Building the Winter Resort of the Future

by Jerry Weinstein + Skift Team - Dec 2014

Skift Research Take

The winter travel market has been behind the curve compared to the broader travel market, but with recent investments in back-end technology and the embrace of a dynamic pricing marketplace, it is poised to leapfrog and nurture innovations that will enhance the quality of the experience.

Report Overview

Executive summary

While the winter winter travel market is a small subset of the overall trillion dollar travel industry, it does boast a compelling demographic: Its population is unique in travel for being among the most affluent, most passionate, and most digitally inclined. Skiing – and, more and more, snowboarding – is truly part of a lifestyle.

While there is consensus that the winter travel market has been behind the curve compared to the broader travel market, with recent investments in back-end technology and the embrace of a dynamic pricing marketplace it is poised to leapfrog and nurture innovations that will enhance the quality of the experience and finally begin to tackle, if not immediately resolve, some ongoing pricing inefficiencies. Since the 1980s, the range of activities available on the mountain has diversified. This accounts for the incremental rise in snowboarding – the kids of Boomers, aka the “Red Bull Generation” – have embraced this, redirecting resort offerings.

Attention has been paid and investments made where modernization is concerned. Not only can you now find two-star Michelin restaurants nearby most resorts, but you can grab a proper latte en piste. From New England to Colorado, the Swiss Alps to emerging resorts in Eastern Europe, Asia, and South Africa, winter travel is on the ascent.

Given the digital sophistication of the winter traveler, it should come as no surprise that this consumer demands an experience where technology facilitates seamlessness with regards to logistics, social sharing, and most importantly, enhances the skiing experience itself, without interfering with the authentic, holistic nature of outdoor sport.

Executive summary

While the winter winter travel market is a small subset of the overall trillion dollar travel industry, it does boast a compelling demographic: Its population is unique in travel for being among the most affluent, most passionate, and most digitally inclined. Skiing – and, more and more, snowboarding – is truly part of a lifestyle.

While there is consensus that the winter travel market has been behind the curve compared to the broader travel market, with recent investments in back-end technology and the embrace of a dynamic pricing marketplace it is poised to leapfrog and nurture innovations that will enhance the quality of the experience and finally begin to tackle, if not immediately resolve, some ongoing pricing inefficiencies. Since the 1980s, the range of activities available on the mountain has diversified. This accounts for the incremental rise in snowboarding – the kids of Boomers, aka the “Red Bull Generation” – have embraced this, redirecting resort offerings.

Attention has been paid and investments made where modernization is concerned. Not only can you now find two-star Michelin restaurants nearby most resorts, but you can grab a proper latte en piste. From New England to Colorado, the Swiss Alps to emerging resorts in Eastern Europe, Asia, and South Africa, winter travel is on the ascent.

Given the digital sophistication of the winter traveler, it should come as no surprise that this consumer demands an experience where technology facilitates seamlessness with regards to logistics, social sharing, and most importantly, enhances the skiing experience itself, without interfering with the authentic, holistic nature of outdoor sport.

Introduction

While people have skied in some capacity for millennia (there is evidence of skiing in China in 600 BC), and its modern origins began in Scandinavia, (the word “ski” is one of the few words gifted to the world by Norway, deriving from Old Norse “skíð” meaning “split piece of wood or firewood”), the idea of traveling to ski on a holiday is wholly Swiss.

In 1864, summer hikers from London were saddened to leave the mountains and their hotel in St. Moritz and return home, where it would be grey and wet. The hotel’s proprietor urged them to winter over, explaining that Switzerland is actually very sunny in winter, as well as snow-covered. He finally told the skeptical travelers, “Go back to London, and get your winter gear. If you don’t get at least one week of sun, you’ll get your travel expenses back.”

Clearly he was a marketing genius, born ahead of his time. Prior to this original innovation, people only traveled in summer and no one would have considered the mountains in winter. Additionally, the hotels were mostly closed. But those initial reports of how exciting a winter holiday in Switzerland could be snowballed, so to speak, and an industry was born.

The first Winter Olympics in 1924 (held in Chamonix Mont Blanc, still one of the top ski resorts in the world) enhanced the interest in skiing and winter sport, and the world’s first chair lift, invented in the United States by a railroad engineer, also debuted that year. These two events cemented the popularity of skiing as recreation.

Utah and Idaho are legendary for skiing, and the Alta and Sun Valley resorts are two of the oldest in the States, dating to the 1930s. Canada’s first resort was Mont Tremblant in Quebec. First opened in 1939, when it was altered from breathtaking wilderness to a village designed with Old Quebec architecture, it remains one of the premier destinations for skiers worldwide.

