Samantha Rufo, Gregg Blanchard, Mike Grasso, Rick Kahl, Jennifer Rowan
With another season on the books, we take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly in marketing efforts by mountain resorts.
Something strange is happening in the world of winter resort marketing. It seems that, after several years of expansion in media and experimentation in their use, this year has been one of (relative) maturity. Many areas are executing well in a variety of media, from print and e-mail to Instagram and Pinterest. And that’s a good thing.
With all this effective marketing swirling around us, we found less that was truly extraordinary. We also didn’t see any disastrous failures in social media. In the past resorts have fallen victim to bad news or public relations nightmares that went viral. Perhaps because everyone is becoming more media-savvy, nothing like that happened this year.
“We” includes a variety of marketing observers. Contributors to this year’s selections are Sam Rufo, president of NxtConcepts; Gregg Blanchard, the force behind slopefillers.com and communications director for Ryan Solutions; Mike Grasso, a Transworld Snowboarding contributor; and SAM’s own Jennifer Rowan and Rick Kahl.
Our list here is not a consensus effort. Nor is it a judged contest. Instead, it represents our individual picks and pans. We all look for advertising and marketing efforts that stand out from the crowd, for better or worse, and that seem to portray the resort, or target its key customers, especially well (or not). If they also appear particularly successful at driving business, all the better. It’s possible that we missed some truly remarkable efforts. If so, we’ll try to be more observant next year. We undertake this project to help resorts elevate their marketing, not to simply spout opinions.
This annual review also reveals trends, both good and bad, and we can’t stop from offering observations—constructive, we hope—about them.
For example, there were more contests across social media this past winter than days with below-zero temps. That, too, is a good thing. Social contests on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram can be a great way to build followers and engagement. However, if not done correctly—if the contest is hard to enter, has few regular updates, and resorts neglect to highlight winners—it can leave your followers confused, and could even count against you when the networks decide how many people to show your posts to.
Another: when you are promoting your various social media networks, keep personalization in mind. But don’t try to be more personal than you can be. For example, Deer Valley sent out an e-mail encouraging people to connect to them. But, with the Dear “First_Name” error, it came across as impersonal and had the opposite effect.
Remember, too, to keep your website up to date—in capability as well as content. It was only a few years ago when responsive design was a novelty. But a lot has changed. In the last three years, mobile website traffic has tripled—doubling in the last year alone—as phablets and dozens of other device sizes were introduced. Tablets alone went from a toy to a nearly 10 percent slice of North American website traffic.
Along the way, the cost of responsive design has steadily dropped as the practice became more common and reliable. Now, resort sites that aren’t responsive are giving a huge chunk of their website visitors a lackluster experience and flushing value down the tube along the way.
Even worse is a site that crashes your customers’ browsers. For example, there was an error on the Black Mountain (N.H.) site that caused your browser to freeze. A quick search of the error shows it had been active on the website for at least a week.
Now, to our picks:
Most consistent high-level marketing:
When it comes to a resort that was the model of consistent, high-level marketing, I think it’s hard to not think of Aspen/Snowmass. Rather than one or two flashy campaigns, the marketing team consistently churned out winner after winner. Starting with an upgrade to the Mountain Collective that aligned even more of the biggest resort brands under one pass, Aspen/Snowmass followed up with a beautifully crafted series of video narratives entitled, “Our Story."
Then, between environmental initiatives that earned awareness both locally and nationally, the company inked an extension for the Winter X Games contract that will continue to expose their brand to a global audience every season for years to come. Combine that with a social presence that matches the industry’s best imagery with vast reach, and you’ve got a resort brand that is doing marketing right. —GB
Worst first impression:
In an odd combination of bad timing and unpreparedness, Cherry Peak Resort, Utah’s first new area in 30 years, made a very poor first impression in what locals were immediately calling a recipe for disaster. Two different websites, one broken and the other working but not looking much better, multiple attempts at social profiles, poor design, and almost zero photography and visuals of the mountain led to a disappointing launch.
