Steve Kneller, an all-over-the-mountain downhill skier in Breckenridge, Colo., takes his skiing seriously. For years, Kneller, 58, a geologist who hits the trails five times a week, burned through pair after pair of big-name skis--like Icelantics, Fischers and Vlkls--because of all the sharp dodging and turning he does on Breckenridge's black-diamond slopes. So when it came time to buy a new pair this season, Kneller hung up his latest pair of made-in-China Dynastars for skis better equipped to handle some serious mileage. He shelled out $649--$300 more than he paid for his previous pair--for skis handcrafted in Denver by David Liechty, owner of Grace Skis. "It's a very clean, classic-looking ski that's good going over icy bumps and for making strong turns," says Kneller.
He also liked that Liechty, who started Grace Skis in 2010, manufactures the skis in his living room, his garage and a local machine shop rather than in a foreign factory. "They're very solid and smooth, and I'm enjoying them tremendously," says Kneller. "I definitely think David's onto something."
Small-batch skimakers in Colorado--whose revenues have grown 50% since the 2005--06 season, to roughly $5 million a year--are setting an example for boutique ski shops across the country. They're attracting high-end consumers who crave all things local and a growing crop of older hardcore skiers. The number of skiers ages 45 and older is up 93% since the 1996--97 season, according to the National Ski Areas Association, and affluent skiers--those with a household income of $100,000 or more--now make up half the visitors to U.S. slopes, up from 24% in 2004. Those skiers tend to have the time and money to ski more often and splurge on high-tech, higher-end skis crafted for a particular experience, like deep-powder turns, which China-made skis don't typically offer. "I'm building skis for guys like me who don't want to give up the sport and for kids who'll work all night so they can make the money to ski all day," says Liechty, 43, a Kent State University graduate with a background in industrial design.
There are some 80 niche skimakers in the U.S., up from 70 five years ago. Some are in snowy states like Maine and Wyoming, but a sizable chunk--13--have set up shop in Colorado, home to more top ski resorts than any other state. A handful of big-name manufacturers, including Atomic, Dynastar, K2 and Salomon, control about 90% of the $533 million ski market, with roughly 35% of their skis made in China. Boutique skimakers want to change that: they generated a steady $20 million to $30 million a year in revenues through the downturn. And as more skiers gravitate to handcrafted, high-end skis made in the U.S., those skimakers could capture another 3% to 5% of the ski market in the next 5 to 10 years, according to trade group SnowSports Industries America. "These small companies bring a huge amount of passion and innovation to the industry," says Kelly Davis, research director for SIA. "They're going up against the Goliaths, but they have very specific target markets and are selling to a specific customer. That's the hardcore skier who skis 10 to 100 times a year, the skier who knows exactly what kind of ski he needs for the conditions he skis."