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January 2010

Keeping Up With the Joneses

Remember who your best customers are.

Written by Elia Hamilton, Mountain Manager, Mount Snow, VT | 0 comment

There’s this family out there—Jane, Phil, and two kids Jonny, 15, and Sally, 13—who all love to ski during Christmas vacation and President’s week. They bring along Uncle Herb, the 52-year-old single car salesman, because they think he might be able to meet a nice woman.

They tackle the mountain with a spirit of adventure and exploration that is refreshed every time they get on a chairlift. They are loyal to one mountain because the experience feels new to them every time, yet familiar enough to inspire confidence. There are plenty of trails that are comfortable, plenty that test their ability, and of course, the terrain park, which they discover on their third run of the day.

So much untouched corduroy! No crowds! Of course they know “Booterville” is the only park at Mystery Mountain, because the whole family got together in the morning for a map refresher over bagels. Upon arriving at the top, they spent several minutes wading through the kid-friendly language on the warning sign—no question this was the trail for them. As Jonny airs at least five feet past the lip of the takeoff on the first 40-foot jump, Sally hops her way up to the lip of the second, and their parents stand just below the landing knuckle of the third, in awe of the amount of snow wasted on this one trail. Uncle Herb is already waiting at the bottom because he made some epic GS turns down all the landing hills.

They never thought skiing could be so fun again.

But they didn’t anticipate Super Local Luke, fresh off his second Red Bull of the day, treating his park as if it were a wave on the North Shore. Luke does his best mule-kick method past Jonny’s head, scares the little girl out of Sally on his way over the next jump, and uses the most demeaning words he knows to belittle Jane and Phil while sliding on his ass down the third.

Some happy words are exchanged between parties, and everyone goes separate ways. Luke gets his wish—that is one less family he will ever see in the park—and confirms all Phil’s stereotypes about park rats. He will attend every season passholder meeting from now on to argue that parks are a waste of money, catering only to bratty techno latchkey kids.

Meanwhile, Herb waits at the bottom, wondering what is taking everyone so long. He looks around and stares, mouth agape, at the immaculately groomed, 18-foot tall, 450-foot-long curved ditch in the base area… Why isn’t anyone skiing in that thing?

Question is, who was the park built for?

Mystery Mountain only has the acreage and resources to build one park, so why not go with the one that will get them the badass reputation?

But people like the Joneses come because this is where they have been loyal customers for years. Luke tells all his buddies how to scam volunteer days in the park, while the Joneses pay full price for season passes for the whole family every year, stay in the hotel, and buy $10 cheeseburgers. Who pays the bills?

Bread and Butter
We get so caught up in the hype as park builders, trying to prove we can build big, innovative features, that we often forget about our bread and butter. Sure, we can argue marketing value all day long, but it is word of mouth that does the real work these days. Last time I checked, we were in the business of selling lift tickets. We want those ticket buyers to leave our ski area with the most positive experience possible. Perhaps they encounter some challenges they cannot overcome, but most importantly, they drive away with a handful of successes that will infect their dreams that night.

For some, the solution is simple: Have multiple runs with adequate staffing dedicated to nothing but freestyle terrain. A little jibber park, an average-Joe park, Hollywood park, and so on. But is this the reality for most?

The most difficult thing is taking a step back to think like beginners again. The most suitable features may be much too simple for our jaded minds. But really, why not keep repeating the same, basic, flat box or twenty-foot jump several times in one run? As long as the flow is good, it provides newbies with the repetition necessary to actually improve, not just survive, and the more experienced group an opportunity to work on tricks. An advanced slider can have fun on well-built simple features, while a lower intermediate has a horrible time on even the most manicured large jump. So build features that challenge users to improve their bag of tricks, and not just making it to the landing. Only after we offer the most basic of features and have the resources to move up from there should we take that step.

As much as my skateboarder roots shrivel up and die when I say it, it’s time to build for the Jones family. Make them feel good about their park experience and cater to what they want. Grow with the guests, at their pace. Pay attention to how guests interpret the features you put out there (yes, sit and watch, on a Saturday.) Change the feature if they aren’t using it the way you had envisioned. Ask them what they want.

It’s better to be heckled by the few real rippers than scorned by the masses of beginners. The complete family unit who gets out there and actually enjoys their terrain park experience together is likely to be the one that still comes to the mountain 10 years from now.

Granted, there is another generation of sliders that is demanding more refinement, along with a healthy amount of experimentation, in the parks. It’s a generation of new professionals who were park rats a decade ago. Some now have kids and disposable income, but all ache to use the mountain the only way they know how—jumping and jibbing and playing. But we have to take care of our mainstream market first. You don’t offer five-star dining without first making sure your chicken fingers are dialed, do you?

Eventually, the gap will shrink and the next time the Jones family rolls up to the park, they will continue on with confidence. The park is not a cordoned off special members-only trail, but part of the whole resort experience that all guests understand. . .then we can be one big happy family again.