities, ski in/ski out convenience, a wide range of indoor and outdoor activities/attractions all conveniently located in one place. In the last 5-10 years we have seen a significant increase in guests from South East Asia and China learning to ski/snowboard in Rusutsu. Soft snow, wide gentle terrain and friendly international instructors have helped convert many first time skiers/snowboarders into winter addicts who return every season.