Cherry Peak, Utah
With only a photo showing lift towers (but no rope or chairs) and no day ticket or multi-day alternative, the resort put season pass sales front and center for the first month of its marketing push. With thousands of would-be fans eager to sample the new area before committing to a pass, Cherry Peak forced skiers down a road where the only answer was “no.” —GB
Worst name change:
When Ary Quiros became president of Burke Mountain, one of his first moves was simple and swift: he changed the mountain’s name to Q Burke. It didn’t take long for the community to notice and connect the change with the last name of the president. Employees and customers alike shook their heads at a move made by a man with virtually no marketing or branding experience. Then, after he cut ties with one of the community’s most beloved brands, Quiros fired off a series of e-mails to critics that further portrayed him as an arrogant, ego-driven leader.
Q Burke Mountain, Vt.
Burke was, and is, an incredible mountain with a talented team, but their leader painted them into a corner with virtually nothing to do but watch their brand slowly get buried under a messy pile of online indignation. —GB
Best season’s pass partnership:
Among the myriad ways of increasing sales lies a very simple concept: if you can increase the value of the product, an increase in sales will often follow. Rather than build infrastructure or slash prices as a means to this end, the Powder Alliance took a different, more intelligent approach. By creating a network of like-minded areas, with each offering reciprocal benefits, each new member of the alliance raised the collective, perceived value of the whole.
And by tacking this onto top-tier season pass options, marketers at nearly all of these mountains were able to drive more sales, more revenue, and even a little sampling from out-of-towners—with virtually no cost or work. —GB
Most clever tie-in to the Super Bowl:
When the Denver Bronco’s made the Superbowl, it’s little surprise that many Rocky Mountain resorts tried to capitalize. But rather than knee-jerk reactions of blue and orange clad skiers, Telluride did something that is proving more and more effective in today’s marketing culture: they used video to tell a story. Starting in town, a Broncos flag was transported by locals, families, park rats, and ski patrollers alike up the slopes of the mountain to a peak overlooking their famously beautiful slice of Colorado.
Each viewer didn’t just get excited for the game, they were exposed to Telluride’s best features. The high production value and smart distribution helped this video get picked up by dozens of national media outlets and earned the YouTube version alone more than 115,000 views. —GB
Worst timing of bad news:
The legal battle between Park City Mountain Resort and Talisker/Vail was already well underway, creating enough uncertainly about PCMR’s future. Then, as PCMR approached perhaps its most important season pass deadline of the fall, their neighbor/landlord pulled a fast one by issuing an eviction notice.
Park City Mountain Resort, Utah
The timing put doubt in the minds of Park City skiers at a very critical time. The notice was pawned off as a legal requirement; Vail and Talisker later said it wasn’t meant to put Park City’s season in jeopardy. Perhaps, but the move appeared to be a cheap shot intended to further Vail’s Epic Pass sales goals more than a required step in a legal playbook. —GB
Best use of Google+:
Before you get discouraged about the usefulness of Google+ for resort marketing, take a look at one area that is doing it right—Park City Mountain Resort.
Park City Mountain Resort
The area is engaging people inside and outside its circle with posts and event invites, and Google is thanking them by giving their search engine optimization a boost, too. —SR
Worst use of Google+:
These four disparate ski areas have an unlikely trait in common: They are promoting dead or outdated Google+ pages from their websites. While Google+ may never overtake or challenge Facebook, its current also-ran status is not an excuse to create an account and then leave it to languish—or even worse, promote a dead page with links from the resort website. And these four are not alone; the only reason I highlighted them is that I stopped searching after 15 minutes.
Bretton Woods, N.H., Greek Peak, N.Y., Paoli Peaks, Ind., Pine Mountain, Mich.