Types of Skiers

The travel industry makes a distinction between the “day skier” and — our focus – the “ski traveler” as one who travels at least one hundred miles for a destination and has at least one night of paid accommodation.

Skiing as a popular winter sport became far more accessible to a more diverse range of people between 1955 and 1965, thanks in part to innovations such as the metal ski and, later, the plastic boot. Vermont, now a premier East Coast destination for skiing, saw its first resort open in Killington in 1958. Now, names like Aspen and Vail, as well as Stowe, are known worldwide to this niche but passionate group of travelers, eager to partake of a unique and exciting experience for a few weeks every winter.

Skis stacked up in Killington, Vermont.

Skis stacked up in Killington, Vermont. Photo: Peter Dutton/Flickr

The state of the mountain today

The Current State of the Mountain is, to paraphrase the President, strong. It has been a steep climb out of the global recession; the ski travel industry hit its nadir during the 2011/2012 season with a 16% decline in attendance due to weather and lingering effects of the downturn. The U.S. economy, in particular, has finally rebounded. While the global market, as a whole, remains behind the States in integrating technology into its infrastructure, it is far more mature. Worldwide – which sees 400 million annual ski travel holidays – 45% of all skiers head to the Alps; while 21% ski in North America. While the United States is equal to Europe in size of resort capacity, it only does a third of the number of visits. Overseas travel to the U.S. accounts for only 3.8% of total skiers. That said, the U.S. is first in terms of total skier visits – based on a five-year average – with France in second place.

While the overall travel trend is towards the experiential, that aspect has always been the focus of ski travel, so this plays to its strengths. The profile of the ski traveler is the envy of travel marketers. She is digital and affluent, to the extreme. While we have seen the march of technology across all of travel, the ski traveler is noteworthy for being the most digitally connected of all travel demos. Given that this population is much more affluent then other travelers – 49% of ski travelers have a household income of $100K+ versus 24% of travelers – this consumer is an early adopter to all of the technology enhancements and desires exceptional service.

Some purveyors, like Vail, have been offering a seamlessly connected experience for over five years and speak from experience when they describe the increased engagement this offers their guests, specifically how their “social sharing” is priceless marketing. Douglas Quinby, an analyst at Phocuswright holds that, “Creating an Uber-like experience on the mountain, then, is more and more important. Just as Uber has set the bar among affluent, digitally savvy population, wherever I am, I should be able to just tap a button and get it. There’s no greater opportunity, especially within great ski destinations, to capitalize on that and really to provide a great experience.” This insight comes with a caveat, that technology should enhance a guest’s experience, not distract from it.

The ski travel vertical has two major challenges to overcome. The conventional ski traveler is aging out. For the industry to remain robust – the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) has targeted an annual growth rate of 6% for ski travel to sustain itself – it is urgent that resorts cultivate younger, as well as more diverse, populations. Fortunately, the industry has been building this infrastructure for the last generation, offering not only quality ski and snowboarding, but also cross country, freestyle skiing, terrain parks, hiking, snow shoeing and sledding, among its activities.

Skiing is an expensive sport. And it is getting more expensive. That said, there have been innovations driven by the successful business model of Club Med and its all-inclusive pricing, as well as the introduction of dynamic pricing, which should resolve some pricing inefficiencies across the vertical.

Another trend that is emerging includes alternative ski accommodations. As families and groups are taking to the slopes with greater frequency, they are looking for private accommodations rather than hotels. While Airbnb is certainly a player in this space, HomeAway has been especially aggressive in targeting the ski market and trumpeting value of staying in a rental as opposed to a traditional resort hotel. Abroad, the French Alps have their own counterpart to hotels, Residence de tourisme.

The future of skiing is bright – certainly when you compare the experience even to just ten years ago. The ski travel industry has gone upmarket, offering two-star Michelin restaurants, cafes, retail, — not only at base camp and in town, but more and more dotted along the slopes. Across the industry, resorts are broadening the continuum, offering both “slow” and connected experiences, off-the-grid and wired. Finally, resorts are aspiring to a four-season experience, augmented by festivals and nature trails.

The pedigree of ski travel reflects many complex logistics that summer travel is unfettered by. There is the extreme weather, the moment-to-moment conditions that can differentiate a memorable session from a dud, equipment that is cumbersome, as well as the aggregate costs that can be incurred from room and board, travel, ski lessons, and if you’re a family, options including daycare. While software will solve many of the logistical and pricing inefficiencies, price-inclusive options such as what Club Med offers might point to a new business model for resorts to explore.  While it’s important that the industry upgrade its offerings and focus on amenities, service, and technology, the core differential of a resort for the ski traveler remains snow itself: All recent studies, from the Best Ski Resorts 2014 report, (focused on Europe), Phocuswright’s research, and a recent paper by Club Med, agree that the quality of snow remains the number one deciding factor for choosing a resort.

