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November 2008

Driving Business

Ski Maine launches a statewide pilot ride-share program this season, just in time to combat high gas prices.

Written by Scott Andrews | 0 comment

Can ski areas drive business by changing their customers’ driving habits? That’s the idea behind the Ski Maine Trip Planner, a first-in-the-nation statewide ride-sharing program. Under the scheme, jointly developed and promoted by the Ski Maine Association and a state transportation agency, skiers and snowboarders will be encouraged to form carpools by going online and using ride-matching software originally developed for midweek commuters.

The Trip Planner program is entirely funded by GO MAINE, an official state transportation agency. Ski Maine executive director Greg Sweetser expects that the program will be fully operational during the coming season. New Hampshire and Vermont are also expected to sign on, creating a regional program, although their level of participation this winter is uncertain.

Promising Concept

The basic ride-matching software is well proven. A skier or rider goes online and registers, supplying home address plus basic data on skiing/riding preferences: favorite area, desired days and times. When two preference profiles match—for example, two skiers wanting to travel from Portland to Sunday River, leaving early Friday morning and returning late afternoon—the computer notifies each and sets up e-mail communication. From there, it’s up to the users themselves to connect and complete the process.

GO MAINE licenses the RidePro programming and geographic database package from Trapeze Software, an international company with eight offices in North America. Thousands of commuters in greater Portland, the state’s most densely populated region, use it already.

In RidePro, each employer’s physical location is pinpointed on a Google map, and ride-matching is based on the home addresses of the users. The Ski Maine Trip Planner includes several key modifications. Most importantly, the location of each ski area is loaded into the database, and there’s no presumption of Monday-through-Friday travel. This custom adaptation of RidePro is the first application specifically created for recreational users, according to Carey Kish, manager of GO MAINE.

Sweetser and Kish have been discussing the idea for about two years. With the recent surge in gasoline prices, they believe that the timing is perfect. The most basic on-ramp will be a direct link from the Ski Maine website. Association members will also be able to link to the program from their own websites.

Sweetser likes GO MAINE’s track record and anticipates success this winter. “Commuting workers are using the current trip planner,” he says. “It has demonstrated success in the state of Maine. The new version, which includes the ski trip component, is a much more user-friendly Internet application.”

Promising Prospects

Areas with the greatest prospects initially are three within a two-hour drive of Portland: Shawnee Peak (45 miles), Mt. Abram (65 miles) and Sunday River (75 miles). For Shawnee, the logic is ineluctable: It’s within commuting range of Portland, has a large drive-up business, and offers night skiing six days per week.

Shawnee marketing director Melissa Rock is enthusiastic about using the planner. She likes how it jibes with her mountain and her customers. “I know that it would work for a ski area like ours, for sure,” she says.

Rock is especially eager to piggyback on two midweek promotions that have already proven effective: Monday Night Madness, a $12 evening ticket, and Carload Daze, which charges a flat $75 for all persons legally occupying a car or van. “When I know that we have a lot of people coming, it makes sense to hook up with something like this,” she adds.

Sweetser and Kish plan to monitor use of the trip planner this winter and improve it for next season. “It will not be perfect,” concedes Kish. “We’ll be getting feedback, from surveys and other means, and we’ll want to tailor it to better serve the ski areas or any other end users or travelers.”

From Sweetser’s perspective, the program will help promote Maine skiing beyond just making it easier for folks to get to the areas. Carpooling makes skiing more ecologically friendly, and therefore more appealing for some customers. Plus, the greening of the sport dovetails perfectly with the state’s pristine image and its other tourism promotions. And, Sweetser says, providing carpooling and ride-sharing opportunities may encourage people to break old habits. “I’m hopeful that people may try a new area this year,” he says.

That idea could create resistance if the concept expands to Vermont and New Hampshire, as planned. For example, Mad River Glen, Vt., already promotes ride-sharing on its website, and marketing director Eric Friedman has expressed reservations about joining a statewide Vermont program that might encourage other areas to share his customers.

But Friedman is gung-ho on carpooling. Mad River started a ride-sharing bulletin board on its website last year, and he was pleased with the first-year results. “By the middle of the season, you could see it had legs,” he says.

Friedman has updated Mad River Glen’s ride-share board for the 2008-09 season. “We’re putting it front-and-center on our home page,” he adds. “It’s a big deal.”

One way or another, it looks like ride-sharing is an idea whose time might have come.