There’s a simple fix for this: start posting or remove the banner icons from your website.—SR
Best social media contest:
This area had one of the more thought-out and engaging contests this past winter. Although it was focused on Instagram #winteratliberty, they promoted it across their other networks, website and even created a video on YouTube. Sometimes it’s the simple things that can lead to a successful social campaign.
Liberty Mountain, PA
Here’s some of the things they did right:
• used images in Instagram to highlight how to enter (it is a photo sharing platform, after all)
• changed the Instagram description to highlight the contest
• promoted on all their social networks
• regularly announced and highlighted winners, which not only kept the winners happy, but helped build viral sharing and engagement.—SR
Worst execution of a race contest:
Be the first to ski each of the 26 mountains on the Epic Pass: it was a simple idea with powerful potential. Hundreds signed up, spent weeks of their lives and thousands of dollars along the way, all in the quest for a lifetime pass. Yes, the Epic Race turned more than 200 loyal Vail skiers into loud and proud brand advocates.
EpicRace, Vail Resorts
But when the final leaderboard was released, many racers noticed glaring issues with two of the winners. After countless appeals, requests, questions, and pieces of evidence that suggested something was awry, organizers failed to offer a suitable explanation, and nearly 80 percent of the once-enthusiastic racers were left with a sour taste in their mouths, unable to speak so highly of a once-in-a-lifetime contest. Even race winners aren’t sure how to talk about the brand they once loved. It’s hard to pinpoint where it went wrong, but it’s painfully clear that it did. —GB
Best e-mail campaign:
Every day I get dozens of resort marketing e-mails in my inbox from mountains all over the country. One sender, however, always stood out: Steamboat. Instead of using multiple sections with multiple offers like many resort e-mails, Steamboat made an all-in bet on smart segmentation combined with one, clear message.
The result was a beautifully designed template with focused, visual cues. Fonts were increased, and copy was cut from the typical 150+ words to as few as 25. Rather than hope that the recipient found one item appealing within a long list of options, Steamboat stuck with its best offer and made it impossible to miss, extremely easy to act on, and incredibly effective along the way. —GB
Best lemonade made from a real lemon:
Last season, Jackson Hole accidentally sent a message to its entire e-mail list that was only intended for soon-to-be-arriving guests. Instead of panicking, they whipped up a lighthearted apology titled “Our Moosetake” and quickly followed up the error with an honest, Jackson-themed, positive reply.
Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Instead of being met with frustration, their mistake triggered dozens of cheerful replies, perhaps best represented by this one: “Damn! I thought I had planned a trip and forgotten about it. I think you made a smart marketing ‘oops.’ Got me thinking that we should be coming to JH this summer.” Quick thinking from the marketing team turned a potential negative into a huge positive. —GB
Next Best social media contest:
Steamboat’s Boat Load Sweeps was clever. I loved the pop-up alert message the minute you went to the Steamboat website. The only way to get into the site was to either click the alert away or enter the contest. There was no way you could miss it. It was a simple way to get more people engaged. —SR
Worst social media contest:
This campaign seemed like an afterthought. Where Liberty left enough time—the entire season—for people to visit the ski area and amass images, White Pine ran its contest for about a week. The only promotion I could find was a blog post on its website and a post on its Facebook page.
White Pine Ski Area, WY
Oddly, the area wanted people to “Like” its Facebook page to enter, but e-mail the image. I’m not sure how they could track that. The biggest error, though: the lack of a post or other follow up to announce the winner. The area had said it would highlight the winner on a specific day on Facebook, but never did. The moral: don’t do something unless you have the time to make it a success. —SR
Best recruiting of social media players:
It really helps to understand your market. The Millennials may know how to effectively use hashtags and photo sharing sites, but what about the Baby Boomers and Gen Xer’s who may have missed that class? Vail set up a social “lesson” page to teach moms how to Instagram their trip.
End result? Happy moms and a huge boost to their social media channels. —SR
Best show of faith in the product:
Love them or hate them, social review sites are a huge force in deciding where people will choose to visit. Kudos to Sugarbowl for embracing these sites. While most ski areas will highlight Facebook and Twitter, Sugarbowl added TripAdvisor and Yelp to their website banner links.