A street in Zermatt, Switzerland.

A street in Zermatt, Switzerland. Photo: Trey Ratcliff/Flickr

Switzerland’s leadership

As the birthplace of the winter ski vacation, Switzerland has a home field advantage. With 45% of all skier visits worldwide, the Alps are well positioned for the heritage and experiential travel trend, offering a unique and all-encompassing experience to adventurers who want to explore and immerse themselves in a historic environment, as well as enjoy excellent skiing. Because of Switzerland’s history as the birthplace of the ski resort and its current position in the skiing world, what happens on its mountains has broad repercussions for the rest of the skiing world.

In recent years, fewer North Americans are travelling abroad for ski travel, with only 4% heading to Europe and the Alps. Switzerland Tourism is looking to change that. Shifting trends have meant that, whereas in previous years the Alps would be host to large tour groups, winter travelers are now more inclined to travel as couples, families, or small groups. This shift allows travelers to indulge in a larger range of experience. Where once they might have gone in a group to see how cheese is made in the local village, they can now learn how to make the cheese themselves. They can travel further and really get to know a place and its people.

Aspects of this trend correlate to how people tend to plan trips now. Social media and recommendations from friends, as well as doing one’s own booking online for airfare, lodging, and ground transport, are far more common than using a travel agent. Yet, owing to the complex logistics of a winter ski travel vacation, particularly abroad, a travel agent can be a great boon in booking a European trip of this nature. They can arrange flight and rail passes, as well as a possible rental car, and lodging that suits the needs of the group. A rail pass is key – Swiss trains are excellent and a great way to get around. Visitors as well as residents are encouraged to use public transportation and it is usually easier than trying to drive to and then find parking in a village. A travel agent is someone with whom a traveler keen on a unique experience can form a relationship, one of the buzzwords in modern winter travel.

Alex Herrmann, Director Americas for Switzerland Tourism, noted to Skift that while Switzerland is not an inexpensive destination – although the exchange rate has improved considerably – a North American traveler might be pleasantly surprised to discover that they may end up spending a comparable sum as they would in a domestic resort, while also gaining the benefit of a multi-faceted adventure. While all Swiss resorts offer fine downhill skiing, you can also partake of cross-country skiing and tobagganing, as well as snowshoeing and hiking. In fact, about 50% of the North American visitors to Switzerland opt not to ski, but rather indulge in other winter sports and activities.

In Switzerland, even the largest resort is still part of a village, so you have the opportunity to meet and interact with locals, both skiing with them and spending time in restaurants, bars, and at events. It is also easy to hop a train to the next village and take in historic sites (Switzerland is home to a number of UNESCO heritage sites), museums, and local culture. In addition to the hugely popular Christmas markets, there are a number of winter festivals throughout the country, featuring musical events, tastings, and things to do at night as well.

According to the 2014 Environmental Performance Index, Switzerland was ranked first among “green” countries. Its travel industry reflects this. Sustainability is nothing new here, where farm-to-table restaurants and innovations such as heating an entire hotel off a lake are part of the original culture. While innovation is seen throughout Swiss winter travel – a solar-powered ski lift is just one example – those interested in heritage tourism can also choose to go off the grid. There are spas one can visit which are almost wholly tech-free, including no phones, so travelers can relax and give in to the experience.

In drawing a wider range of ages and travelers, resorts are family friendly, with many offering childcare from 10am to 4pm in the afternoon. Skiing can also be made comparatively inexpensive – at the St. Moritz, if you stay in the hotel at least one night, they pay for two-thirds of your lift pass, making the cost of skiing about $25 a day.

Beyond tracks and courses for children and teens, there are also increasingly “slow slopes” geared for older visitors, who may still want the downhill experience but would prefer not to race. It’s been found that many skiers stop partaking after age 65, and Switzerland is interested in giving such skiers an opportunity to continue to enjoy the sport.

Switzerland Stats
The Best Ski Resort Report 2014, took data from 47,925 respondents between December 2013 and April 2014 concerning 55 resorts across the Alps.

