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July 2011

Open Season on the 'Net

Controlling your message in the age of free information is a tricky proposition.

Written by Tom Patton, Snowbird Tram and Lift Operations Manager | 0 comment

For some time now an important component of most ski areas’ sales and marketing process has been the company website. Both local and destination guests check out sites for mountain conditions and other information.

With the rapid and ongoing evolution of the Internet and the explosion of mobile computing, the ways in both how information is disseminated and how potential customers are channeled toward our business have expanded well beyond the basic website. Use of other websites and especially social networking sites is on the upswing. From social sharing sites such as Facebook, to discussion forums, to Twitter, and independent skier/rider sites like TGR, ski areas are using these forms of communication for both getting the word out and channeling shoppers towards their main website and business.

At any given moment there are likely several thousand users online at the Teton Gravity Research’s website forums areas. While there are sections ranging from Tech Talk to Gear Review to Gimp Central (for the injured to commiserate), the most popular section is the Ski/Snowboard area. In that forum users discuss mountain conditions and experiences with locales and resorts mentioned from Alaska to Maine and parts in between. Go there and you could likely find people talking passionately about conditions at your area.

As with any online discussion, you will find a wide range of attitudes, but the prevailing philosophy is positive. The focus is on the “stoke” throughout. “TGR is a lifestyle. We live and think outside. The stoke that we embrace is based around natural elements,” declares the About Us page at

Yes, TGR is a lifestyle. It produces films, has its own clothing line, hosts photo contests, and posts news and weather. TGR is all about a lifestyle a wide segment of our guests embrace.

Most importantly, TGR can be a portal to ski areas, as numerous forum users post links to resort sites. TGR is now a main portal for wintertime web traffic to Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort.

Blogs are almost old-school these days, but there are still thousands of skiers and riders contributing to the conversation in the blogosphere. These cover a wide range of perspectives, from those who review multiple areas in no-holds-barred fashion to aficionados of specific areas who stick to a “keep the stoke up” theme.

One of the latter is Dave Powers, who has skied Snowbird almost every day for over 30 years. Known as “the Guru of Snowbird,” Powers’ blog——quite simply talks about skiing/riding conditions at Snowbird. In true guru fashion, he shares his knowledge and wisdom to guide others. Powers also puts forth a boundless positive enthusiasm tempered with honest descriptions of varying conditions with the goal of advising all on how to maximize their mountain experience. Given this unique perspective and considering Powers’ blog is approaching 10,000 hits a week, Snowbird features a link to the blog on the company website.

Facebook is another outlet for freethinking expression. Among the many non-resort winter sports pages are one for the Snowbird Tram, which lists 3,545 friends. The KT-22 Express chairlift at Squaw Valley also has a Facebook page of its own.

Have you seen a guest with a helmet cam lately? The popular video cams found mounted in various places on skiers aren’t just for home movies in this day and age. One very popular model, the GoPro, features HD technology that would have cost thousands of dollars a few years ago—and now sells for under $300. So into the mix of online experience sharing comes videos on Youtube and Vimeo among other places.

Another independent experience sharing site is Unlike TGR, with its broad range of topics, this site focuses on six resorts:
Squaw Valley, Jackson Hole, Whistler/Blackcomb, Snowbird, Stowe and Telluride. Each area has a page mainly featuring videos and tweets with an occasional review thrown in. also has a Facebook page with thousands of “fans.”

As this site is, in fact, independent, area operators are a bit nervous about some of the content and information. An example of this was a tweet last winter on the Snowbird page saying, “Crazy windy, tram in danger…” does this mean the tram is dangerous or in danger of closing, or something else? As it turned out, it was none of the above. (I should know, I’m the tram manager.)

One downside of non-resort websites is the reselling of coupons and other promotional offers, as well as underground services such as instructing and guiding.

Free online classified sites such as Craigslist and even eBay are common outlets. There, one can find discount ski passes, and services offered for hire by independent skiing or snowboarding instructors. The passes may be vouchers somebody won, or received for free. While it might seem a simple process to bust those dealers, it takes time and resources to do so.

Rogue ski guides cannot offer the private lesson perk of line cutting, but if they know the area well, the selling point is the savvy to avoid the crowds and go where the pow stashes are. These pirates are hard to bust; they are often crafty in their hookups, and the Craigslist option for security and privacy gives them opportunity to filter potential customers and remain anonymous.

Another potential scam involves internal pirates who engage in a modern twist on the old “bro” network. In this, a rogue ticket scanner will text his location to friends alerting them when the “coast is clear” to let them slide on the lift.

One recent successful effort to stymie cyber-piracy involved a cooperative effort between a resort and local authorities posing as guys offering “goods” online for trade out for lift tickets. Without going into detail the end result were several busts for multiple offenses.

Pretty involved, eh? And we haven’t even gone into iPhone and Android apps yet.

Trying to get a handle on all this is a full-time task. Jared Ishkanian is the former public relations director at Snowbird. The focus of that job and title used to be more local. Now, “community” includes all of cyberspace, a quickly and continually expanding universe.

The job itself has evolved, too. “I spend a lot of my time wrangling,’ says Ishkanian. That is, he spends hours sorting through all the postings about Snowbird on all sorts of sites. In an attempt to impose some order on the chaos, Ishkanian channels the better videos and commentary he finds into a new community area within the company website, The Bird’s nest. There, he posts videos, photos, and comments from guests, employees, and others Ishkanian has wrangled from elsewhere.

Fortunately, most of the news on the Web is positive, or at least not virulently negative. One of the powers of social networks, as Ishkanian sees it, is fairly objective analysis of a resort’s mountain experiences. That lends a degree of credibility that might have been lacking in the past. “Where the future in all this is going is keeping your brand front and center on peoples’ phones and computers,” he says. “As long as you’re not getting really bad publicity, all other publicity is good publicity.”

Is there a dark side to this huge expansion of sharing the resort experience?

“Things can spiral out of control really quickly,” says Ishkanian, referring to events that have happened and how quickly the word goes out in all the sites discussed here. The now-infamous patrol strike and related issues at Sunshine Resort in Canada had lengthy forum threads on several prominent sites beginning within hours of the events.

When bad news starts to spread, that’s another time for public relations managers to do some wrangling, to scramble to correct misinformation, or to channel commentary to the appropriate places.

But the viral effect can quickly outrun any one person’s ability to keep abreast of it. All those helmet cams and video-recording cell phones mean that when something happens at your area, chances are it will quickly be posted online, often in pictures and video. The lift incident at Sugarloaf last December showed how fast that sort of news can travel, though in that case, much of the chatter was about how expertly the Sugarloaf patrol and resort staff in general handled the lift evacuation.

Online review sites such as Yelp are another double-edged sword. The upside is that provides local online search capabilities, and businesses can create profile pages there. The downside: the anonymous reviews can be less than professional or even rational. To offset this, Yelp adds a social networking function, whereby users are rated.

At the other end of the spectrum, don’t forget those dinosaurs out there who don’t use the Internet at all for information. This demographic becomes especially critical if they are local residents, because the rising cost of transportation may well mean guests focus increasingly on resorts closer to home. With these folks, traditional media will remain an important vehicle for communication and to get these unofficial spokespeople pumped about your area.