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May 2011

Best/Worst Marketing 2010/2011

SAM's annual look at the highs and lows in ski area marketing.

Written by Samantha Rufo, Ken Castle, Katie Bailey | 0 comment

Marketing and advertising continue to evolve quickly, with more and more attention shifting from websites to mobile and social media. Marketing communication is no longer a one-way street; it’s now simultaneous, interwoven threads through cyber- and digital space.

And frankly, we’re having a very hard time keeping up with it all. This year’s report, drawing on three geographically, pyschographically, and digitally disparate observers, covers a great deal of ground. But we aren’t everywhere, and we may have missed some gems and some stinkers. If so, we apologize with a shrug of our shoulders. It’s a wide new world out there.

Veteran writer and online expert Ken Castle focused on the West Coast; Canadian Katie Bailey eyed efforts in her homeland; and Samantha Rufo scoured the rest of the lower 48. From what we were able to see and track down, here are our collective picks and pans.

By Samantha Rufo

Looking back on the winter of 2010-11, my goal was to find the stand-out marketing programs. The most innovative ideas. The most proactive. The most relevant.

This year has seen profound changes in consumer behavior. And these changes are fundamentally altering the way ski industry marketers are speaking to consumers. There are some amazing examples of truly forward-thinking campaigns that have used new marketing tools such as social media to connect with their customers, build engagement and create buzz. Here’s a look at several.

Wild Mountain, MN
Wild Mountain, Minn., used LivingSocial, a Groupon-like company, for two reasons. First, for exposure—to reach the Minneapolis market where other resorts may have an advantage of geography. And second, to attract lapsed skiers. According to vice president Amy Frischmon, “Our goal was to sell 500 lift and rental packages. We ended up selling 699 at $33 (value of $67) and exceeded our goal.” By selling a package, they were targeting people that did not have their own equipment and were most likely to fall in the lapsed or beginner categories.

Why it Worked: Wild used LivingSocial strategically, to generate new skier visits—not tactically, to just sell a bunch of cheap tickets. Although there was essentially an 80 percent discount (50 percent to the consumer and 30 percent to LivingSocial), the overall cost of marketing to lapsed/beginner skiers was low, and the ROI high.

Perfect North Slopes, IN
Perfect North Slopes combined cutting-edge technology with a popular spokesperson via its mobile apps. GM Chip Perfect has built a local and loyal following through fun and unconventional daily audio snow reports and news. Perfect North Slopes added mobile apps to include features such as: an audio snow report, current weather conditions, directions, live cams, news and events, video podcasts, photo sharing, and a trail map. The goal? To provide consistent updated content that gives people a reason to come back. According to the GM, “Technology gives people the ability to stay connected, and with apps, they make the resort accessible to everyone no matter where they are or what they are doing.”

Why it Worked: With 7,670 app downloads and 282 ratings with an average score of 4 out of 5 stars, the apps drew a happy crowd. Fans spent an average of 9.5 minutes in the app, more than double the time people spend on the resort website. The apps are informative and add value to the guest experience. This builds engagement with Perfect North Slopes that guests feel passionate about.

Roundtop Mountain Resort, PA
Where do you go when you want to make a marketing splash without a budget? For Roundtop Mountain Resort, Pa., the answer was Facebook and the new Places Check-ins. Roundtop’s main goal was for guests to have the best experience at the mountain by connecting people using the mapping and connection tools that Facebook provides with Places. According to Lutricia Zerfing, director of sales and events, “Facebook is so integrated into our guests’ lives. We wanted people to know that they could ask and get answers quickly from us and others in the Facebook community. Which is the main reason why we have multiple resort personnel [sales, lift attendants, learning center employees, the head groomer and the terrain park manager] managing the page in addition to the Places functionality.”

Why it Worked: Roundtop’s Facebook Places page includes a way for guests to quickly connect with each other while at the resort. A full 17.5% of the 6,152 fans on the page have used this feature, although the fan base is actually bigger, since people are also checking in under the resort’s old name “Ski Roundtop,” too. Due to the success of the grass-roots program, plans to reward loyal fans next year by adding Facebook Loyalty and Friend Deals.

The Canyons, UT
How do you create a viral marketing campaign to engage consumers on a more personal level, raise awareness about your resort, motivate consumers to consider a Canyons vacation—and fill an open staff position at the same time? Canyons’ Ultimate Mountain Gig Contest asked skiers and snowboarders to compete for a PR job with a $40,000 salary, benefits including spa services and a season pass, and a room at the Waldorf Astoria. That’ll do it.

The resort relied on its audience to spread the contest message, using social media and blogs. In just a few months it received 450 applications and 190,572 views of the related videos on YouTube. And publicity? Search Google for the “Ultimate Mountain Gig” and you will see 162,000 mentions of the contest.