Highlights include:

Switzerland was the highest-performing country

31.6% were first-time skiers; only 15% are snowboarders (decline from 18.20%)

Zermatt is the #1 resort; of its guests 31% use spa and 39.4% rent equipment

The price/performance ratio is a greater concern to snowboarders and to the young

The local and personal is what is stressed in the Swiss travel market. The majority of resort hotels are small and independently run, most often by families. The resorts are attached to villages, each one unique and offering a range of interesting food and shopping opportunities. It is very easy to immerse yourself in the culture and eat and drink like a local – there are wines in Switzerland whose vintage is so tiny, you can’t try them anywhere else. If “slow travel” is a megatrend speaking to the centrality of nature and local experience, here it is just Swiss culture. With a Swiss winter travel holiday, you can have an experience that is simple and authentic. In most resorts, you can walk everywhere and go to restaurants where you can sit by a fireplace. You can enjoy local wine and food (Switzerland is famous for chocolate, too) and the owner will remember you if you return.

While connectivity is a theme throughout this trends report, the Swiss Alps are an outlier. Switzerland Tourism is upfront about not being able to compete with the powder of the American West, but the burgeoning interest in experiential travel – a perennial offering which is now in vogue – plays to their strength. Value and experience is a differentiator; here, the innovation is offering consistency and the very best in service. It’s not for the budget traveler, or for one who wants an “Always On” vacation, but as a place steeped in history, its movements are a conservative  approach to addressing modern challenges.

Club Med's Val Thorens resort.

Club Med’s Val Thorens resort. Photo: Club Med

Club Med’s all-inclusive approach

Best known for travel to tropical climates, this stealth winter ski travel resort operator is a leader in all-inclusive pricing and family-friendly travel.

While Club Med first earned fame for its all-inclusive summer holidays in the Caribbean, it’s also been operating winter travel holidays for well over sixty years, with twenty-two resorts throughout the French Alps alone. Its model is two-fold, bringing both family-friendly experiences at a price point that is manageable and also offering unique high-end experiences for guests interested in both luxury and seamless connectivity.

Feedback from guests has been overwhelmingly positive, with one sentiment repeating that a family winter holiday is an exceptionally memorable occasion. (Parents and children report a bonding and shared joy not seen at this level on summer holidays.)

Club Med has sought to make winter ski travel as hassle-free as possible, keeping the emphasis on the joy and fun. Their “Great Organizers” meet guests at the resort for an immediate orientation. Each member of the group receives their Club Med wristband so as to begin access to all the resort has to offer.

One of the main reasons most families hesitate to take a winter holiday is the cost concern, particularly with children’s activities. Thanks to economy of scale and the relationships it enjoys with French, Italian, and Swiss ski schools, Club Med is able to offer lessons for children in three different age groups at a competitive cost. There is also childcare available so that adults can partake in after-hours events.

Club Med opened their latest resort in Val Thorens – ranked World’s Best Ski Resort area in 2013 by the World Ski Awards – in December 2014. As a paradigm of the sort of guests resorts attract for winter travel – tech-savvy and highly connected, Club Med launched a successful crowdsourcing event in anticipation of their Val Thorens development, asking Facebook fans to vote on choices of activities and even the name.

They boosted involvement by entering voters in a sweepstakes, with the winner being the first guest to enter Val Thorens and participate in its inaugural celebrations.

Ski travelers expect resorts to provide excellent equipment. For several seasons, Club Med’s resort guests have been beta testers with the latest in technology to enhance their experience, especially on the slopes. Recently, it has formalized this, as Val Thorens is partnered with Rossignol for the 2015 season, so that skiers and snowboarders can evaluate and critique equipment before it hits the market. Wearables, steadily gaining in popularity for people interested in tracking their fitness through the day, are also useful for expert skiers. Oakley ski goggles used at Club Med have the options to provide a user in-line data with their speed, distance, and jump heights, as well as entertainment such as music.

Club Med also boasts its own mobile application: Club Med Villages. Guests can use it prior to their holiday to familiarize themselves with the resort, and during their stay it will keep them up to date with the weather and snow conditions and also allow them to access an intranet so family and friends can keep in touch.

While Club Med emphasizes its strengths as a family-friendly resort, built to cater to the needs of parents and children, it also caters to the winter adventurer expecting a high-end experience. Rather than searching for private rental accommodation, guests can enjoy privacy in their own chalets, and can be catered to by a private chef rather than attending the communal dining room.

As a winter travel option, Club Med has flown somewhat under the radar for analysts, since it remains known primarily as a summer destination. It is currently exploring a move back into the North American market via a Canadian partner, and so its all-inclusive brand should soon be part of the competitive field.

Drivers for choosing a ski resort
According to Club Med, quality of snow was the #1 factor for deciding on a particular resort (84%); followed by short distance to trails (65%); and then expert trails (55%).

