I Think I See a Plan. News From the Ski Industry Summit

Okay, what was I doing at the Ski Industry Summit (formerly known as Ski Week) and why am I writing about it for Snow Biz?

Anybody got a problem with some early season turns in Vail when there’s hardly anybody here? Didn’t think so. Also, there was an open bar each night.
But aside from the obvious hedonistic reasons to show, the winter resort business has to do some things differently. Baby boomers are showing up less as they get older, and kids and younger people, overall, are either doing something besides coming to winter resorts or trying it, not liking it, and not coming back. The retention rates for beginners basically suck. If as an industry (and I mean the winter sports industry, not just the winter resort industry) nothing happens and demographic trends and retention/conversion rates continue on their present source, the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) projects that total visits to resorts will drop 27.2% from 52.2 million to 38 million in 15 years. 
Forget the ski versus snowboarding, them versus us, “they don’t get it” stuff. If present trends continue, there will be fewer resorts around, less money to spend on half pipes, terrain parks, new lifts, and developing new runs. Snowboard hard goods and apparel sales will drop. So it’s not just their problem. We are part of the winter sports business and snowboarding’s success is related to the resorts’ success. As far as I know, nobody has figured out a way to snowboard without a mountain.
The Ski Industry Summit got three hundred people together to talk about this issue from December 3rd through 6th. This is hardly a new issue, but there was a sense of urgency and an attempt to focus on specifics that was positive, refreshing and to some extent overdue. People were interested in specifics.
In the same study that suggested what might happen if we do nothing, NSAA showed that if the industry can increase the number of beginners by 6% each year (subject to some statistical limits that keep growth rates from getting ridiculous) and boost the conversion rate of those beginners by 1% a year, we can have 69 million visitor days annually by 2015.
There was general agreement on the need for action, at least among the attendees. Obviously, this kind of conference is self-selecting for people who already recognize that need. And there also seemed to be a consensus that concentrating on getting more people on the slopes and working to make them stay was an appropriate focus.
Formally and informally, people had different ideas about exactly what should be done by whom and what the opportunities and obstacles to success might be. There wasn’t an overall program presented. Still, from the studies I’ve seen from SIA and NSAA, the comments made at the conference, and my own experience working with companies that had to change, there was an implicit program that came out of the discussion. Recognizing that I don’t know much about running a mountain resort, here’s what I think I heard the elements of such a program might be.
Every Mountain is Different
There are 300 or so people out there who use to own snowboard brands who would have killed for the competitive differences that exist among winter resorts. Each is unique, and can utilize its uniqueness in attracting and retaining customers. But how is it unique? Step one is to find out. I don’t mean from anecdotal evidence, informal surveys, or perceptions from 15 years ago. An ongoing program of carefully structured, unbiased, thoughtful market research is required.   I know it costs money, is a pain in the ass, and leaves you with more questions than you had when you started. But you still have to have that the information.
Marketing Schizophrenia
Male or female? Skier or snowboarder or neither? Day tripper or destination visitor? Young or older? Rich, or not so rich? Real estate buyer? As an industry, it seems hard for the resorts to know where to focus its marketing efforts, although, of course, individual resorts may and often do have a clearer focus. But it’s never as easy in the skateboard business, where north of 90% of the customers are male and between the ages of eight and seventeen. What can resorts do to get that kind of focus?
Teaching and Retention: The Customer Experience
My perception, reinforced at the summit, is that the winter resort industry generally agrees that the battle has to be won by getting beginners to the slopes and motivating them to come back and by attracting back lapsed participants. There’s no need to market to core participants. They show up no matter what.   What has to happen so that the others show up?
They have to have a good experience. Short lines. Rental boots that fit. No confusion about where to go. Warm and dry. Access to bathrooms. Minimal caught edges during lessons. There are, no doubt, 100 others I haven’t mentioned or don’t know about. What’s the magic of this? Rich or not so rich, male or female, skier or snowboarder, young or old, the visitor to a winter resort wants this kind of good experience. They want to have fun. There shouldn’t be a penalty that can border on a fraternity hazing to become or remain a snow slider.
Magically, this is a big step in managing the winter resort’s Marketing Schizophrenia. The confusion caused by the apparently irresolvable market segmentation problems and the conflicting demands of each segment is suddenly dramatically diminished. It may not be as conceptually simple as being in the skateboard business, but suddenly a resort can say, “All our customers want this!”
