The sun was out and the snow was soft at Mountain Creek one March Sunday this past ski season. The crowds were streaming in, ready to take on the first true spring-skiing day of the season. In queue for beginner terrain park lessons stood about 30-plus kids, chomping at the bit.
Sounds like an instant gold mine? Try again. Mountain Creek, in a wildly successful effort to boost long-term ski school profits, gave away those lessons for free, as it did every Sunday. That’s right, those 30-plus kids in line for true, professional guidance in a terrain park paid not one penny for the pleasure. They also got competition bibs and a “contest” feel, lots of interaction, a really cool medal and prizes.
What would make a mountain give away what most charge top dollar for? This step was the latest in a series of moves to establish a separate terrain-park-only section of the resort. And it has succeeded where other efforts failed. Best of all, the free lessons have fueled a 120-percent increase in paid lessons. The area’s bold gamble is now being seen as a brilliant marketing plan that is funneling a whole bunch of riders and free-skiers into more advanced lessons they actually pay for. The program, called “Twisted Kids,” debuted as a free Sunday-afternoon event this past season.
IF YOU BUILD IT . . .
Three years ago, the mountain opened its first-ever, all-mountain terrain park. For the first few years, though, the mountain struggled with getting folks jazzed up on the new arrangement. At the time that the idea was implemented, managers conceptualized roving “guides” who would give pointers and help people get the hang of a park. It seemed like a logical way to help launch the new concept.
But that plan, says Mountain Creek vice president of marketing Bill Benneyan, never came to fruition. “It was hard for people who get paid for lessons to get their heads around this,” he says. The area had introduced learn-to park lessons called Switch, and the idea was to make the lesson program profitable. Offering lessons for free meant the snowsport school department had to pick up the tab, which would hit the bottom line. However, buy-in for Switch lessons was so low, the program was in danger of extinction. Faced with a choice of innovation or the slow death of Switch, the snowsport school took the Twisted option.
The resort also realized that there were other reasons for the park’s initial lack of success. While the area was inviting everyone into the park, it was using marketing and language that didn’t quite connect with the target market—it was too core. Explains Benneyan, it was “too-clever branding and marketing that didn’t make it clear . . . . unless you were already indoctrinated to the lingo and culture of the park.” At season’s end in 2009, customer surveys showed that while an impressive 70 percent of guests were very interested in the park, only about 36 percent were actually getting in there and using it. Fear of the unknown seemed to be holding them back.
“It’s like walking into a Harley dealership when you don’t know anything about motorcycles,” Benneyan says. Or, as one could imagine, being the foreign person on the New York train and trying to read the “learn to speak English school” poster that’s written in English. It just doesn’t work.
. . . INVITE ’EM IN
So, last summer, Benneyan and his team spent a lot of time thinking about those numbers, the lack of true flow to the park by all, and tried to figure out why, with the resort’s demographic and location, it was not “the ultimate learn-to park.” The answer was subtly simple. “We were good at learn-to, and good at park,” he says. “We just were not good at learn-to-park.”
And from there they came up with the idea of giving something away to make the Switch program more profitable. What if, they wondered, they found a fun and clever way to introduce kids (and therefore their parents) to the park? What if it was set up like kind of like a contest, with bibs and prizes, but it was actually a coaching session where kids could learn to use the park? And what if they got prizes, medals and most importantly, a true feeling of belonging there? That’s how Twisted kids was born.
GIVE A LITTLE . . .
It was turned over to the freestyle group, which was told to run it for free (not without raised eyebrows; as Benneyan points out, those same coaches depend on paid lessons to put food on their tables).
Success was almost instantaneous. Each Sunday, kids flocked in to register at noon and get in the park at 1. The coaches, as the program’s youtube video says, began showing kids everything from “how to slide your first box or dial in the 270 on.” Parents seemed thrilled, and many hung out to watch what was going on. All the while, the coaches were quietly getting one-on-ones with kids, helping them learn a trick, getting to know them, building their confidence, and whetting their appetite for more.
By disguising the intro as a contest, the resort made it more alluring to kids and parents. Coaches play games with them like a Shred version of Horse (do tricks to earn your letters to spell shred) and “snow dice,” a game where you roll the dice for what trick you’ll learn. Prizes are handed out freely and are pretty good (mini snowboards, etc) and everyone gets a medal.
Once the event is done, the resort almost immediately posts photos on its Facebook page. Kids start tagging themselves almost immediately, which means social media buzz with news of the event, and that draws even more kids into the fold.
. . . GET A LOT
The Twisted program has succeeded beyond expectations. Lessons in the paid Switch program increased 120 percent over last year. That’s right, 120 percent year over year. And when you think about it, Benneyan says, that came at “a relatively low cost. We are talking about a few instructors on a Sunday afternoon.”
The benefits of the program’s success go beyond even that exponential increase in paid lessons. The resort now sees a smoother, better-run park, because skiers and riders are taking the time to learn how to use it correctly, in a way that is not intimidating.
“Using our park can be like driving on the freeway when you are learning to drive. There are runs and flows and ways to do things. When folks learn how to manage that, it adds up to a good experience for everyone,” Benneyan says.
It also has opened riders and skiers (the program draws mostly riders) to the idea that getting out there can be fun in almost any weather. “We are hearing customers say, ‘we don’t need perfect snow to get out and have fun in the park,’” he notes, which should mean an increase in visits on less-than-stellar days.
All in all, the doubters have seen the light. Benneyan thinks back to that initial reaction from the coaches, who were worried about losing income from the freebies. “I’d say those guys have had their ‘aha’ moment,” he says. And the program has done something the area didn’t expect, he adds: it casts a really cool vibe across the resort. “That’s just as important, you know. It’s fun for us, too.” Now how about that?
This year we put a lot of focus on growing Mountain Creek’s Park Education program. All visitors to the terrain park—where we now do more than half of all our visits to the resort— viewed both Smart Style and our own park safety videos, and took a 10-question awareness quiz. We distributed more than 50,000 passes to visitors after they passed the test. It’s not foolproof, but everybody is now aware that they are in a 100 percent park environment and know the rules.
We handed the daily execution and ambassadorship of this program to our Switch team, our branded learn-to-freestyle program. Who better to talk one-on-one with guests, particularly the few but very vocal “why the h*ll do I need this? I just want to go ski” types?
It was a major commitment of manpower, and true to corporate form, the first question was, ‘”Where should I charge out these hours, since we’re not actually teaching?”
But the more the Switch staff talked with guests, the more the guests booked lessons. And that invigorated the Switch coaches and the presentation of the Park Pass program.
From there we expanded the Switch presence to be ubiquitous in terms of education. From the brochures and web pages to visual wraps on our gondola cars and event sponsorship, we became all about Switch:
• Switch operates our indoor skate bowl at our Terrain Park lodge and generates park lessons from the bowl-side conversations.
• Switch led the charge on our Let’s Go Snowboarding Day promotion—on Dec. 21, we taught anyone who wanted to try riding for free. We reached well over 500 people.
• Switch helped teach more than 250 lessons in four hours in Central Park on Feb. 6 at the New York City Winter Jam. Switch also ran the Switch Rail Jam in Central Park that day.
• Switch runs the free Girls Only Shred Sessions every Tuesday night.
• And of course, Switch runs the free Sunday Twisted Kids event/program in our Intro Park—which is located at our main base/peak complex. We found this location to be an important piece in the introduction and learning progression for the park-curious.
—Bill Benneyan, Mountain Creek