The company is also extremely bullish over the winter ski travel space. While the industry as a whole is experiencing modest growth, Club Med saw a 35% increase in its winter ski travel business for Winter 2012-2013 versus the previous year. It then grew again by +21% the following Winter season (Winter 2013-2014). According to Sabrina Cendral, Vice President of Marketing, Club Med North America, “The current winter season is still in progress, but it’s looking like we’ll account for a +73% growth in our ski business in the last three years.”

Children taking a ski lesson in Vail, Colorado.

Children taking a ski lesson in Vail, Colorado. Photo: Ross Franklin/Flickr.

Vail Resorts’ global strategy

Vail Resorts is the top ski resort brand in America, with Vail Mountain as the Everest of the industry for three major reasons: powder, which Vail gets more of than any other mountain in Colorado; early and frequent innovation; and exemplary service. It is also its own ecosystem, managing a range of hotels, ski mountains, ski instruction schools, restaurants, equipment rental, even airport-to-mountain transportation. While the ski travel market is only just coming online and seeking to find a balance between an authentic experience out in nature, and technology which can discreetly enhance rather than undermine the ski experience, Vail got there years earlier – embedding an RFID chip in into every single ski pass.

Given the breadth of its assets, it has gotten to know its guest quite well. Epic Mix is its platform into which it has integrated its offerings, allowing guests to share their experiences within a private network and with their friends and family at home. Gamification in this space is one area where it makes sense: The DNA of the ski traveler is competitive. You can humblebrag your stats such as vertical feet skied; race against yourself, your peers, even against Gold Medalist Lindsay Vonn. You earn badges, or pins, for activities and accomplishments like completing a ski lesson or a course. Since Epic Mix is location-aware, it makes it easy to find your missing kids, and connect with friends on the fly. And from the back-end, it’s solving the logistics problem that has made ski travel a bear.

The use of RFID and the embrace of technology is also allowing Vail to turn its skiiers into marketers. As Rob Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts explains: “We decided that we would use our mountain photographers to take pictures of our guests, but first, because we have an RFID chip in every single pass, we could scan the pass, take the photo, and then that photo would show up in this person’s account online right away. And instead of charging for that photo, we gave the photo to the guests for free so they could share it on Twitter or Facebook. And our view on photos and using this kind of customer-facing technology was that, if a guest wants to have a photo of themselves at our resort, and they want to put that on Facebook, then that’s the best advertising we could ever get, and we really shouldn’t be charging the guests for that. We should promote the guests to do that. And obviously when we did this, and then removed the fees and allowed them to do it for free, we saw an explosion in the number of photos that were being posted about our resort by our guests on Facebook and Twitter.”

While the knife’s edge is exciting, it’s a rather low-tech innovation that makes Katz proudest. The season pass “has created the greatest amount of guest enthusiasm and loyalty that we have at the company.” Accounting for almost 40% of Vail’s lift ticket revenue, the season pass has been embraced by Vail guests because of its versatility. For $700 a season, the passholder can ski across all properties, without restriction. It’s been snapped up by 400,000 skiers and it reinforces Vail as a resort that offers value and rewards loyalty. The company may not be using the dynamic pricing, but it has learned a key lesson: offering the right price.

Vail followed the lead of the ski travel industry back in the 1980s opening up the mountain, beginning with snowboarding. While Baby Boomers can still enjoy a traditional ski experience, the resort now offers freestyle skiing, and terrain parks, encouraging the “Red Bull Generation” to be the next Shaun White.

Vail has also been prescient when it comes to the emerging trend of the four-season resort. Resorts in the Alps are cultivating seemingly endless festivals in the summer, while Club Med told Skift that going forward it will acquire resorts at lower altitudes so that they might be suitable for year-round vacationing. To attract guests beyond winter, Vail is exploiting its greatest and most obvious resource, nature. “Epic Discovery,” according to Katz, will “integrate activities like ziplines, mountain coasters, ropes courses, climbing walls, alpine slides and canopy tours … and we’re going to integrate all of that with environmental messaging.” Even now in Vail and Breckenridge, July 4th is busier in town than it is on Christmas Day.

Katz is bullish about the health of the ski travel market, as evinced by the state of advance sales. “What I would say is right now, what we’re seeing is the booking window is moving out. When we went into the recession everybody stopped booking in advance and everybody was calling last minute. Right now in the travel business, we’re seeing a lot of strength, particularly at the high end of the market.”

Building a mountain community with crowdsourced content: Interview with Erik Forsell, CMO of Mammoth

Mammoth Mountain in California is attempting to build a community around its destination brand with a GoPro partnership and crowdsourced content initiative called #MammothStories.

We interviewed Erik Forsell, chief marketing officer at Mammoth Mountain, to learn more about the company’s content initiatives and how they’re driving business.

Skift: What is the conceptual strategy behind #MammothStories?