Ultimately, customers always get what they want- from somebody. How shall we give it to them?
Management Commitment
It starts at the top, and there’s never been a truer cliché. Well, maybe one. I’ll get to it in a minute. If you run or own a winter resort (or any other business for that matter) and you think that your future success, and maybe your survival, depends on doing some things differently, you better be leading the charge. If you don’t- if you aren’t involved and seen to be committed every day- the organization won’t change. The customers will get what they want somewhere else.
Andy Clurman, President of The Skiing Company, suggested that each resort should appoint a Director of Learning and Retention, or some such title. Great idea. I’d add that the new Director should report directly to the General Manager or President of the resort and have instant access to them.
Nuts and Bolts
ASC reported at the Summit that the conversion rate for beginners who participated in their new Learn To Ski program was 30%. That program emerged from a complete reevaluation and restructuring of every detail of their teaching program and from measuring the results. It had nothing to do with running ads or showing people jumping off cliffs or selling the latest and coolest technology. It required changing the compensation structure. It meant a two-day seminar where instructors were turned, initially kicking and screaming it sounds like, into sales people. It meant new facilities and processes. No detail of the teaching and conversion process was left unexamined.
Opportunities- Not Problems
ASC Chairman Les Otten, addressing the Summit, said, “We don’t have a problem- we have an opportunity.” That’s the even truer cliché I mentioned earlier.
I think perhaps part of the audience did take it as a bit of a cliché. I didn’t get a chance to ask Mr. Otten, but here’s what I think he meant.
When a company needs to change, it resists. Of all the company’s I’ve worked with, I can’t think of one where that wasn’t the case. Inevitably, in addressing the issue, they try to do what’s worked in the past to fix the problem. “More of the same,” no matter how rigorously applied, doesn’t usually work. It also grinds you down. Pretty soon, if all you do is deal with problems you can’t solve, life sucks. It’s depressing, demoralizing, and no fun. There’s no way to succeed. And the worse it gets, the harder it gets to change. You trap yourself in an endless downward spiral.
Unless you’ve got an opportunity. In which case, you can create a positive environment, move forward, have fun, give credit, do good things and celebrate a little bit. And by the way you may have accidentally taken a step towards solving that problem that just wouldn’t go away. Pretty soon, you don’t have to “step outside of your box” to use another cliché. You’ve created a new, bigger and more comfortable box to be in.
Mr. Otten and the ASC management team saw an opportunity. It just so happens that it helps solve a problem.
Finance and Factories
General Motors hates it when the production line slows down or stops. They don’t want to repaint fenders. They can’t stand sending back parts. It drives them nuts when a poorly trained employee connects a wire wrong. They moan with every warranty claim.
Because every one of these things costs them money.
People aren’t cars. Still, the process by which a resort moves a beginner, or any customer for that matter, through the process of getting to the resort, getting equipment, learning, getting on the hill, and committing to come back is a bit of a production line. And people yell louder then cars on an assembly line when you connect their wires wrong. Every customer who’s boots don’t fit, who can’t find where the lesson starts on time, who gets wet and cold in the middle of the lesson, costs you money due to the disruption of the process. Not to mention potentially a future customer.
I love it when the marketing and the financial strategy seem to dovetail. I’ve discovered that usually an indication that a strategy makes sense. The operationally oriented approach that the Summit suggested is required to attract and retain snow sliders seems to make financial sense. Not only because of the medium and longer-term impact on visitor days, but because it requires an efficient (i.e., customer friendly) operation that saves you money right now. I also wonder how it might impact your spending on advertising and promotion over the longer run. I note from SIA data that 87% of visitors to winter resorts have internet access. If you’ve better identified your customer, have made it easier for them to come and have fun and have their email address, perhaps some of your other marketing expenses can be reassessed.
I don’t want to underestimate the financial implications of some of the ideas presented at the Summit. It costs money to undertake some of these initiatives and cash flow is a hard thing in all parts of the winter sports industry. Still, I can probably guarantee that resorts that don’t start now will have a harder time starting later.
What can retailers and suppliers do? You share some responsibility for making sure people know how much fun we have on the mountain. If you can equip them right, and the resorts can make sure they have a positive experience, maybe we will be looking at 69 million visitors in 15 years.