Ski Tests, Indie Ski Brands, and Skiing's Evolution: An Interview with Ski Mag's Joe Cutts // Ski Industry News
MATT MCGINNIS: So Joe, for those who might be reading this but don’t know who you are, could you please introduce yourself?
JOE CUTTS: Yeah, I’m Joe Cutts, I’m the Deputy Editor for Ski Magazine- where I’ve been for 16 years. I grew up skiing in Vermont at the now defunct Norwich University ski area, and went to the University of Vermont. Skied my way through school at a combination of places: Sugarbush North (Now known as Mount Ellen), Mad River, and Stowe. I did a stint in journalism, I was a sports writer and an arts and entertainment editor, and then I ended up at Ski Magazine.
MATT: Cool, so have you spent any time out West, or have you been in Vermont for most of your life?
JOE: Never lived out there.
MATT: Gotcha. Obviously you’ve traveled out there for your job I’m assuming?
JOE: Yeah, I travel out there for my job five, six, seven times a year, so I get kind of the best of both worlds if you ask me.
MATT: Yeah, that’s not bad at all.
JOE: I’m out here in the East, and I love getting the chance to go out there.
MATT: So you’re currently living in Burlington (VT) then?
JOE: Yes. I’m living in Burlington.
MATT: And is that where the Ski Magazine offices are?
JOE: We used to have- the magazine used to be based in New York, like all magazines were back in the day. Before my time they moved out to Boulder, Colorado, where we’re based now. But when they did that, there always used to be a Vermont based office, because this used to be hard goods central- up here in Vermont. There used to be so many manufacturers based here, but that’s less the case now. It used to make sense to have a Vermont based office back then- I’m really the only vestige of that anymore. Everybody else on staff is in Boulder.
MATT: Cool, so they let you do your thing out here and keep representing Vermont for us!
JOE: (Laughs) I do that! You know, in addition to the gear coverage that I oversee, I oversee the coverage of Eastern resorts as well.
MATT: Right, very cool. So you mentioned that you grew up skiing in Vermont. Were you pretty young when you started?
JOE: Yeah, I grew up- just by happenstance, my parents, neither of them were skiers, they happened to build a house next to this budding ski area at Norwich University. When I was born, there was only a Poma Lift with 500’ vert. Then when I was 6, they put in a chairlift and it grew to 1,000’ vert. I could ski down to the bottom of that lift from my house and then ski home for lunch.
MATT: Wow, that’s great. That’s a dream setup for a lot of kids I bet.
JOE: Yeah, slope-side lodging in Central Vermont.
MATT: So would you say that skiing was a passion for you already at that point?
JOE: Yeah, it certainly was.
MATT: So it’s been with you your whole life basically.
JOE: Yeah. I remember getting all antsy in late Fall and just getting all fired up to go skiing.
MATT: So I have a question here, which might have an obvious answer, but when did you realize you wanted to become involved in the ski industry? It seems like that was probably pretty young.
JOE: It’s funny. I guess I thought it was a pipe dream. I was in daily journalism, I knew I wanted to be a journalist of some sort. I used to look through Ski Magazine and see pictures of Bill Grout and Tait Wardlaw and thinking, “Boy those must be some cool guys. You must really have to have some juice to get a job at Ski Magazine.” And I just kind of got a call one day to go to work for Ski Racing Magazine. Another editor from the Free Press here where I used to work had moved over there, and they needed someone. She recommended me, and that was kind of a stepping stone for a lot of guys to the bigger publications like Powder, Ski Magazine.
MATT: And how old were you when that happened?
JOE: At that point I was already 35 years old. Well, actually 33 I guess when I moved to Ski Racing. Worked there for a couple of years and then I got the call to go interview for Ski Mag.
MATT: Great. So you said you’re the Deputy Editor at Ski Magazine now. What exactly does that mean? What does your job actually entail?
JOE: It’s sort of two fold. I oversee the gear coverage- which is the gear test. Both ski and boot. I directly oversee the ski test at Snowbird every year. We’ve been a few different places, but we’ve ended up at Snowbird for many obvious reasons. I also oversee the boot test, although we have folks over at Masterfit University run that for us out in Bend, Oregon at Mt. Bachelor. So that’s half the job, and the other half is representing on behalf of the East in the magazine. About half of our readers are Eastern skiers. And I love Eastern ski. I don’t make any apologies for it, I just love it. So I’m happy to be the guy that keeps his eye on the Eastern resorts for the magazine.
MATT: Which side do you think you like doing more? Do you like the more creative, kind of story-generating idea of representing the Eastern resorts? Or do you prefer just the down and dirty ski test? Saying, “This is what’s good this year.”