Erik Forsell: Mammoth Lakes is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but it’s one thing for me to say that, it’s quite another for our visitors to actually show it to their friends and family. Our goal with #MammothStories is to encourage our guests to share—it’s a crowdsourced content strategy. We produce original content in-house with notable individuals to keep the ball rolling, but it’s really about engaging our guests in the storytelling process.

Skift: What has tended to be the most popular content and why?

Forsell: The content that features some of the biggest names in and around winter sports, people like Tony Hawk and Olympic snowboarder Greg Bretz, receive a lot of attention. No surprise there, we live in a celebrity-driven culture.

I mentioned authenticity as a driver in the success of #MammothStories. One of the video pieces we saw the highest rates of engagement on was a check in with Dave McCoy. McCoy founded Mammoth more than 60 years ago. He’s 99 now and he’s an icon in this industry. That piece highlighted what makes Mammoth so special, both as a place and an idea that was born out of his vision.

We have a tendency to want to focus on the huge air, the massive cliff drops and powder shots because they’re so dynamic visually. But the Dave McCoy piece was a good reminder that storytelling is as much about authenticity and shared experiences, as it is the totally unique. People are awed by the things our athletes do, but they can’t necessarily relate to them. McCoy is such a real person, so it’s easy to relate to him, and that resonates well.

Skift: How does #MammothStories benefit the lodging and hospitality component at Mammoth?

Forsell: You’re hitting on one of our biggest communications challenges. Our team is charged not only with marketing the mountain, but we market our hotels, we market our restaurants and nightlife, and to a certain extent we market our people. They’re all part of our guests’ Mammoth experience and they contribute to their stories.

#MammothStories appealed to us as a campaign because of its flexibility. We can talk to one segment of our audience about the terrain parks, we can talk to another segment of our audience about the family experience, another about dining, and all under the umbrella of this one campaign.

Certainly it helps us sell lift tickets and passes, but it also allows us to talk about the other pieces of the Mammoth experience, lodging and F&B included, with the same authentic voice. The other thing to consider is that, from a marketing standpoint, a rising tide lifts all of our boats. Because of our location, if you’re here to ski or ride, you’re likely staying and eating here in Mammoth.

Skift: What inspired the partnership with GoPro?

Erik Forsell: We launched the partnership with GoPro this year, and we view it as evidence of the success of our content marketing strategy. When it comes to building a social brand around content, GoPro helped write the book. Its audience is massive, its content is consistently viral, and most importantly its strategy results in sales.

On our end, we have the biggest social audience of any mountain resort, largely the result of our content strategy, and we have a brand that resonates with an affluent, active audience. Look at the two entities separately and there’s a lot in common. As a marketer you want to align your brand with the best and that’s exactly what we’re doing.

liftopia-cs-product-ui-alldevices-300dpi

Lift tickets for the 21st century

In 2015, Liftopia, a global online marketplace for lift tickets, celebrates its tenth anniversary. From its inception it has built a business plan around at least two “inevitabilities,” according to its co-founder and CEO Evan Reece: Ski lift tickets would one day be purchased online and dynamic pricing – which has seen both its share of success and epic fails in the hotel industry – can offer pricing discipline to the ski travel industry. In launching the company, he and his partners agreed that “If we don’t this, someone else will.” Though the ski travel market is small, it is also niche, embodied by consumers who are passionate about tech and innovation, and the convenience they can afford. Likewise, the resorts catering to this market are keen to be as cutting edge in technology as possible so as to offer premium value to their clientele.

Liftopia really came into its own in 2012 when it pivoted from being primarily a consumer marketplace to working directly with partners directly via its Cloud Store, a white-label e-commerce solution – and yes, cloud-based – for ski resorts’ websites. “This year, twenty percent of ski travelers in North America used the Cloud Store on their own website, and half or 250 partners used Liftopia.com,” notes Reece. In addition to smaller mountains, Liftopia’s partners include Aspen/Snowmass, Killington, and Alta, and at one time included Vail Resorts.

The theme Liftopia used to develop its platform was a simple “Let’s do the right thing.” That is, they weren’t only focused on making their partners money, but on balancing consumer expectations and supplier needs to surface a fair price. Skiers are rewarded for buying well in advance and get a deal in exchange for making a commitment – and commitments are the base of relationships, a term mentioned repeatedly by analysts and actors in this market as key to ongoing success. This past October the operator introduced Value, Flex, and Plus – the industry’s first tiered dynamic pricing system for skiers and snowboarders offering commitment segmentation.

