The Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. has jumped off the cornice into the deep powder of online reservations, and traffic is growing at a significant rate. However, company officials say they still have a hill to climb before they reach their goal.
"We think we're ahead of the competition," ski corp. Vice President of Marketing Andy Wirth said at a recent e-commerce conference here. "The reservation system we have is arguably the envy of the ski industry. We've dumped many millions into developing that."
The ski area now books a significant portion of its winter reservations through its Web site. Last year, as of Jan. 10, the ski corp. was making 19 percent of its reservations online. This year, by the same date, the number had swollen to 33 percent.
"Make no doubt about it, it works," Wirth said.
Steamboat is millions of dollars away from providing the instant gratification of large e-tailers such as Amazon.com. Wirth said on the low end, Steamboat would have to invest another $3 million before it could give its online customers immediate quotes on vacation packages and book them into Steamboat before they cruise off to other sites. However, he suspects the actual cost of bringing Steamboat's online reservations system to the level of immediate responses is more like $10 million to $15 million.
"We need to get there," Wirth said.
Wirth reports his company's Web pages had tallied 3.6 million page views as of Aug. 1.
"We want to turn those browsers into buyers," Wirth said. "We're trying to take the millions of people who visit our Web pages and turn them into buyers."
Wirth, with Steamboat Online Marketing Manager Marlene Wuest and Brian Elliott, presented an overview of the growing importance of the ski area's online reservations system. Elliott is in the midst of leaving Steamboat Central Reservations, which is owned by the ski corp., to take a position with Steamboat Resorts.
Wirth and Wuest said the ski corp. is eager to share its institutional knowledge with anyone seeking to book online reservations in Steamboat.
"Our goal has always been to drive traffic to Central Reservations as well as educate people about what Steamboat has to offer," Wuest said.
Wirth observed that Central Reservations books 25 percent to 30 percent of the winter tourism into Steamboat, and his informal survey of property management sites in Steamboat shows that some do not have the ability to convert browsers into buyers. He said the ski area has no hesitation in sharing its technology.
"We're compiling an inventory of what tools we can package and deliver to you.
"It's important that as members of our resort, that you guys have the best tools," Wirth said. "We can't care how people get here, we want them to get here."
The ski corp.'s reservation system asks interested visitors to fill out a detailed questionnaire that refines their needs and wants in a Steamboat vacation. It begins with a price range for lodging, the type of lodging and how close they want to be to the slopes. They are asked to answer many detailed question about the amenities they want from the ubiquitous hot tub to washing machines. Vacationers also have the option to book ski lessons, rental skis and ground and air transportation.
They are also asked to provide second choices on dates and lodging accommodations, something that allows a reservations agent to give them a range of options and differently priced packages.
"It's a lengthy form, but people don't mind it, because the quote they get back is tailored to them," Wuest said.
Once a potential Steamboat vacationer submits their request for a quote, a ski corp. reservations agent does the work of preparing the quote, then sends an e-mail to the customer saying it is ready. The e-mail message provides a Web link they can click on to view the information at a secure site. Preparation of the quote may take as little as three to four hours. But the wait is never more than 24 hours, Wuest said.
"The main thing is the customer can print the quote out and have it right then and there," Wuest said.
Elliott said it's not uncommon for people to receive a quote and book an $8,000 vacation package, including airfare, on the spot. But Wuest said it's more common for people to use the online reservations system to get to the point of a quote, then dial the toll-free number to give their credit card number to a sales agent on the telephone.
"That's the whole point of the Web site to let people answer their own questions," Elliott said. "If the only time people pick up their phone is to give us a credit card number, we aren't too disappointed."
Steamboat-based Web site developer and consultant Ty Ricker told his seminar audience at the E-Commerce Conference 2001 last week that the time delay from the moment a customer submits his or her request to the ski area for a quote, to the time it's delivered, represents the potential for a lost opportunity.
"Hot customers grow cold" in that time, Ricker said.
"Mr. Ricker is exactly right," Wirth said. "Anytime you're trying to sell any product, you're always striving for the quickest turnaround." But Wirth said selling ski vacations is more complex in some ways than selling books and tapes online at Amazon.com.
"We're not selling Ginsu knives, or a commodity product," Wirth said. Taking several hours to prepare a quote is the norm in the travel industry, he said.
The ski corp.'s conversion rate of 13 percent (the number of actual reservations for every written request for a quote) means the ski area averages 77 applications for every 10 vacations that it books. But a 13 percent conversion rate is higher than what the ski corp. experiences on its toll-free phone lines, Wirth said.
Ricker said it troubles him that when he types "Colorado skiing" into his two favorite search engines, GoTo.com and Google.com, no Steamboat site pops up in the top 30 list. he said people are now paying a fee of about 30 cents per "fresh look" to search engines in order to be certain their listing is in the top 10 of search responses.
"There are at least 500 sites with (the word) Steamboat in them," Ricker observed. "Why aren't we coming up on these major search engines? How do we make sure we aren't losing market share to other ski resorts?"
Wirth said the answer to that question lies in its research and its decision to concentrate on other search engines. The ski corp. doesn't have the financial resources to pay to be at the top of every search engine's list.
However, the ski corp. knows that 59 percent of the people who visit its Web site get there via a search engine. Wirth said Ricker's information about GoTo.com and Google.com are essentially anecdotal. Steamboat has researched the search engines its visitors use to get to its site and are using "meta-tags," or keywords, to make sure Steamboat turns up high on the right search engine lists.
"There are so many ways to get to our Web site. What we're trying to do is aim for the center and then we fortify that position," Wirth said. "There are many search engines where we literally and figuratively own the top spot."
Wuest said the search engines Excite and AltaVista are among the engines ski area has taken efforts to ensure puts Steamboat at the top of its search responses. Wuest pointed out that the status of search engine optimization changes on a daily basis.
What matters to her is that Steamboat's customers are showing a favorable response to the Web site.
"Our on-mountain surveys reflect very few complaints about our Web site," she said.