Vacationers demand convenience


— The vacationers planning to come to Steamboat next winter want it their way, and they want it fast and easy.

The challenge for ski resorts, faced with competition from cruise lines and other industries, is to streamline the vacation-buying process to make planning a mountain getaway quicker, easier and more attractive to customers.

"Today's customer is seeking instant gratification," Ray Snisky said. "They want to travel on their own terms. (The ski industry) has got to look at flexibility."

Snisky, vice president of corporate development for the Mark Travel Corp., was speaking to a standing-room-only audience April 9 at the Sheraton Steamboat Resort. He was a member of a panel talking to about 800 people gathered for the Mountain Travel Symposium.

Andy Wirth of the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. acknowledged to the audience that streamlining the vacation-buying process is a particular challenge for the ski resort industry.

"Skiing is inherently a complex product," Wirth said. "It's one of our greatest enemies. We're probably 5 to 10 years behind the cruise industry."

Travel consultant Peter Yesawich, talking during a separate presentation at the conference, bolstered Wirth's remarks.

Despite the impression that the cruise industry has been dealt a severe blow by the lingering effects of Sept. 11, 2001, and war in Iraq, that industry has become even more competitive for domestic travel, Yesawich said. And the cruise industry's ability to offer all of the desirable aspects of a vacation packaged at a single price gives it a big edge among contemporary travelers who seek to minimize hassles.

Prospective ski vacationers, on the other hand, must answer a battery of questions before they get to the bottom line: Hotel or condo? Proximity to the slopes? How many days of lift tickets? Ski lessons? Rentals? Intermediate ski package or high performance? Budget for restaurants or buy groceries?

Cruise customers know they can expect excellent service and all of their meals in a package price. Many of their activities are in the package, and often even their airfare to the port city is included in a single price.

Snisky said "dynamic packaging" stands to be one of the keys to the future for mountain resorts. His company has a formal arrangement to book travel for United Airlines. Suppliers in the travel agency must become increasingly flexible so that companies such as his can create packages on the fly for individual customers, he said.

For example, Snisky said, instead of issuing a single room price for packages and hanging onto that price, large hotels in Las Vegas need to empower his agents to work with them to adjust package prices to book as many rooms as possible. The ability to offer the same flexibility is becoming increasingly important for mountain resorts as well, he said.

Wirth said the resorts that prosper in the future will be those that succeed in refining their ability to forecast demand in order to manage yields while offering the individual packaging Snisky referred to. The problem is that it's becoming increasingly difficult to discern trends among the traveling public.

"Accurate forecasting is essential," Wirth said. "There are no trends to identify," however.

Jim Olin, president and chief executive officer of ResortQuest International, agreed with Wirth. Olin's company owns Premier Properties, a local property management company, and manages thousands more resort rooms around the country.

"Forecasting has been tough this year. The inconsistency has been consistent," Olin quipped.

He confessed that his company made a tactical forecasting error in mid-spring when it dropped prices in order to drive demand at a large property in Florida. The hotel filled up promptly, but when calls from affluent customers picked up in late spring, there was no room at the inn.

"We were already full," Olin said. "That's our bad."

Cruise ships, however, have more than enough room, Yesawich said. In 2002, the number of cruise ship cabins available from U.S. ports was up 40 percent over the previous year, in part because ships were diverted to the U.S. from the other side of the Atlantic; in particular, from the Mediterranean. This year, the number of cabins is up another 13 percent.

"You need to worry about this," Yesawich said. Cruise lines are offering three- to five-night cruises on four-star ships at prices that amount to $85 per person, per day, including meals.

Olin was philosophical about the tumultuous state of the travel industry.

"Life is an adjustment," he said. "We'll make an adjustment. People are going to take their vacation."

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

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