JOE: That’s really tough. I can’t give you an answer on that.
MATT: You like everything.
JOE: I love both. You know, on the ski equipment side, I get to know all of the guys who work for the different manufacturers and really be immersed in the equipment and hardgoods industry. That’s a great bunch of guys. Meanwhile on the resort side, I get to go to cool places and go skiing as part of my job. I get to know all of those people on the resort side too. So it’s mostly about the people in the industry and interacting with them that I love. And I get that from both aspects of my job.
MATT: Great. So, in the last handful of years it’s become more obvious that the publication industry is getting more and more difficult to be in. Do you guys do anything right now to stay on the cutting edge of that? Are you doing more Apps, are you getting more digital or... what’s your approach to that? What’s your take on it?
JOE: Yep, we’re certainly getting more digital. I mean, we’ve had a website for all of my 16 years at the company, so it’s not something new that’s new to us. We find that- especially gear- is a great fit for the website and drives a ton of traffic to our sites.
It’s pretty hard to find objective information about equipment. I mean, you can certainly go to a great shop and get the guy’s opinion on the floor, but he’s still trying to sell you a ski. You know? So our test is completely objective. There’s no- we don’t give you gold medals because you buy more ads than the next guy. So the reader can know that what we’re telling them is the objective opinion of, now, 30 testers who are trying every ski at Snowbird. That’s a lot of great skiers. And there’s always good consensus at the test. So when you see that- when you see a ski getting the top score in the magazine, you know a lot of great skiers got on it, and enjoyed it, and compared it to similar skis, and that one was really their favorite.
MATT: Do you think the fact that you guys stay so objective about the skis that you test is kind of the key to success to being such a well known ski reviewer?
JOE: Yeah, certainly. I pride myself on our objectivity. Sometimes it hurts. I have friends at all of the companies- but we turn 30 testers loose on a fleet of skis on any given day out there. And we live by the results that they come back with. They all fill out test cards and we compile those cards and all of that data. We crunch the numbers, and there are winners and losers. I’m actually making those calls right now as we speak. I’ve also got the test results and there are some companies that are just all fired up about their results, and some companies that are really just disappointed. I just have to let the testers have their say. There’s no way around that because we collect the data and we publish it. So there’s no horse-trading that goes on behind the scenes. We post it all on the website, so an astute reader could see if we were cheating on the numbers. So we just cannot and we just have to live by what the testers say, including myself unfortunately. I only do one test card!
Far beyond print, Ski Magazine also posts reviews from their ski test in videos on their website. Here you'll see Joe Cutts himself relaying his ski tester's collective opinion of the Rossignol Soul 7.
MATT: Do the testers keep those anonymous, or do they put their names on them as well?
JOE: Yup, they put their names on them, for sure. You know, we don’t publish their test cards or anything, but we publish their names and who they are and where they’re from so that anybody can look at our testers -
MATT: Right, to add more credibility to that even.
JOE: Right, and you know, it’s hard in the age of sponsored skiers to find people who aren’t sponsored in some aspect.
MATT: And still talented enough to be able to ski everything, know how to rate everything...
JOE: Yeah, and that’s the key. It’s not who you are, it’s whether you have experience testing. Because that really is an art, and the first time you really try and test skis, and you get 75 skis thrown at you in the course of a week, it’s just bewildering.
MATT: I imagine that would be overwhelming.
JOE: Right, and you stop having intelligent things to say about everything after about the first day. But you get your feet under you as you go along. You get more confidence, and after two or three years of testing, if you’re going to be a good tester, you will be by then. But nobody is right out of the gate.
MATT: So you guys are probably using a lot of people who’ve tested for years and years and years at this point?
JOE: Exactly. We’re always trying to bring in a few rookies, and try to change up the team a little bit from year to year- but I really do value tester experience. That’s the number one thing that contributes to test credibility.
MATT: Right. Well, on that note, how long have you guys been doing the ski test issue for?
JOE: That, you would have to ask somebody else because it goes way back before my time. I could not tell you. I think it probably goes back to at least the early ‘90s, or maybe even the late ‘80s perhaps. Boots might’ve come later... I think I’m talking out of my ass a bit, I don’t really know I guess- when ski testing got started.
MATT: I mean, people have always wanted to know what the newest skis are.
JOE: Yeah, I mean, it started as a buyers guide, and now it’s one of our two most important issues of the year, the other being the buyers guide.
MATT: So with the recent, I guess you’d call it an explosion of in-house, boutique brands- and really just brands of all sizes making skis now, how do you guys manage who you’re going to include in your ski tests? How do you go about bringing in new brands each year? How do you guys handle that?