Sugar Bowl, Calif.
Why do this when both good and bad reviews will be seen? It adds value for the guests. And it shows Sugarbowl is not only concerned about live customer service, but also virtual service too. —SR
Best immediate customer service:
Aspen/Snowmass has taken the next step in customer service by offering a “live chat.” This used to be something only tech support sites did. Today, all businesses interested in selling to the under 30 crowd should add it to their communication arsenal.
The Aspen/Snowmass website offers several options for reaching someone at the resort, from the traditional phone call or e-mail to the cutting edge of Twitter and even a popup live chat box on the website. Need to ask a question, but don’t feel like picking up a phone (it’s a Millennial thing)? With one click of a button you can do an online chat. —SR
Best resort app: Sherpa,
Copper Mountain took a chance on a very simple idea—customer service—and it paid off in spades. Shunning the typical shotgun approach of other resort apps, the marketing team worked with a local agency to develop a one-of-a-kind platform. The system let Copper drop geo-tagged gems of assistance all across the mountain. Using the GPS in a skier’s phone, the app would teach skiers about the area around them as they skied.
Copper Mountain, Colo.
The app notes such tidbits as who a trail was named after, when new terrain was opening, deals in the restaurants they were passing by, and which side of the run is most likely to have the best snow. After just a few months, tens of thousands of such advice and factoids had been unlocked by Copper skiers, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. —GB
Best resort branding:
Mount Snow is well known in the East for having an epic terrain park. Carinthia isn’t just a terrain park, it’s an entire mountain face, and it’s now its own brand. Mount Snow is giving snowboarders a sense of ownership, their very own place on the mountain where families and skiers are scarce and rad park features are plentiful.
Carinthia, Mount Snow, Vt.
That slight separation from the mothership allows Carinthia to be more edgy in its ads than Mount Snow, and the ads hit all the right notes: they showcase snowboarders doing good tricks on cool features, include social media tags, rider and photographer credits, website, a clear branded title, and cool illustration. —MG
Best attention grabber (and keeper):
Year after year, Bear delivers creative and unique ads that hook a reader with bright colors and cool concepts. The background consists of an awesomely crafted, brightly colored clay scale model—and that’s just the background. The well-framed, scrapbook-style photos show off the awesome park features, and they showcase well-known professional snowboarders.
Bear Mountain, Calif.
Riders drive park progression, and with innovative snowboarders like Joe Sexton and Scott Stevens frequenting Bear, it must be good. (We are only showing the lefthand side of this spread.)—MG
Best visual stimulation:
The tagline, “We love parks & pow!” is awesome. The area highlights the two things snowboarders care about most in this world. The photo is unusual in that most resort snowboard ads focus on the park. You know a photo is good when you open the page and think, “damn, I wish I was that guy!”
Summit at Snoqualmie, Wash.
This ad transcends all styles; nearly any snowboarder can look at it and feel the urge to hop in and get some of that waist-deep snow. With so many complicated advertising and marketing campaigns in the magazines and in social media, simplicity can be a great contrast. Nothing is more straightforward than selling luscious pow to snowboarders. —MG
Instead of taking me to beautiful Whistler, this ad transports me to my living room couch, eating pizza rolls and waiting for my GoPro footage to upload. Editing raw film can be horribly tedious: sifting through hours of odd views of your boots, random accidental clips, and countless shots of you and your friends saying “is it on?” Those are the painful memories this ad invokes.