Why it Worked: A creative and timely approach turned a boring job posting into a full-blown marketing campaign. It was also an innovative challenge for participants to show their skills at promoting the resort in a public forum—before they had the job. The campaign put a human face on the company and let customers build a level of intimacy with Canyons by sharing their stories about “How do you mountain.”

Park City Mountain, UT
Your Google Places page is your old Google maps page on steroids. It integrates directions, resort details, such as runs and specialties, photos, video, and even comments from sites around the web such as Yelp and TripAdvisor. Eric Hoffman, IT director at Park City, saw the potential and claimed its page as soon as it was available. According to Hoffman, “The transition to mobile devices is having a big impact, and Android is driving people to Google content. One of the best ways we can help consumers find us is by optimizing our page and managing our reputation on Google. The analytics and search optimization don’t hurt, either.”

Consider just the February 2011 Gorgoza Tubing Park statistics from Google Places: 5,500 impressions and 400 actions, including 161 people looking for driving directions.

Why it Worked: Is a seven percent action rate worth the time and effort? Yes, when 40 percent of the actions lead to visits. And it doesn’t cost a dime. As an early adopter, Park City also gets a nice perk: Google provides the resort with search prominence when Googlers search “Park City Mountain.” Sweet!

Vail Resorts, EpicMix
EpicMix is the first ski industry social network that extends across online, mobile and social media. It is exclusively for five Vail Resorts areas: Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Heavenly. A smart pass with an embedded chip is read by RF scanners at each lift. Passholders can review data from their rides, including vertical feet and days, via an app on their mobile phone or on the website www. Users earn digital pins or awards for riding certain lifts, going to new places on the mountain, and more. Passholders can share their accomplishments on the site, Twitter and Facebook. EpicMix can show if other friends are on the slopes, and can provide trail conditions, weather reports and traffic updates.

Why it Worked: This is skiing 2.0. EpicMix provides the tools to build a whole new experience that people can revisit over and over again. The ski industry has looked for years for a way to build loyalty and increase skier days. This may be just the ticket.

By Ken Castle


Jackson Hole, WY
How do you leverage the best opening day on record? On Thanksgiving, Jackson Hole found itself with a snowpack of five feet, “wall to wall” coverage on its mountain and non-stop blizzards. It’s every resort’s fantasy to kick off the season with an historic dump, and Jackson Hole, not known as the easiest place to reach, made the most of it. Rather than just issue a press release, the ski area launched a two-pronged video campaign. The first clip focused on opening the entire mountain, the second showed the elation skiers and riders felt as the snowy, historic day unfolded.

Using video to raise awareness for on-mountain conditions is nothing new, “but this year we took it to a new level by telling stories and delivering news releases in video format,” says communications manager Zahan Billimoria. The videos featured Rob Kingwill and Bryan Iguchi, two of Jackson Hole’s resident snowboarders. “The national news release was short on words, letting the images tell the story, and these were built to be shared and diffused on any Internet platform. Raw footage with download links was also included, as it provided a means for media sites to upload the material directly to their own websites, and for television stations to use the content on network TV,” he says.

It worked. The Weather Channel ran six separate segments with fresh content shot November 28.

Posted on YouTube and other social media sites, the clips connected the powder-bashing scenes with an equally compelling offer: “Lift ticket, lodging and lunch: $79.” The videos were tagged with a second simple slogan: “Best Snow. Biggest Opening. Deepest Deals.” The results: nearly 60,000 views, including 30,000 “Likes” on YouTube.

Mt. Bachelor, OR
Mt. Bachelor, Ore., has always been quiet after the lifts close. Located in a national wilderness where development is restricted, Mt. Bachelor has no après-ski village, and no slopeside hotels or overnight lodges. With the nearest accommodations 20 to 30 minutes away, the marketing challenge has always been how to position the area with regional and destination sliders.

The answer: Turn a negative into a positive, and throw in a compelling hook for families. The resort plays up its scenic isolation in Deschutes National Forest by branding all communications, collateral and website content with a wilderness theme. To lure families, Bachelor extends its Kids Ski Free program to include teens up to the age of 18—hardly a common practice in ski country. The deal requires parents to buy an adult 3-of-5- or 5-of-7-day ticket, with a limit of one free kid’s ticket per paid adult.

Bachelor aimed its call to action at the destination market and tied the promotion to overnight vacation packages. With its large pool of lodging partners, Bachelor launched a Kids Ski Free/Stay Free campaign using radio and TV ad tags, print ads in regional publications, online banner ads, and persona-based homepage banner promotion. Andy Goggins, director of marketing and communications, credits “cohesive collaboration and consistent branding and messaging” for boosting overnight stays. Multi-day ticket sales that included Kids Ski Free were up three-fold from the 2008-09 season, from 14,202 to 46,757.

