“In this economic climate, the more partners you have, the more it spreads the cost and spreads the message deeper,” says David Ingemie, president of Snowsports Industries America (SIA), a longtime proponent of resort-retail partnerships. “When you consider that every shop has an average of probably 10,000 customers, that’s a significant number of people. If you can convince a retailer to partner with you, you can reach 10,000 people way easier than trying to reach 10,000 by yourself.”
Bus groups are one obvious way to partner with a retail shop and bring some of those tens of thousands to your area. But how do you make it worthwhile for both partners? Often, there’s little or no money in it for the ski shop—some even admit they run bus groups at a loss. “A good partnership is a very difficult thing to do, because retailers are interested in selling hardgoods,” says Jerry Principe, sales manager for SnoSearch, a ski and snowboard travel company that runs day bus trips out of New England-based Ski Market’s 16 retail shops to several resorts in the Northeast. “It’s tough for retailers all the way around in this economy.”
Even Ingemie admits a successful retail partnership can be difficult. “Part of the issue is the notion, ‘my customers, your customers,’” he says. “I know in the past, when ski resorts’ marketing was more grassroots, they were more open to working with retailers around these sorts of partnerships. Today, marketing is less grassroots. Resorts try to get people on their own, everybody does their own thing, everybody thinks they can do a better job themselves.”
But there are good reasons for collaboration. Bus trips can be a way for retailers to bring in new customers. That’s why Alpine Ski Shop in Sterling, Va., used to run three learn-to-ski bus groups to Massanutten. “The real value was the learn-to-ski component: getting customers in the store, out on the slopes for the first time,” says co-owner Tyler Bunch. The shop abandoned the program several years ago when people lost interest. If resorts were to work with shops once again to create new skiers and riders, though, both would benefit.
There are other issues. “Frankly, some areas see bus groups as competition,” says Jim Heldt, former owner of the Otto Hollaus Ski and Ride School, a traveling ski school that partners with Joe’s Ski Shop in St. Paul, Minn., to bring several buses of children to three ski areas (Welch Village, Wild Mountain, and Afton Alps). “They think that if somebody is coming to the area, they should be getting the entire revenue stream—rentals, lessons, food, lift ticket. They want everything instead of sharing revenue with the retailer, school, or whoever is bringing the group.”
Other areas may feel they do not need more people on the weekend, when most bus groups run. “I’m sure Ski Roundtop has not always been thrilled when we bring a busload of kids on a Saturday when they’re going to sell out anyway,” says Alan Davis, president of Princeton Sports in Columbia, Md., which brings several buses of children every winter to Ski Roundtop, Pa.
“Ski areas love the traveling school when it’s cold and windy,” Heldt says. “They may not be particularly enamored with it when it’s warm and sunny and snowed midweek, and they know the public is coming out in droves that weekend.”
So, just what is the value of a retail-resort bus partnership from a retailer’s point of view? “The value to us is huge,” says Joe Rauscher, owner of Joe’s Ski Shop in St. Paul, Heldt’s partner. “What I get out of it is a lot of families getting into skiing, contacts with people in the store for service work, new equipment.”
Brian Mulvany, manager of the Boston Ski Market, says bus trips increase a shop’s traffic. “Everyone who signs up for a trip comes into the store. They are a customer or potential customer.”
What about from a ski resort’s point of view? “You can’t put a value on getting somebody skiing under the age of 15,” says Davis, who estimates that over the last 20 years his bus trips have put 20,000 children on the slopes. “Bus trips are a way to get children into skiing in a good, safe manner. Getting kids skiing is one of the most valuable things a ski area can do. Then they’ve got a customer for life.”
[ed. note: Actually, we do know the lifetime value of getting kids involved in skiing and riding at a young age: $65,000 if they start at age 10, $19,000 if they start at age 25, according to the latest SIA data.]
“Bus groups can be a recurring revenue point for ski areas,” says Heldt.
How to Be a Good Partner
Despite the obstacles, retailers and resorts have a common need: customers. And that means that retail shops have a vested interest in helping resorts bring newcomers into skiing and snowboarding, and for keeping participants involved once they are past the beginner stage. So how can you make a partnership succeed?
1. Cast a wide net. Don’t overlook small or medium-size shops, says Brad Nelson, owner of Hi Tempo Ski, Snowboard & Sail in White Bear Lake, Minn., who runs a train trip to Whitefish, Minn., every year out of his shop.
“A big dealer may not have time to do this,” Nelson says. “Smaller shops do. Our customers come in the store and see my wife and me. A larger store owner is up in the office. We converse differently with our customers than a part-time sales associate might.”
2. Be aggressive on pricing. Remember, shops are not making much money on these trips. Their bus costs are fixed. The price you give them can make or break the trip. If you share some of the ticket revenue, a bus group will contribute to other parts of your revenue stream: food, lessons, rentals in some cases. Danzeisen & Quigley in Cherry Hill, N.J., for example, which runs about 20 bus groups a year, gives all the rental business to the resorts.
“We work out a program with the mountains where we don’t take any of the rentals,” says Bill Quigley, co-owner of the shop [ed. note: yes, D & Q’s Quigley is father to Gunstock’s Quigley]. “They do the rentals so the area gets something out of it. They also get all the food, and sometimes lessons as well.”
3. Make life easy for bus groups. Convenient loading and unloading areas are important. Ditto for friendly, efficient staff who can direct groups to ticket windows or the rental shop.
4. Show a retailer how to build a bus program. Crunch some numbers, show them how it can work. “You could go to a company and create a happy hour ski night or other outing through a retail shop,” says Heldt. “It could be a race night. It could have a wellness context. You could team up with a health insurance company and offer something with them. An area is only limited by its imagination or lack thereof.”
5. Finally, be patient. “It takes a fair amount of time to develop regularly scheduled trips as a function of your business,” says Bill DeTurris, co-owner of Emilio’s Ski Shop in Forest Hills, N.Y., which runs several bus groups to ski areas around the northeast. “It’s one thing to send a group for one day, it’s another to send a group every Saturday. It takes more effort, consistent effort, over a long period of time. You have to start and continue and continue, even if it doesn’t work perfectly at first.”
DeTurris says it is important to plan a program carefully and stick to it. “Don’t change it after the first time because it didn’t work,” he says. “You have to stay with it for a while. It takes some time to develop these programs. You have to plant the idea and get people interested in it. But it’s great when it works.”