At this juncture, the industry must recognize that within five years, few skiers will purchase their lift tickets at the window. Season passes (which continue to drive commitment at Vail) and tickets purchased online will be the norm. The window itself will still exist, but will operate as does the ticket counter at the airport, wherein you can theoretically buy your ticket there, but the only place that happens is in the movies.

Winter ski travel is expensive. Always has been, always will be, but conventional wisdom says that it’s getting even more out of reach. Reece begs to differ:

Liftopia Study

  • 48% of skiers purchase lift tickets online: 57% from resort websites and 27% from ski travel websites like Liftopia.
  • 50% purchase at least 1 week in advance, 44% at least one day in advance.
  • 2 in 5 skiers planned to ski more, 1 in 3 intended to book online via smartphone in the future.

“When they say skiing is getting more expensive, what they really mean is that the ‘reference price’ point is getting more expensive. Think of that astronomical daily rate on the back of the hotel door. Who pays that? In the future, the walk up rates are going to be so silly expensive that no one in their right mind would think about not buying in advance. And if they do wait and they buy that morning it will be because it’s worth it to them– ‘it’s sunny out and there’s two feet of snow, I’m happy to pay $300 to ski today.’” Even though it sounds counter-intuitive, the fact that the reference prices are getting more expensive means that the industry is capable of getting less expensive, revealing so much inefficiency in price.

As Liftopia is evolving, so is the ski travel industry. Offers Reece, “Back in the day we used to be this third party where resorts sold a little bit on the side, we’re now identifying an optimal, holistic pricing strategy for their entire resort – for the folks who are most closely working with us – giving us the keys on overall pricing strategy including window rates, advance purchase strategy, season pass pricing, and product mix.” Looking ahead, Reece is sanguine about the prospect of both his company and the industry, “Liftopia is defining the standard for revenue management and we are the system of record for the data that empowers those decisions.

Whistler’s warm-weather options.

Whistler’s warm-weather options. Photo: Crankworx.

Responding to global warming

Ski resorts have invested heavily over the last decade to build off-season business by introducing different types of festivals and new infrastructure for warm-weather activities. Part of this is also spurred by the threat of global warming decreasing the length of official ski seasons worldwide.

One of the first mountain resorts to successfully attract summer customers was Robert Redford’s Sundance Resort in Utah, because the famous actor was committed to creating a destination that focused first on cultural education and sustainability on a year-round basis.

Throughout the summer, Sundance hosts a wide variety of literary events and artistic festivals for locals and visitors around the community. One of the most popular, the Summer Screening Series, showcases films and movies supported by the Sundance Institute, where the public can meet the filmmakers and discuss their work.

Within the resort itself, Sundance brings in orchestral musicians to play evening concerts, Latin American artisans to teach glass blowing and jewelry making, and top chefs from all around the West to teach cooking classes and host specialty dinners.

“From the beginning, Mr. Redford wanted to create a place where artists of all types could flourish and work in a supportive environment,” explains Lucy Ridolphi, marketing manager at Sundance Resort. “Mostly, Sundance is special because it’s not overdeveloped. Everything feels natural and healthy, and people love that today.”

In Whistler Blackcomb Village, 90 minutes north of Vancouver, the always buzzing small town has developed into a model for off-season programming. For example, the annual Crankworx mountain bike racing and freestyle jump contest inspired the area to build a semi-permanent downhill race track during non-ski months. People of all ages and skill levels can take lessons and ride their bikes through the various courses designed with different degrees of difficulty, just like typical ski runs.

The ski resort has also become a food-centric destination in spring, summer and fall with events like the Cornucopia Food + Drink Festival, bringing in regional culinary influencers to discuss micro and macro food trends. Also, from late June through August, Whistler Blackcomb hosts a popular mountaintop barbecue at sunset with live music and unbelievable views.

A few non-traditional activities have evolved since the 2010 Winter Olympics here, such as educational events with professional sports photographers. Also, the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program is one of the most advanced facilities in existence working with mentally and physically disabled people arriving from around the world. The program provides them with special customized devices to ski, river raft, zipline, bike and many other things.

“Whistler Adaptive Sports in an amazing not-for-profit organization that provides year-round recreational programs for people of all ages with disabilities,” says Joanne Burns Millar, president of Vancouver-based Pacific Destination Services. “People come here and do things they never imagined they could.”

Whistler Blackcomb is one of many ski resorts advocating for sustainable education and operations, with global warming shortening many ski seasons around the world, some drastically.

“When surveyed, 72% of our employees said commitment to sustainability was a factor in their decision to work here,” says Arthur De Jong, mountain planning & environmental resource manager at Whistler Blackcomb. “If we become a model to global tourism on footprint reduction, we can inspire other tourism operators throughout the world to reduce their operating footprints. Our aspirations are at a global level. Only through collective action and reduction of carbon at a global scale can we stop the threat of climate change.”

