Ski Corp. angles for return traffic

Marketing leader says RSVIP program at core of ski area's plans

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— Andy Wirth has been talking about RSVIP for months.

The Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. marketing leader sees the retention program as a cornerstone of the strategy to pull people to the Steamboat Ski Area this winter. The company has lowered pass prices this season but hasn't taken a page from the playbook of Colorado resorts that are overhauling advertising or adding flexibility for pass holders.

Wirth outlined Ski Corp.'s marketing strategy as booking season hits high gear.

So far, Wirth said, the RSVIP efforts have netted an "outstanding" response. Retention programs are based on the idea that "Return Skiers are Very Important People." Ski Corp.'s main Web site, www.steamboat.com, touts incentives including "special offers on lodging, lifts and air" for return skiers.

"Year over year, year-to-date, we're up in the double digits compared to this time last year from a percentage perspective and RSVIP," Wirth said.

Almost 15 percent of the ski season has been booked, Wirth said early this month.

"We're only one or two innings into the game, but right now we feel pretty good about what's on the scoreboard," he said.

The RSVIP program isn't new.

"But this year, it could be said that we have absolutely put the turbo charger on this program," Wirth said. "We've expanded its distribution, No. 1. It does include Central Reservations as well as all major properties in this town."

Communications went out to 150,000 to 200,000 people who have visited in the past, he said. A couple of hundred people received phone calls from skiing legend Billy Kidd, Wirth said.

Those are the people who have come often, come recently and spent a lot of money.

Competition across ski areas always is fierce, Wirth said. According to an article in The Aspen Times last month, Aspen Skiing Co. is presenting an ad campaign encouraging people to reward themselves during the recession with a ski vacation.

The Aspen Times story quoted Vice President of Marketing Jeanne Mackowski as saying Aspen Skiing Co. will spend more on marketing this season than last.

"Companies who ramp up their marketing efforts in a downturned economy are successful in the long run," Mackowski said in the article.

Ski Corp. hasn't dramatically changed its marketing spending, Wirth said.

"Our budgeted spend for marketing as a percentage of revenue is largely similar to what it was for last year and is consistent with what we've spent over the past decade," he said.

What's changed is how Ski Corp. monitors its marketing.

"Spend is much more efficient today than it was five or 10 years ago because we have many more tracking devices in place," Wirth said.

For example, he said, Ski Corp. has it "on good authority" that Ski Magazine readers have named Steamboat the No. 1 family resort in North America. Skiing Magazine readers have rated Steamboat the best tree skiing in North America.

But at least as important as those designations are Web sites such as tripadvisor.com, Wirth said.

"We have some research that suggests that tripadvisor.com has as much impact on destination decision, property choice and booking choice as ski magazine ratings do," he said.

That knowledge keeps Ski Corp. on its toes in terms of working the Web. The company uses its Internet sites as well as Twitter and Facebook to drive traffic. Ski Corp. works those social media elements with revenue in mind, Wirth said.

"It's quite easy to spend a lot of time and money working that space, and it can be very time consuming," Wirth said.

The company has three Twitter accounts: Steamboat

PR for media, SkiSteamboat for general information and events, and Steamboatinfo for snowfall and other ski-related information.

Ski Corp. uses social media to get people to its Web sites. Those visitors help with search-engine optimization, he said.

Wirth said Ski Corp. was keeping an eye on the actions of other resorts. For example, Aspen is allowing skiers to upgrade or downgrade passes during the ski season.

"I think there's some intriguing new products," Wirth said about competitors, "but in those cases, I think those resorts were responding to some pretty serious deficiencies."

Winter Park and Copper Mountain, run by Ski Corp.-parent Intrawest, have extended lower pass prices several times. Steamboat doesn't plan to extend deadlines for lower price offers. However, Wirth said officials might loosen the terms of merchant passes because businesses aren't sure how many employees they'll need to take on for winter.

Steamboat Ski Area is scheduled to open Nov. 25 for Scholarship Day and Nov. 26 for general skiing. Ski Corp. aimed last year to open top-to-bottom trails as soon as possible.

"We were particularly pleased with the process and the trail opening schedule that we put in place last year in November, so I think folks can anticipate a very similar opening," Wirth said.

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