Snowbird, UT
Social media has become as novel as (yawn!) the next Stephen King opus. It’s all about “community” and “user-generated content,” and most resorts by now are on board. One drawback: all those icons on homepages take website users into separate channels, where they can become as lost as Alice in Wonderland.

Snowbird has come up with a better idea—aggregating everything on one community page under the Bird’s Nest heading. Snowbird isn’t the first resort to do this social media mashup, but it’s a particularly well-designed and easily navigable section. At the top is a large revolving scrapbook flashing the resort’s Photos of the Day. Below that are boxes with the resort’s YouTube videos, plus community-produced Snowbird “Fan” videos and photo uploads from iPhone and Android users. These are joined by the area’s Facebook and Twitter streams, with the latest posts revealed, like an RSS feed. In short, the Nest gives social media mavens easy access to the day’s chatter.

Alas, the Bird’s Nest is not easy to find; it’s on a pull-down menu under About Snowbird. A linkable button on the home page would be better.

Heavenly, CA
In a bygone era, when the Good Humor ice cream truck came around on a warm day, kids would run to the curb for an Eskimo Pie. Heavenly Resort revived that tradition by sending a reconditioned ice cream truck to the San Francisco Bay Area in autumn to dispense free snowcones and pitch season pass sales. The resort announced its stops (at radio stations, ski shops, etc.) through Twitter and Facebook. “There is a phenomenon with food trucks in San Francisco,” says VP of marketing John Wagnon, “and we thought that this was a more engaging way of getting in front of people.” The snowcone wagon was dressed up with Heavenly graphics, and a video played on a TV monitor. The resort hired two actors from The Improv in San Francisco to serve the cones and crack jokes.

The actors also handed out vouchers with a response code, allowing customers to make purchases through the resort website (the combined Heavenly-Northstar pass ultimately became the hot pass of the season). When the truck returned to Lake Tahoe during the first big winter storm, Heavenly did a spoof on its website showing employees shoveling natural snow into the vehicle. Yes, Virginia, there are real snowcones!

Mammoth Mountain, CA
Whatever happened to friendly rivalry—you know, making a few digs at the other guy? California’s Mammoth Mountain promoted its new nonstop flights from San Francisco and San Jose in the Bay Area with humor. Using print, billboards, banner ads and paid online search, Mammoth let fly with zingers such as: “Just Like Tahoe. Only Taller and With Better Snow.” Ka-boom!

Not all were aimed at the competition. One showed an old-timey skier flying off a cornice: “People have always flown here. They just recently started using planes.” Another teased, “Fly here for the VIRGIN.” Smaller type below continued: “Powder, 300 days of sun and blue-bird skies. We know. We had you at ‘Virgin.’” Nothing like a male chauvinist powder pig to get your attention.

Does this kind of advertising actually work? Hard to say. But, says public relations manager Dan Hansen, “Now in its third season, our air service has had an increased load factor year after year. We feel this has a lot to do with the raised awareness of our audience about the flights to Mammoth.”

Mountain High, CA
Can anything be too rad for Southern California? Not if you’re Mountain High, where boarding reigns supreme and you’re measured by how edgy you can be. Take, for instance, print ads that ran in Snowboard and Transworld magazines showing local rider Cory Cronk landing on top of a lift tower. The area likes to showcase its resident bad boys, and it keeps the buzz going with a potpourri of online promotions such as photo contests, ticket giveaways and season pass contests.

Among its social media strategies: “cyber stalking” of guests who make Facebook comments or tweets about Mountain High. When fans post remarks such as, “Hey, I’m going to Mountain High this weekend—who wants to join me?” or “Just got back from Mountain High—best day of the year,” the resort sleuths engage them with responses such as, “Hey, saw you were at Mountain High this weekend. Hope you had a great time. Did you hear about our new promotion? You should try this new restaurant next time you are up. It’s going to be cold this week—bundle up.” Then, there are weekly Facebook and Twitter promotions that issue challenges such as, “First 50 guests to find park crew employee Torn on the mountain get a FREE Neff beanie.”

According to John McColly, vice president of sales and marketing, these interactions have propelled Mountain High’s Facebook fan count from 1,500 to 32,000 in two years.


Northstar-at-Tahoe, CA
Northstar-at-Tahoe entered the season with the catch phrase “A Good Day.” This was reinforced by a quirky section of the resort website called the Northstar Institute of Goodology. Apart from purveying multiple ways to enjoy the “good” life, the Institute had its own spokesman, Chief “Goodologist” Glen Heywood. Heywood is the retro embodiment of 1970s skiing kitsch, sporting jeans, a garish sweater, moustache and side-parted hair. He stars in a 30-second TV spot—replicated on YouTube—showing Heywood sitting on a couch as it appears to be cruising down the slopes. Holding a cup of coffee, he asks, “How do I get more good in my life?” He shows off Northstar’s assets, including the fireplaces with couches in the Village plaza. “Isn’t it obvious this is where the good is?