The shots in the ad are small, and the ones that aren’t of gloves, armpits or other miscellaneous, yet typical, GoPro detritus show snowboarders hitting park jumps—which pretty much all look identical through the wide-angle lens of a GoPro. The idea is to pair the ad to a web video, but the ad doesn’t inspire me to watch the video. Collaborations and partnerships are good, and so is pairing online and print advertising, but excitement for the mountain should be the end result. This seems more like an off-target plug for GoPro. —MG
Despite their sizeable presence, Peak Resorts’ ads this year were disappointing. The tagline “Best on the east? Bitch we might be” is a sad attempt at being cool. It’s like that obnoxious little kid in the high school cafeteria failing miserably at sounding like a hard rap gangster. Assuming that we’re thugs who listen to Lil’ Wayne isn’t a good way to attract an audience that values individuality. A good snowboarding ad speaks to all lifestyles within snowboarding.
The Peak cornfield spread is little better. The first time I saw the “features” growing out of the cornstalks I thought they were razorblades. The tagline “We spent all summer growing your features” isn’t terrible, but the visual was so confusing it hardly registered.
Here’s a tip: when advertising a terrain park in a snowboard magazine, try to show either a snowboarder, your terrain park, or a snowboarder in your terrain park.—MG
Best responsible use of the land:
Our lifestyle as snowboarders relies on the consistency of our winters. We realize that to keep riding for decades into the future we all need to start caring more about the environment. Aspen’s methane-plant ad sets a new standard for resort responsibility.
The photo is flashy and bright. Grab-grinds have become really popular over the last few years, and the photo is really unique—it draws attention to the snowboarder and the powerplant equally. Aspen knows what snowboarders care about and what they want to see. The info paragraph explains how Aspen captures methane from a local mine and turns it into millions of kilowatts of energy each year. That’s as innovative as anything riders are doing in the park and pipe. —MG
Most vague image:
This year’s set of Baldface ads fall into the near-miss category. Several spreads feature fanciful paintings and drawings of Baldface mountain, framed by trippy borders and bright colors. The text adds factoids like ‘20 beers on tap’ and how many acres of riding are available.
Baldface Lodge, B.C.
Cool, but Baldface is an awesome destination for snowboarders and skiers alike, which none of the above conveys. I’ve seen some awesome photos of the epic backcountry riding there. Why not just show that? A good photo beats an illustration any day. At least half the people buy these mags for the pictures anyway. When you got it, flaunt it! —MG
We don’t mean to pick on Canadian resorts, but we couldn’t help it. Like Baldface, Retallack isn’t technically a resort, but a lodge featuring cat riding, skiing and mountain biking—and that’s really the only useful piece of information here. No location, no website, no social media; this could be a cartoon.
The location isn’t even listed, let alone a website, social media handle, or anything to help the reader understand what’s going on in the ad, for all they know it’s just a cartoon. Why is a WWF-esque, character with a snow gun for an arm the focus here (do they even make snow up there?)? I saw this ad in several ski magazines this year, and while that’s not an automatic back mark, most ads in snowboard mags aim directly at snowboarders. Smart, huh?—MG
Most creative messaging:
Ski Utah’s several “text message” ads are a clever concept ably executed—so clever we stole the idea (with permission) for our cover. They send the message of “you can put yourself on the greatest snow on earth in just a few hours” in a fun way, and in 25 words or less.
The text message concept works well, too—it’s hard to resist the chance to sneak a peek at someone’s most personal communications. That type of engagement is what marketing is all about. —RK
Best use of a cartoon:
Cartoons often fail to deliver as well as photos, but this is an exception. The oddball minimalist artwork stands out from more-typical ads.
Jay Peak, Vt.
It captures the real anguish of overworked parents and the carefree joy of children at play in an arresting and fun way. And it manages to deliver a strong sales message ($400 a night for a family of four) without overpowering the cartoon itself. Mission accomplished. —RK
Most confusing message (and visual):
For me, this a worst, visually. The words are almost impossible to read, and nothing in the image compelled me to try and figure it out. And what is the deal with the pink flamingos? Does the resort celebrate bad lawn art? Nothing in this made me want to go to Sun Valley (even though Sun Valley is one of my faves). —JR
Sun Valley, Ida.