JOE: Well, I saw that coming down the pipe about 5-6 years ago. This explosion of boutique ski brands. Of course they all wanted to be in the big test- that’s instant marketing for them if they can break through with a medal. At first we tried to include them as much as we could- but there were two things. First, they often weren’t ready for the test in terms of the level of their product (without naming names). And second, they weren’t prepared to support the test in the way we required, in terms of having staff on site. You know, it costs quite a bit of money.
MATT: And I imagine you need to have quite a few pairs of skis ready to test too.
JOE: Right, you have to dedicate skis, and you have to dedicate personnel in order to attend the test. You know, to make sure that if there’s a tuning problem, then there’s somebody there to address it. If there’s a question, there’s a ski rep. So that costs a lot of money. And they (boutique ski brands) were just getting their butts kicked against the big, mainstream ski brands.
MATT: So it almost ended up being bad marketing for them?
JOE: Exactly. I mean, you know- if a ski doesn’t win a medal, we don’t say anything about it. But it was wasting their time, and mine, frankly. And then there became too many at a certain point to possibly- you can’t test 50-60 brands in any test. So I started a test about 6 years ago in Aspen. It was fun- a great excuse to go to Aspen, and we invited a bunch of these indie brands to come and compete against each other. And that has evolved over the years. I ran it the first two years, and now a colleague of mine is running that. It’s something that we do every year. So now there’s two tests. There’s your mainstream test for your Volkl’s and Rossi’s and K2’s of the world- and we still limit that to 16 companies or so. Mostly older brands- some are smaller, like a Kastle or Stockli, which could be considered boutique in that regard. But they’re older and well known brands. Then there’s the “Indie Test” as we call it, which is reserved for the so-called “boutique brands” and it’s more of a “Come one, come all,” everybody’s invited. Take your best shot, bring your three best skis. We do that one in Arapahoe Basin, and the results are published in Skiing Magazine, a sister publication. But I also do approach those results sometimes through a gear story in Ski Magazine.
MATT: Have any of those brands from the indie ski test category ever crossed over into the major leagues category?
JOE: Yeah, that’s a good point because we do say that the top brand from the indie test is invited to the mainstream test- if they care to come. We’d like to see how they compete against some of the mainstream brands. We have yet to have an indie brand really pop through. To come to the mainstream test, and to compete with the big boys- it’s so far been elusive. Maybe Line is an exception, but they had K2 behind them by the time they broke through. Jason (Levinthal) did a great job with Line, but really needed K2’s resources to break through.
MATT: Right, and I would argue that Line is almost the prototypical example of the guy who started in his garage, kind of moved through the ranks, and eventually became a respected name amongst everybody.
JOE: Yeah, he took a lot of beatings along the way, and got beat up by the big guys, and finally got swallowed up by the big guys. And by the time he was, he didn’t own much of the company- didn’t have much equity left in the brand. But hats off to that guy, he’s one of the smartest guys in the industry. It’ll be interesting to see what he does with Jskis.
MATT: So talking about the indie brands a little bit more. Do you have any advice for- or what would you tell somebody who’s trying to start up an indie brand and who wants to grow it into a boutique, or maybe even a become a major brand one day? Do you have any advice for them?
JOE: Yeah, I guess I do. Marketing helps. Trendy marketing, and a great social presence, and all of that stuff is necessary in that space. But as I’ve seen time and time again as test director, it all comes down to the products. So you’ve gotta design good product and find people to experience it. Kids think they can wing it- just throw some sheets of plastic and metal together to make a ski that’s going to be great. But you’ve gotta tweak your designs, constantly be testing, and going back to the drawing board. Prototype it and test it, prototype it and test it.
It’s really all about the product, I find. Good product succeeds. You can get by on marketing and smoke and mirrors to some extent, but in the end what wins is out is probably going to be good product.
"It’s really all about the product, I find. Good product succeeds. You can get by on marketing and smoke and mirrors to some extent, but in the end what wins is out is probably going to be good product."
-- Joe's Take on How to Succeed as an indie Brand
MATT: So basically the approach would be to market well to get your foot in the door, and then once you’re there and have a stage- make sure your product is backed up well and that it’s solid.
JOE: Right. I admire what Armada has done from a marketing standpoint. They’ve done a great job. But we really have yet to see any indie brand really break through and compete alongside the European companies who’ve been making skis for 75 years.
MATT: Right, it’s got to be hard to compete against those guys.
MATT: That’s almost arrogant.
