SAM Magazine: Keeping Up With the Joneses

July 1, 2008

In a country that seems to favor big operations over the little guy, small ski areas have to be at their nimblest and craftiest in order to survive. Here's what some shrewd operators are doing to keep the cash registers ringing.

YIELD MANAGEMENT Last fall Wildcat, N.H., joined Liftopia, an online ticket discounter similar to Orbitz, Expedia and other Internet travel sites, but specializing in ski lift tickets. "This was our first season and we were very happy with it," says Wildcat sales and marketing director Thomas Prindle. "It was a convenient way for people to purchase tickets."

Skiers can go online and shop for a lift ticket based on the geographic area and mountains they are considering. They are then presented with a variety of areas, lift tickets and pricing options.

"We had complete control on the back end when it came to yield based on dates, weather, etc," Prindle says. "We could even control prices on an hour-by-hour or day-by-day basis." Most customers were from New England, but the site attracted takers from as far away as New York and New Jersey.

"I don't understand why more ski areas don't do it," Prindle says. "Hotels, airlines and rental-car services all use these types of sites. It seems to be the way the industry is heading, especially with the economy the way it is and people wanting to get the best value possible. You will probably see more areas do it."

Prindle notes that in a competitive market like the Mount Washington Valley, people have choices and all ski operations need to be competitively priced. "People who are paying full price at the ticket window have not done their homework," he says. "There are many discount programs. Liftopia is a one-stop discounting model that has worked well in other industries and has worked for us."

CREATIVE PARTNERSHIPS Partnerships are a cost-effective way to stretch a resort's marketing dollars. Mission Ridge Ski & Snowboard Resort, Wash., partnered with Shell Oil to offer special deals to motorists who purchased a minimum amount of gas at Shell stations. Mission Ridge marketing director Jerri Barkley says the deals varied from two-skiers-for-the-price-of-one for night skiing to a two-for-one midweek benefit.

Some partnerships involve other ski areas. "We have made offers to season-pass holders at other mountains to ski free here to get the ancillary revenue," Barkley says. "We ask the other mountain to make their skiers aware of the free ski offer at our facility. We do the same thing for their facility.

"For instance, we partnered with Silver Mountain in Idaho, which has an aggressive growth plan, including a water park. We offer their members five free visits to Mission Ridge, and they do the same for our members. It gives our season-pass holders a chance to take a vacation, which many do." The area is seeking other resort partners as well.

MEMBERSHIP PROGRAMS Growing the membership program-think season passes with a variety of perks and special offers-has been the major emphasis the past few years at Welch Village Ski & Snowboard Area southeast of Minneapolis, according to owner Leigh Nelson. "We have come up with some membership innovation ideas to get more of a commitment from skiers and snowboarders on a seasonal basis," he says.

"We have grown our membership to about 7,000 here at our little resort. I never thought we could do that. People want to have a way to come here for a reasonable price for the entire season. They are comfortable skiing for an hour or two instead of all day. The time-poverty situation is important for them to consider and for us to take advantage of."

Welch Village sells memberships almost exclusively through its website and incentivizes existing members to introduce the various programs to friends and family. For instance, Ground Hog Day specials offer a discounted lift ticket for a friend or family member of an existing customer, as well as a lesson and rental. The program allows existing members to introduce friends and family to the sport at a reduced price.

LIFT-LESSON-RENTALS Some areas, including Welch Village, have provided new twists to their traditional lift-lesson-and-rental offerings. "We started a new weekend program last year called 'Winter Works Wonders' (WWW)," Nelson says. "It appeals primarily to young families with children. It includes lift, lesson and rentals for $89 per person for three visits. That comes out to less than $30 per visit per person for the whole deal. It's a very inexpensive way to get started in the sport. Many [participants] converted to full membership."