“What’s better than Northstar?” he asks rhetorically, finger poised on his chin. His answer: “Northstar.”

Here’s another question: Now that Vail Resorts owns this ski area, is the Chief Goodologist too clever for his own good? Maybe he’ll be banished to a couch at The Ritz Carlton. Goodness gracious!

By Katie Bailey

Whistler Blackcomb, BC
These guys are consistently at the top of my list; I’m almost starting to feel badly about it. But with their clever ad shop Origin at the helm, they just keep delivering. This year, Whistler’s “We couldn’t have said it better ourselves” campaign fully integrated its social media strategy with its traditional, reproducing comments from its Facebook and Twitter feeds into its stunning-yet-simple print creative. Love the simplicity of the idea and how it dovetails seamlessly with Whistler’s “The Movement” social media branding. This was a logical, and clever, evolution of its ’09 and ’10 campaigns.

Red Mountain, BC
Red’s overall advertising creative may not always be a home run, but the resort certainly hit one this year with its hilarious “Red Sucks” online video, which managed the formidable feat of going viral. “Red Sucks” features a montage of a guy in a suit talking about how terrible his vacation is while experiencing all of Red’s Kootenay charm: sweet digs, fresh pow, no crowds and steamy après. Its professional production sets it apart from the pack and it’s genuinely funny, even to non-skiers. It’s difficult to stress how tough it is to make a video “go viral,” but these guys got it right every step of the way.

Mt. Tremblant, QUE
This resort has displayed a commendable evolution in its marketing strategy this year. Once overly reliant on traditional media focusing on room rates and smiling kids, the resort has stepped it up with a new mobile app, a well-stocked YouTube page, Foursquare placement, and a bustling Facebook personality that accommodates Canada’s dual-language persona with posts in both English and French. A nice feature of its Facebook page: its “info” section features links to all of its digital media pages—this is more rare than you’d think.

Baldface Lodge, Nelson, BC
Backcountry lodges are one of Canada’s best snowsports features, but they face a significant challenge in marketing to mainstream Canadians (and Americans): how do you communicate awesomeness on such an epic scale? This operation manages to do it with style and grace, and this full-page magazine ad is a good illustration of it. Simple and evocative, just like the backcountry experience. But its social media strategy is what helps this op make the cut: videos, videos, videos. High quality and posted consistently, the videos are a vivid example of the cliché, “pictures speak louder than words.”

Blue Mountain, ONT
Blue Mountain is rarely the most innovative advertiser on the scene, but this year gets a place in the middle of the pack. On the bright side, the resort supported its “win a helicopter ride to Blue” campaign with clever radio spots using Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” and experiential stunts in which propel­lerhead brand ambassadors pelted
Toronto bar-goers with promotional snowballs.

But the downside was the marketing of its Ridgerunner Mountain Coaster. The premature marketing in particular. Billboards promoting it lined major routes to the mountain all season, but the Coaster didn’t open till mid-March. Even more confusingly, the creative featured a Blue Mountain-branded picture of the coaster operating in snowy conditions (before it was built), using a photo it borrowed from Quebec’s Mt. Tremblant. Tsk, tsk, Blue. Also, its print creative was devoid of, well, creative.

Jay Peak, VT
No, Jay is not Canadian. But Vermonters are so nice we like to think of them as honorary Canadians. Jay executed a slick multimedia campaign this year, with a beautiful and consistent brand profile across its main properties and an eye-catching print campaign.

The only place where Jay slips in its execution is in the details. When one goes to its stunning “Raised Jay” microsite, the photos and video are presented in thumbnail but aren’t clickable, only sharable, a bizarre combination. And its lovely branding doesn’t extend to its Facebook and Twitter pages, representing a missed opportunity. Jay has all the pieces in place; it just needs to extend them a bit further to complete the multiple-platform picture.

Sunshine Village/SkiBig3, ALB
This resort just never seems to hit the nail on the head. Relying heavily on the SkiBig3 regional marketing machine, it often manages to seem one-dimensional despite its respected big-mountain terrain. The SkiBig3 print creative this year was meant to be funny in a Hot Tub Time Machine way (old-school ski fashion! hilarious!) but just came across as unimaginative.

However, its social media strategy is what really fell short. After a controversial news story about the resort’s firing of some ski patrollers sparked a rash of negative comments on its Facebook page, the page mysteriously disappeared (a social media no-no) leaving only its Facebook “Place” page, which has neither a postable wall nor any personality. However, when you type Sunshine Village into Facebook’s search engine, the first thing that pops up is the anti-Sunshine page created by the controversy. It has over 8,000 “likes.” Sunshine’s “Place” page has just over 700. Ouch.