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You like to hit the slopes. So do your top clients. For years, you’ve talked with one about the ski trips you’ve each taken. This year, she’s invited you to join her, her husband and friends on a backcountry excursion in the Rockies. You’ve never skied off-piste, but you join to build your client relationship.

For dedicated skiers with means, taking a helicopter or snowcat (a vehicle that travels on snow) to pristine mountain slopes is the best way to experience the sport. These trips are known as heli-skiing or cat-skiing, respectively.

“You land in the middle of nowhere, in this wonderfully pristine wilderness,” says Ian Tomm, executive director of the HeliCat Canada Association in Revelstoke, B.C.

“It’s silent. You realize you’re the only people for a long way around.” Even if you’ve never been backcountry skiing before, “there are options for almost any ability,” says Tomm.

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For instance, cat-skiing is well-suited to less experienced athletes because you can sit out a difficult run inside the vehicle. Meanwhile, avid skiers can power through.

Tomm estimates there are 40 heli- or cat-ski operators in Canada. Many are in British Columbian ski towns, including Fernie and Whistler.

Guides should be accredited by either the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides or the Canadian Ski Guide Association.

The season runs from December to April, and January to March is busiest, says Tomm. If you have particular dates in mind, booking a year in advance isn’t a bad idea, he notes, though you may be able to book an impromptu trip mid-season.

Timing will affect a trip’s cost. During peak season, one operator offers a four-day heli-skiing trip, including a chalet stay and meals, starting at $4,565 per person.

Client invite

Advisor Dean Taylor of Assante Capital Management has been cat-skiing in B.C.’s Monashees.

He says guides choose trails suitable for the group’s least able skier so everyone can participate.

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A client recently invited Taylor to go skiing with him for four days in Banff, Alta. “It’s a great way to build relationships,” he says, “whether you’re with only clients, or clients and their friends. That’s created opportunities for building my practice.”

He paid his own way, and he doesn’t prospect or talk business on a client trip. Instead, he gets to know everyone, and is open when plans change on the fly, such as when everyone decides to stay up late.

“You shouldn’t be actively trying to develop a prospect when your client is sitting there,” he says. Still, someone he met on the trip became a prospect after Taylor emailed to say how much he enjoyed skiing with him.

High altitude, high price

Where: B.C.’s interior

Who: Up to 10 skiers per group

What: Ski on glaciers and tree-lined mountains accessible only by helicopter. You’ll have two ski guides and a private chopper to take you to five different skiing areas at your leisure. Organizers guarantee 30,500 vertical metres of skiing. You’ll also be provided with heli-ski equipment. Afterward, stay in a private lodge with a sauna, hot springs and gourmet meals.

Cost: A seven-day trip starts at $195,000. Prices go up in peak season. If you’d like to travel by helicopter from Calgary to the lodge, round trips start at $12,000 per person.

Source: Canadian Mountain Holidays

Day trips

Taylor, whose practice is near ski hills in Collingwood, Ont., also takes clients to the slopes there. He or staff calls clients in December to arrange annual appointments and ski outings.

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These excursions are more business-oriented than the client trips. First they meet at his office or a private room at the lodge to discuss their portfolios. Then they head out. He has six to eight of these appointments a season, though he also meets more clients for informal ski outings.

“You would never do it the other way around,” he adds. “You don’t want to have a ski day, and then […] try to talk to tired clients about anything that might be difficult to understand, or might be at all stressful. That needs to be done first, and then you can enjoy your time together afterwards.”

When he first heads out with a group, he checks their skill levels on an easy run. He advises skiing to the level of the weakest skier—otherwise, “you’re going to alienate that person.”

He follows his group down the hill to ensure everyone gets to the bottom safely. And “as soon as someone says they’re cold, that’s the time to go in,” he adds. “That signals it’s time for hot chocolate.”

Slope skills

If you don’t ski regularly, Taylor advises practising before going with clients. Otherwise, if your client is an avid skier, you’re at a disadvantage because you should be competent in front of clients, he says.

If you’re a beginner, “you don’t necessarily have to ski in order to entertain a client at the ski hill,” he adds. “You can meet for an après-ski,” That’s a drink or some social time at the chalet. If a client is a novice, sign up for a lesson together or a guided trip down the hill, says Mike Hamilton, advisor at Hamilton Insurance and Financial Management in Kitchener, Ont. But if a client is clearly superior, suggest she venture off on her own. “I’d say, ‘Don’t worry about me, I can tell you’re of a higher skill level, and I want you to get the best out of this day,’ ” he says. In that case, you can meet at the lodge later for a drink, or by the chairlift.

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And when you’re together on the lift, there’s plenty to talk about—as long as it’s not business, says Taylor.

“The chair lift is not a place to be talking about fees or performance or standard deviation.”

Instead, “find out what their backgrounds in skiing have been, when they learned or where they’ve skied before,” he suggests.

If you’re separated from your client, the lift is an opportunity to talk to new people and even do some prospecting, says Hamilton.

Trail tips

Hamilton spent five years moonlighting as an instructor. He cautions that skiers must obey right-of-way. “It’s always the person in front of you,” he says. So don’t cut anyone off, or ski too closely to others.

If you’re a slow skier, move to the side of the trail so others can pass. And always make way for the ski patrol, especially if they’re bringing an injured person back to the lodge.

Other behaviours to avoid: cutting in line for the lift, smoking on the way up and walking on the trails with your ski boots (that creates annoying divots).

In the backcountry, it’s crucial to stick to the rules, says Tomm, who has been a guide for nearly 20 years. “Even minor injuries [can] turn serious quickly, because of the remoteness and the winter environment.”

So always follow your guide, and stay with the group. “The snow is just as good five metres away from the guide’s track as it is 50 metres away,” he says.

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Skiers who don’t obey the guide can make for a tense trip, he adds.

“Guests have certainly been sent home because of their inability to ski with the group and to listen to the guide’s directions.”

But often, a day of backcountry skiing is an unforgettable bonding experience, he says.

“There’s a lot of camaraderie; a lot of personal relationships formed,” says Tomm. “You see people who met cat- and heli-skiing coming back together to do that same trip over again for 10, 15 years.”

by Jessica Bruno, content editor of Advisor Group

Originally published in Advisor's Edge

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