I almost like the spread version of this ad, which features a wide-open, luscious bowl that’s just begging for a few more tracks. But even then, the message bums me out. First, the ad talks about burning thighs; I want to imagine arcing perfect pow turns. Second, I don’t have any lazy parts (not that I care to think about, anyway), and if I did, I don’t want them to spoil moments like this. You had me at 3,400 vertical feet of untracked snow and no liftlines; why ruin it by reminding me I can’t handle it without pain? —RK
Cruellest abuse of a snowman:
We like much of the “Before Aspen” campaign, and Aspen/Snowmass generally portrays its image effectively. But the poor snowman melting away in a hot tub in the “Perfect Conditions” ad is not enjoying perfect conditions for him.
Also, the ad shows poor conditions—an icy hot tub?—for us other characters. —RK
Best season’s pass promotion:
This four-page fold-out ad is a perfect example of how one dramatic image, with simple wording, can deliver a huge message. One pass and I can ride 26 mountains in four countries? That is, indeed, epic. And the simple web address on the lower right is just right. Sometimes epic should be understated. —JR
Most ambitious near-miss campaign:
The imagery for Squaw’s “Skiing has a soul” series nearly overcomes the ads’ sometimes pretentious and forced language. Yes, we all know skiing has a soul, and the force is strong at Squaw. But the text for these ads has no poetry or style, and so comes across less soulful than it should. Best example of this might be the kid’s ad, “He makes me so nervous/ proud.”
Squaw Valley, Calif.
If that schussing, tucking 7-year-old is your kid, his beyond-your-control, too-fast dash doesn’t just make you nervous; it fills you with a roiling mix of raw fear, sheer exhilaration, and heart-filling pride. It’s not easy to capture that in words, but try harder. Even the kid in the image below deserves better. —RK
Best use of little kids:
Park City does a great job of targeting their messages. As we already noted, their snowboard messaging is always spot on. But they also know how to speak to parents. This ad, featuring an adorable grinning kid, would make any parent imagine a ski vacation full of nothing but laughter and good times (as if). And the tagline of creating a “remember when” moment is just perfect. It automatically made me remember my own family ski vacations and how much fun we had. See? The tears and trauma moments always fade with time and only the good memories remain.
Park City, Utah
It is worth noting that Snowbird’s advertising also featured a young girl, about the same age, also with a pink helmet, also with an out-of-focus family in the background.
The tagline “Bluebird” falls short of Park City’s...perhaps you Utah resorts should compare notes before the next marketing season. —JR
Crystal Mt., Wash.
This ad from Crystal Mountain is a head scratcher. First, I find the image creepy. I don’t want to think of a resort as ice cream melting in a bowl with a giant 10-year-old digging in. I mean, just how big is this girl? She’s about to eat a gondola full of people! At least she’s in the prerequisite pink helmet. —JR
Best use of #1 ranking:
Jackson generally did a big and impressive job in touting its ascendance to #1 in the Ski Magazine resort survey. It’s a significant achievement, and Jackson played it well. Its several executions let imagery tell the story. And why not? Jackson’s visuals are spectacular. But we especially liked the repeated use of Ski’s #1 badges in the ad that appeared in Mountain. Hey, those readers may not have seen the Ski Resort Guide, right?
Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Did we mention that the readers of Ski voted Jackson Hole the #1 resort in North America? —RK
Worst outcome for a cool concept:
We have been a fan of Deer Valley’s spare, almost quiet ads of the past several years. Their simplicity stands out and captures the uncrowded, intimate, rich feel that guests enjoy at the resort. This year’s creative, while equally unique, fails to achieve the same clarity.
Deer Valley, Utah
Ironically, the “focus” theme appears a bit messy and confused. The narrow depth of field in the image is not enough to actually focus us on whatever Deer Valley is trying to sell. It’s a nice concept in concept, but it takes a lot to make it succeed in reality—and it doesn’t succeed here. —RK