JOE: (Laughs) Yeah, you know, it’s almost arrogant. But, more power to ‘em! I love the whole scene- the indie scene. I really do support them. And it’s especially great to see consumers really latching on to the whole “Made in America” thing. A lot of them, as we were talking about earlier, still manufacture over seas, and you can see that in the quality in some cases. But I think it’s a great story to tell, and American made brands like Wagner and Ramp, they have access to their factory and can tweak a design and go out and ski it that afternoon to see if it worked or not- as opposed to having to wait for their skis to come back from China.
MATT: I would also say that rapid prototyping is definitely a strong benefit of making it domestically, here.
MATT: So, getting back to a ski industry note, a question that we ask a lot of people is: What changes have you seen in skiing that you wouldn’t have been able to predict 10 years ago?
JOE: Ah, well what was 10 years ago? … I’m still just blown away by terrain parks. When I was a kid, ski patrol would come around and if they found your jump, they’d knock it down with a shovel. I can’t believe the hits that the ski areas can offer now. Of course that goes back more than 10 years, but for me that’s the biggest thing that has changed.
MATT: It definitely puts skiing into a different light. I guess moguls and that kind of thing used to be the freestyle side, and now kids just aren’t that interested in skiing a line of moguls. It’s all in the terrain park now.
JOE: Right, it’s interesting. You see it in the ski designs too. Some of these indie companies are building skis that just are trying to live up to different parameters than the average European ski. You know they’re more bi-directional… so it’s a little disconcerting to somebody who’s looking for a ski that can really rip a line in the trees, in tight conditions, who’s used to a certain type of responsiveness. To be on a ski that skis as well backwards as forwards in those conditions, is disconcerting to a lot of testers. I don’t think those skis can compete against, as far as ripping a big Alaskan line. You know, you really need a full on, big mountain ski. But you know, for jibbing and for park, they’re obviously different parameters, and people want different stuff. I’m not a big rail rider myself, I would be the first to admit.
MATT: Cool. So, on the flip side of that, where do you see skiing going in the next 10 years? Do you think there’ll be more of a push towards the terrain park? Do you think we’ll kind of focus on some other aspects of skiing? Or, what do you see happening?
JOE: Oh man, it’s hard to say.
MATT: Yeah, that’s a pretty big question I guess.
JOE: It’s so hard to say. I just can’t answer that question. I keep being surprised by all of the developments in the industry. I didn’t think grinding rails would take off. That didn’t look like the next big thing to me, when it started, so I freely admit that I was dumb about that. So you just- I don’t think anybody can predict, and I will not hazard a guess. It’ll just make me look stupid. (Laughs).
MATT: (Laughing) Fair enough!
MATT: Do you think ski technology drives the style of skiing, or do you think it’s vice versa- that the style of skiing drives the technology?
JOE: Yeah, I would have to say that the style of skiing drives the technology. Now it’s all about- you know, when you look at the explosion in popularity of backcountry skiing, I think you see a lot of companies chasing that. With lighter weight designs, and all of these new randonee bindings that are coming out, and lighter boots and so forth. Then you look at what the kids were doing in the park and you certainly saw that drive the growth of twin tip designs. So I would say that it’s the athletes. Even on the race side, you know guys like Ted Ligety are figuring out new ways to drift into a gate and then hammer a carve last second. Him and Bode- and they knew what they wanted and they went to their manufactures and they said, “prototype, prototype, prototype, here’s what I want,” until they found it. And they changed the way skis were made. Now even race skis have a little rocker in the tip, and it’s because of the whole drift and stick it thing in racing. So I do think it’s the athletes, the high end athletes that are deciding what they need and what manufacturers need to make to feed the demand.
MATT: Yeah, and that makes sense too even thinking about McConkey and his whole Spatula design. He drove the whole rocker thing, because he needed it.
JOE: Exactly. And I want it on the record that I think Shane McConkey invented rocker and not the snowboard companies- sorry snowboard companies! But that guy was on to it in 2002. I’ve got the Volant catalog from that year with his “Brain Floss” essay, and, I don’t know, maybe someone can produce an earlier document, but that guy was visionary. He was one of the coolest guys you’ll ever meet, and I think he really, really changed the face of skiing with his rocker designs- which were just laughed at early on. But boy was he right.
MATT: And like you said, it’s even being put into race skis at this point.
JOE: Yeah, I mean, he was a kid who grew up racing. He was a great skier. Just a real, real smart guy.
MATT: So, let’s talk about some of the people out there who want to start working in the ski industry. Some of the kids out there. What kind of advice would you give, say, a high school student or maybe a college grad even, who’s looking to get involved in the ski industry? How should they go about doing that?
