Increasing the conversion rate of first-timers and beginners into core skiers has long been a major aim for resorts continent-wide. Yet despite continued capital investment, manufacturers’ improvements in gear and clothing, and enhanced teaching methods, the U.S. conversion rate for adult lesson-takers has barely edged up, from 15 percent to 17 percent, over the past two decades, according to research firm RRC Associates (conversion rates for non-lesson-takers and children are not known). This rate has failed to reverse the declines in both total skier visits and the number of unique skiers and riders over the past several years. We’ve all heard it before: If we are to significantly increase trial and conversion, we must not only attract more newcomers, but also enhance their experience.
The variety of research findings below, which includes ways to enhance the learning experience and increase the conversion rate, offers some insights on what can be done. All are based on our analysis of clients’ guest survey data, as well as feedback from the resorts.
Key research findings gained from research conducted last season for 65 ski resorts across the U.S., and from several first-timer studies:
1. Lessons. Depending on a resort’s location, size, and focus, one-third to one-half of first-timers take lessons. That means up to two-thirds of newcomers do not benefit from a professional lesson.
2. Beginner Experience. The overall visit experience ratings for beginners are significantly higher than for intermediates and advanced/experts. This is encouraging, but still fails to overcome many of the obstacles to conversion.
3. Motivation. The primary motivation for first-timers and beginners to take a learn-to lesson is encouragement from family (especially parents) and/or friends. Some first-timers say they have always wanted to ski/ride, or believe it is a good way to get outdoors in winter.
4. Children. Children under 18 represent roughly one-half of those taking learn-to lessons. Perhaps more important, resorts indicate that the highest conversion rate among all newcomers is for children who take lessons, whose parents ski and/or ride, and who are encouraged by their family. Families appear to provide stronger support than friends.
5. Good Intentions. Seventy-five percent of those over age 17 who took a learn-to lesson indicated they would “definitely” continue (Promoters); only 5 percent indicated a neutral or negative intention (Detractors). However, a much lower percentage—52 percent—rated their lesson experience “excellent,” while 12 percent were Detractors. This suggests two things. First, there is still room to improve the lesson experience. And second, the higher “likelihood to continue” may reflect support and encouragement received from family and friends, even if the lesson wasn’t amazing.
6. Promoter Scores. Learn-to lesson-takers’ Net Promoter Scores for “likelihood to recommend taking a lesson at the resort” range from 45 percent to 80 percent, with one-half between 60 percent and 70 percent.
7. Two Key Drivers. The two key “drivers” or determinants of satisfaction with the overall lesson experience are making progress and having fun. Having fun is a powerful emotion, and is more important for learn-to and youth lessons than for more advanced lessons, in which making progress is the key driver.
8. Big Upside. The potential upside of increasing the conversion rate is much greater than the National Demographic Study might suggest. The study indicates that first-timers and beginners represent only 14 percent of total skier visits. But this number significantly undercounts children under 18—a higher percentage of whom are likely to be first-timers and beginners—as they are generally not surveyed. According to the Kottke Report, children constitute 29.4 percent of snowsports visits, nearly triple the Demographic Study’s estimate of 10.6 percent.
There are several steps resorts can take to enhance the experience of first-timers and beginners and increase their conversion.
1. Encourage more learn-to lessons. According to last season’s Kottke Report, the share of visits that included a lesson was essentially unchanged at 7.5 percent, and the proportion of first-timer lessons was also unchanged. What to do? Make lessons more accessible. There are many ways to do this: Offer price incentives, incorporate instructors into the rental process—the NSAA Conversion Cookbook has plenty of suggestions. Also, join broader efforts at the state and national level. According to the Kottke Report, 20 percent of reporting resorts still do not participate in Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month.
2. Measure lesson performance. How important is the learn-to lesson in the conversion equation? If your lesson takers have a significantly higher conversion rate than non-lesson takers, create additional incentives for taking lessons—and promote them aggressively.
3. Survey all lesson takers. Especially those taking learn-to lessons. To maximize feedback, use exports of contact information from your point-of-sale system to augment other survey techniques. Ideally, you should know how well you’ve done with every lesson-taker.
4. Oversample beginners. If you collect guest contact info for post-departure surveys, consider “oversampling” learn-to lesson-takers. This source of guest contact information produces a much higher completion percentage than all other sources, including POS.
5. Pinpoint your surveys. To collect the most useful guest feedback, create separate survey questions for each lesson type/level, or create “filters” so you can zero in on first-timers and beginners to gauge how well you’re serving them. Include open-ended questions, so that guests can explain why they gave you the ratings they did.
6. Heed Net Promoter Scores. Measure guests’ likelihood to recommend taking a lesson at your resort. If your lessons’ Net Promoter Score is below 60, boosting it should be a priority.
7. Respond to everyone. Follow-up promptly with, at a minimum, every Detractor lesson-taker, and with others who provide valuable feedback.
8. Offer incentives to return. Give learn-to lesson-takers an incentive to return for future lessons and visits—especially those rating their lessons poorly—before the respondent exits the survey. Offer Detractors an extra incentive, such as a “satisfaction guarantee.”
9. Track instructor effectiveness. Measure the effectiveness of each instructor, and provide additional coaching as appropriate. Add the instructor’s name to the POS export, and attach it to each completed survey. Then tabulate results by instructor.
10. Prioritize people skills. For learn-to instructors, emphasize the importance of people skills over technical skills. Having fun is most important for learn-to and children’s lessons. Beginners want to make progress during each lesson, but many will not return if they do not have fun.
Sensitize your instructors to the importance of lesson-takers’ emotions. Instructors should take steps to reduce negative emotions like fear, anxiety, and frustration, and enhance the positive emotions of fun, success, happiness, and confidence. Class sizes that are too large to facilitate engaging each student harm the experience.
11. Address conversion obstacles. Determine the primary factors affecting conversion at your resort—age, motivations for trying snowsports, etc. Then address these factors, and provide solutions for all major segments of your audience.
12. Foster learn-to communities. Thanks to the support children receive from their families—particularly from parents who ski or ride—children convert at a higher rate than adults. Hence, resorts should encourage or create communities of adults who want to take up skiing/riding at colleges, companies, and other organizations. These communities can serve as support groups. Encourage instructors to reach out to these adult lesson-takers. Marketing can also automate follow-up, post-lesson emails to them. Continued engagement is key.
13. Analyze loyalty factors. Conduct satisfaction and “loyalty drivers analysis” to quantify what is most important to your first-time lesson-takers.
14. Quantify the ROI, or “lifetime value” of a core skier. This can demonstrate the value of discounted lesson costs and aggressive incentives to encourage first-timers and beginners to take lessons.
Enhancing the experience of first-timers and beginners will accomplish two key goals:
1. Generate more return visits to move the conversion rate higher.
2. Help attract more newcomers through word of mouth.
Stronger incentives, such as lower-cost lessons and discounted season passes upon completion of a lesson program, can help meet these goals—as some innovative resorts have discovered. But enhancing the beginner experience—the ultimate means of raising the conversion rate—requires a deeper understanding of beginners than resorts currently have. So: Identify your best targets for conversion, provide more effective instruction—with an increased attention to lesson-takers’ emotional needs—and generate more in-depth feedback to ensure you are truly enhancing the learn-to experience.