Other areas have taken advantage of rising gas prices to bolster their lift-lesson-rental programs. Cataloochee Ski Area in Maggie Valley, N.C., about two and a half hours from Atlanta, has seen a dramatic increase the past couple of years in its "Drive, Slide and Stay" program. In addition to two days skiing and accommodations, the midweek offering provides a $10 gas card for every participant. Accommodations are available Sunday through Wednesday nights and skiing Monday through Thursday.

"The gas card has been an incentive and should become even more so in a drive market like ours," says marketing manager Tammy Brown. "We charge $94 per person for two days, which includes lift tickets, lessons and rentals. That is a 50 percent added value. The skiers work individually with the lodging partners regarding rates."

Cataloochee also has a midweek Kids Ski Free program. In cooperation with its lodging partners, the mountain offers two free children's lift tickets when accompanied by a full-paying parent. "We try to make it economical because we know families are the hardest hit in this economy," Brown says. "We are counting on many kids making this a lifetime sport. If we can get them interested when they are young, we can hopefully keep them coming back as adults."

Shawnee Peak in Maine's western mountains has enjoyed great success with its Learn-to-Ski-Free days at the beginning of the season. These are usually held the Saturday and Sunday right before the Christmas-week holiday for kids ages 8 and above. The program includes rentals, lift ticket and lesson, either in the morning or afternoon.

The program gets customers on the slopes early in the season and allows the mountain to capture names and addresses of potential customers. Shawnee drew 250 people last December, its largest number ever. The early-season timing also serves as a training opportunity for new staff, says marketing director Melissa Rock.

"Many [participants] were skiers learning to snowboard," Rock says. "There were also a lot of people brand new to the slopes. Now we have a new customer, at least for the year and perhaps the next few. We give them discounts for a second session with an instructor. It allows us to hopefully cultivate the first-time experience into a second and third time.

"Parents generally sign their children up for the program. It is an easy way to get kids on skis for the first time. And being before Christmas they can find out if their child takes to the sport before deciding whether to buy them equipment for Christmas."

RACING PROGRAMS Nashoba Valley in suburban Boston is big on racing. Night racing, to be precise. According to director of operations Al Fletcher Jr., "We are one of the largest racing venues in the country, especially for a facility of our size. We might have 150 to 160 racers on any given night. We have about 500 skiers overall in the program. That is a big program, particularly for the bar business with the 21-plus crowd."

But racing is not just about night leagues. In the afternoons, Nashoba's 35-plus instructors conduct college and high school training sessions and high school competitions.

Nashoba's not alone; adults are a part of the racing mix for many smaller areas. Shawnee Peak holds its "Racing with the Moon" program Wednesday and Thursday nights. It is basically a social evening for those living and working in the Portland, Maine, area. Many of Portland's larger companies have teams.

"It allows Mom and Dad to get a night off by themselves," Rock says of the popular program. "It costs $140 for the 10-week season, but only $75 with a season pass. It starts right after New Year's and runs through mid-March."

TUBING GROWTH POTENTIAL The fastest-growing activity at Nashoba is tubing. First introduced nine years ago, the tubing park has grown to include 16 lanes, four lifts, 100-percent snowmaking, and a separate base lodge and snack bar. It hosts birthday parties, groups and corporate outings.

"Anyone can do it, which makes tuning attractive" for groups, Fletcher says. "If a group is vacillating between a ski and tubing trip, nine times out of 10 the organizers choose tubing. The tubing park seems to be the weather-proof part of the business. It has grown even through the roughest winters. It simply appeals to a much broader market."

PRICE AND LOCATION Last but not least, Fletcher says lower ticket costs and proximity to markets help smaller facilities compete. "We try to offer some of the packages and programs the bigger areas have, but at a reduced rate, which helps in tough economic times," says Fletcher. "People do not want to drive two hours, pay for a hotel room and buy $70 ski passes in this economy. Someplace nearby, like Nashoba Valley, makes it easier to ski on a Saturday and leave Sunday open for something else."