(Previously published in Ski Area Management)
An Opinionated Inside/Outside View of Ski Industry Marketing
by Ken Hulick
I admit it. I was a short-timer in the industry. I worked as Communications Director for a medium-sized ski resort – Purgatory Resort in Durango, Colorado – for only two winter seasons. But I’ve been in the marketing business my entire professional life. And in skiing I see an industry sorely lacking in hard-core marketing muscle.
The ski industry wrings its hands over flat skier numbers; over pricing; over competition from other travel and tourism options. Yet these dilemmas are primarily (but not solely) the symptoms of its underachieving marketing.
Most of the marketing I’ve witnessed coming from the ski industry is either woefully behind the times or consists of jumping on the flash-and-dash bandwagon. The industry seems to not be very aware of the marketing, advertising, and psychological research which has been in existence for decades (David Ogilvy’s books from 40 years ago are excellent examples). Either unaware or unbelieving.
A professional marketer of my acquaintance (who also holds an MBA) once said to me, “most of the marketing I’ve seen in the ski industry lacks the marketing ‘mental horsepower’ that nearly every other industry uses.” Is this because a lot of ski resorts have marketing guys who have risen through the ranks from ski instructor to ski school director to marketing director but who have never been out of Dodge?
My take on the prime reason the ski industry’s marketing seems so limited is – please sit down now – the “we’re so cool” factor. In my short stint in the industry, I was constantly amazed by the attitude expressed within the industry – overtly as well as subtly – that people should be skiing because it’s such a bitchin’ thing to do. That people should be skiing because we’re in such a cool sport that they should be having fun just being associated with us. Every industry event I attended was full of (with exceptions, of course) folks so cocksure of their coolness just because they were in the ski industry.
Folks, wake up. How we think of ourselves has very little to do with how our potential customers view us. This is an insidious trap similar to “marketing to yourself.” In marketing to yourself, we believe that an ad (or web site, promotion program, whatever) works because we like it – “we” being the CEO, ski area marketing director, retail director, sales guy at the consumer ski show. The same goes for our inner coolness. If we expect customers to come skiing because it’s cool (because we think it’s cool and we’ve told them it’s cool), we’ll continue to see flat numbers and flatter profits.
Putting butts on chairlifts is – on many levels – exactly the same as putting butts in airline seats, selling beer and burgers at a NASCAR race, getting new customers to your bank, hawking the latest laptop computer, or selling an extra three cases of Doritos from the grocery store shelves. The recent price wars are illustrative. Bogus Basin in Idaho reduced their season pass prices dramatically and saw a great response. Many Colorado resorts came up with a buddy pass or discounted pricing options. Yet I’d like to ask how many of those resorts actually applied proven pricing strategies and principles when deciding on their pricing structure. Mike Shirley from Bogus Basin said, at the NSAA conference in Snowbird this past January, that they came up with their season-pass price of $199 because (I paraphrase), “it had to be a significant reduction and we thought under 200 was a magic price point.” In their case it’s worked (in the short term), but if you sold motorcycles or cereal would you set your retail price that way?
In a recent Rocky Mountain News article, Sergio Zyman, former chief marketing officer for the Coca-Cola Company, chided the ski industry “as an example of old-style marketing that is no longer effective. It’s no longer good enough to simply make someone feel good about your product. You must give consumers a reason for spending money on it.”
Sponsorships are yet another example. The mountain bike industry, while small compared to skiing, seems much more sophisticated in regard to outside-the-industry sponsorships. (Although the mountain-bike industry’s advertising seems just as clueless.) The ski industry seems to be leaving a lot of marketing power on the table in regards to its outside sponsorships. Our sponsorships should become significant fusion marketing efforts that multiply our reach far beyond what’s currently being achieved.
The basic principals of marketing are the same no matter what your product. Chocolates or chairlifts. Airline seats or snow. Yet how many of you reading this know the five steps the customer goes through in the buying process? How many of you can cite the research about the effectiveness of left-hand vs. right-hand ad pages (don’t assume now!), black-and-white vs. color, frequency vs. size? Who out there knows why the direct marketing industry sends you half-a-dozen separate sheets of paper with little peel-off stickers when it asks you to join the CD club? Who among the marketers in this industry knows what “cognitive dissonance” means and how it applies to advertising?
Take this test. Grab a copy of Ski or Skiing, find some ads which have run several issues, and tape over or crayon out the name of the product, resort, etc. Then ask 10 readers (not the guys on your sales staff or anyone at your resort – ask real customers and folks who read Ski and Skiing) to glance at the ads and tell you who the advertiser is. Or poll the marketing guys in the industry and see how many actually have degrees in marketing; which ones have come from large agencies; or who have managed successful marketing campaigns outside the ski industry.
Marketing by trial-and-error was done decades ago in many industries. Do we in the ski industry really have a clue as to what the customer wants in the way of pass prices, window prices, freebies, specials, deals, packages, snow reports, events? Do we understand how to present and differentiate our USP (unique selling proposition) and do we know what benefit statements connect most deeply with our consumer? Are we packaging lifts, lodging, rentals in the most compelling manner for the consumer, or are we creating our packages by copying what everyone else does? Has anyone asked the customer lately what type of package they want?
At the same NSAA conference cited above, several outside-the-industry presenters (including Nolan Rosall from RRC Assoc. and Rob Smith from Focal Point/Z-Sport) noted that the ski industry is very low on the scale of marketing research; of understanding customers; and of pricing to customers’ desires. These outside experts were surprised that the industry was “shocked” that ski school revenues increased at Northstar after the resort began offering free lessons. Shocked? Has anyone out there been to the grocery store lately? Do sales of Ritz crackers go down when the nice little ladies give away free samples of Ritz in the aisles? Maybe we should give away free ski lessons with every shaped ski rental, and free shaped ski rentals with every lesson. (Actually, we shouldn’t. That would be how ski-industry marketing has been done in the past. What needs to be done first is research into the customer’s wants and needs. Only then should we offer free lessons or rentals or whatever.)
I don’t mean to say there aren’t smart, professional, successful marketers in the industry. Yet I do know that when I chatted with many marketing people in this industry that few seemed to have the basic marketing foundation skills and knowledge usually taken for granted in other fields. Maybe if the ski industry was run by folks more interested in databases than in spreadsheets; by people with backgrounds in direct mail rather than in real estate; then we might see a lot more research-based, targeted, creative, and effective marketing.
The snowsports industry has done some wonderful things. And the industry is moving in some good directions (year-round resorts and activities, selling the overall mountain “experience”), but from this outsider’s view the industry is still treading water, talking to itself, stuck in the past, and too busy being cool. This is a fantastic sport and industry. It still has tremendous untapped potential.