This year in Colorado, both Keystone and Copper Mountain missed their scheduled Halloween openings due to unusually high temperatures and low snow levels. When opening day had to be pushed back to Thanksgiving, it wreaked havoc on everything from employment practices to overall economic levels for many different community stakeholders.

According to The Colorado Independent, high temperatures around Copper Mountain and Keystone consistently ran between 10 and 20 degrees above average during late October, and nighttime lows were 10 to 15 degrees warmer than the norm.

“The warmer nights have been observed now all the way back beginning in the 1980s over broad areas, including Colorado, but more so since the early 1990s,” says Nolan Doesken, a Colorado-based climatologist.

Auden Schendler, VP of sustainability for Aspen Skiing Company, is also quoted in the Independent, saying, “Ski resort CEOs and trade group leaders have a fiscal responsibility to both understand climate change and respond at scale. That should be the industry’s highest priority.”

Emerging destinations

We see many new ski travel markets emerging beyond the traditional fare of the Western United States, Vermont, New York, Canada, and the Swiss and French Alps. Here are three that have lessons beyond their small size.

Eastern Europe’s value

France was well-represented in Trivago’s Ski Travel Trends 2014-2015 report, occupying six of the top ten pole positions. That said, when ranked by hotel reputation, two Bulgarian resorts, Bansko and Borovets, surfaced among the top ten, their room rates more than 70% cheaper ($85/night) than their counterparts from France, Andorra, and Austria (averaging $300/night). Bansko is known as the Winter Capital of the Balkans. French company Accor has recently announced plans to build a new resort in Bulgaria that would be the largest in Eastern Europe with 155km in ski trails.

Under the Radar: Niseko

Japan might have been set to become a major player in the ski travel market after the successful 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, which introduced snowboarding and the ancient game of curling to the Olympics. Unfortunately, the Japanese recession made travel and marketing less feasible, and Japan saw two-thirds of its ski travel business decline in the last ten years. Domestically, the cost and the nation’s aging population may contribute to its continued flat business. However, all eyes should now be on Niseko United, which comprises four ski resorts on the northern island of Hokkaido – famous for receiving nearly twice as much snow as most North American resorts – up to 580 inches a year. Niseko is easily accessible, only a short flight from Tokyo, but travel to this part of Japan is still something only 5,000 Americans undertake each year. Nonetheless, Outside Magazine cited Niseko as something “between a full-blown destination resort and a laid-back locals’ hill.” If the resort can modernize its infrastructure (some venues are quite modern, while others haven’t been updated since Nagano) we could be looking at the next Aspen.

Skiing against the grain

The African continent is usually perceived as a place for a warm-weather adventure, such as a safari. South Africa, however, boasts the Afriski resort in the Maluti Mountains, and its winter months are June, July, and August. While that may at first seem a boon for the expert skier wanting to get in a little more winter, the resort only boasts a single 1 km ski slope. It is, however, recommended for beginners and the resort’s recent enhancement of its Snowboard Park indicates that it is serious about establishing itself as an outlier to be contended with.

Five key strategies for winter ski resorts and mountains

  1. Embrace dynamic pricing: A long line of skiers waiting to purchase a lift ticket in the morning should be a thing of the past. The benefit to skiers is clear (who wants to wait in line when you could be skiing?), but the benefit to operators requries a rethink of how they do business. Selling discounted non-refundable tickets ahead of time guarantees revenue no matter the weather, and puts operators less at the mercy of the weatherman.
  2. Sell 365 days of the year: A mountain with snow is certainaly a draw, but a mountain with green grass isn’t a bad sell either. Operators need to create year-long plans that make the mountain an attraction whether or not powder arrives on time. Food festivals, sporting events, outdoor offerings, and other programming buffers against the predictably unpredictable that’s coming to define the age of climate change.
  3. Enable customers to be brand ambassadors: Smart operators are learning that a happy customer with a photo and a social media account can reach more potential customers than an ad in a magazine or newspapers. Initiatives like Vail’s use of photographers and free photos lets skiers tell their own story.
  4. Focus on value versus savings: Skiing isn’t cruising. But it can deliver value, especially in the form of opportunities for cross-generational family travel that few other travel offerings can. Operators that make their experience a value rather than a set of ancillary fees and surprise costs can overcome many price-shock hurdles.
  5. Appeal to the promise of experience: Experiential travel can sell itself, and there are few types of travel more experiential than racing down a mountain on two skis or grinding along a half-pipe on a snowboard. Selling trips based on experience rather than consumption appeals to travelers desire to do something they will remember and share.