JOE: Well I can speak to journalism- you’ve gotta go hone your chops somewhere most likely. And that’s at the student newspaper, that’s at the local weekly, and you need to learn to write, produce, and get things right. Again, hone your chops before you go knocking on the door of the national publications. Although there’s so many websites out there now and they’re hungry for content. They don’t pay well, and you probably can’t make a living at it- or at least in a lot of cases. But still, that’s what we used to call clips because we’d clip them out of a print magazine or something. Now they’re called digital clips that you can present to somebody that you’re going to apply for a job from, to show them that you can write. And that’s what you’ve gotta do, it’s all about having lots of clips and building a strong, good file of clips. And of course having talent.
That’s the journalism side. I think internships are the way in to the hard goods side. Being willing to live life on the road, because those guys are road warriors. Even the veterans are still on the road half the year. So you have to understand that it’s a brutal travel schedule for anybody in the industry. Often those guys get hired out of shops. So if you see yourself being a tech rep in a couple of years and then a sales rep, you’d probably want to start out by getting a job at a ski shop tuning skis, working in the back shop, and working on the floor- paying your dues that way before you go knocking on the door of a U.S. distributor. Then obviously at the resorts, start loading chairs, you know? And work your way up- a lot of smart guys on the resort side started out loading chairs back when, and just did a good job.
MATT: So really across the board, just be ready to put in some hard work and don’t expect your first interview to land you a job or anything like that.
JOE: Yeah, just pay your dues. I’m afraid there’s no easy way. Because it is a shrinking industry. Unfortunately it’s an industry where people have been on kind of hard times for a long time now. People ski less in this country, fewer days. I hope that’s coming back- you certainly see a lot of passion among young people for the sport. But in general, skiing is very flat. So it’s not a growth industry. There’s a lot of consolidation going on. It’s a tough industry to crack, but it’s a happy place. It’s full of people who really love what they do, and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It’s just following people that you enjoy being around. So, keep that in mind too.
MATT: Where’s your favorite place that you’ve ever skied at?
JOE: I have such a soft spot for British Columbia. Interior B.C.. The heli, the cat, the resorts. Places like Red Mountain. White Water. Especially Red Mountain. That place just blows me away. Domestically, I just love Jackson Hole. Love Snowbird. Love Squaw. I hate to- I love a day at Stowe. I just do, I don’t feel like I should be out West or anything. You get a decent day at Stowe- I think that place kicks ass. And there’s overlooked places in Vermont. Smuggler’s Notch is just a kick ass mountain. And I love getting an excuse to go to Europe. To go skiing over there and soak in the culture. So yeah, good luck pinning down what my favorite place to ski is. (Laughs). You know, so much just depends on the conditions. But I guess that brings me back to British Columbia for its reliable powder. So get yourself out there, as soon as you can. It’s an easy flight to Spokane, WA and then two hours to Red Mountain. Everybody should do it. Hit Schweitzer on the way.
MATT: So going back a bit, back to the 10 year questions. What do you think the biggest breakthrough in ski technology has been? Not just in the last 10 years necessarily, but across the board.
JOE: Ever? (Thinks) Well, the releasable binding has gotta be up there, in terms of safety. But, I can’t, it’s hard to imagine one bigger than what we used to call, “Super Sidecut.” It’s just astonishing how much more fun skiing is when you can tip a ski on edge and have it bend, and off you go. And then rocker has just changed the game so much. It’s astonishing what’s gone on during my tenure at Ski Magazine. With first, sidecut when I was a baby in the industry, and then width, you know, extra fatness. Then throw in the rocker and it’s astonishing how much better I ski now, than I did 15 years ago, just because the technology making the sport more accessible to me. I can ski longer, and have more fun, and look better. I can’t imagine going back. It’d be fun sometime to find an old pair of straight skis, and strap them on and wonder what the hell I did with these things. But, it’s really been an exciting time, the last 15 years of ski design. And who knows what, with the ferment of the indie brands, what they’ll cook up that’s really special and forces everybody to copy.
MATT: Right, cool. Well, last question here. What is your most memorable moment on skis?
JOE: Well, jeez. (Thinks) I’m just going to play the cornball card and say it’s skiing at Cochran’s with my daughters. That’s an amount of memories, but I had such a good time turning my little girls onto the sport of skiing at a little down home place like Cochran’s. Showing them how to race, and how to ride the rope, ride the T-Bar with them.. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier than just doing that with my kids. That’s where we used to ride with Jason Levinthal, in the same program with his kids. So uh, I guess the cool people do it too. I’ll cop to being a sentimental schmuck- that’s my most memorable moment.
MATT: Great, well thanks so much for the interview Joe!