Terrain-based learning, ski giveaways, free season passes, affinity cards, coupon books, deals, discounts and more deals—resorts are pulling out all the stops this season to boost their conversion rates.
“Conversion” means turning non-skiers and -riders into ski and ride enthusiasts who stay with the sports for years, even a lifetime. The industry has been focusing on this concept more or less intently for more than a decade, but has improved conversion rates only marginally. Non-skiers and -riders are not only not converting, many are not even coming back for a second time.
Part of the industry’s issue with tracking conversion is that individual resorts define conversion differently. Some count every newbie who comes back for a second lesson. Some count those who come back for day three, or day four. Even when they get a convert, most resorts have no idea what happens to that person the next season, or the season after.
“There’s no formula for measuring conversions,” says Bruce McCloy, marketing manager at Sunapee, N.H. “However you measure it,the bottom line is that it’s very low, about 15 percent industry-wide.”
Tom Horrocks, marketing/communication director at Snocountry.com, says the real bottom line is even more worrisome: “We’re losing more people from the sport than we’re gaining.” Regardless of how successful resorts have been at creating new participants, it hasn’t been enough to sustain, let alone grow, the business.
Hence, the conversion emphasis.
McCloy calls the flex card Sunapee gives guests who purchase and come back for a second day the “first generation” of conversion programs. The cards entitle holders to a wide range of discounts at the resort in hopes of enticing them to keep coming back.
Over the years, resorts have tinkered with lesson packages and who gets an affinity card and when. Sunapee used to have a three-day lesson package, and even though beginners could come any three days, McCloy noted the weekend is the normal unit. So Sunapee now has a two-day package, with beginners getting the flex card when they buy and show up for day two. The resort does not count them as “converted,” however, until they actually use the card.
Despite extremely low price points (some as low as $0) for a lesson package, affinity programs have not budged the needle on conversion. McCloy says Sunapee’s conversion rate is about the same as the industry’s, a paltry 15 percent.
The next generation of affinity programs launched last winter at Killington, Vt. Partnering with Elan, Killington gave out brand-new skis and bindings to beginning skiers who completed four lessons.
Killington launched the program with 400 sets of skis. Of the 400 newbies who bought the $249, four-lesson package, 97 percent finished all four lessons. “It blew me away,” says Rob Megnin, director of sales and marketing.
For the current season, Killington has expanded the program to 500 sets of adult skis, 200 Burton boards and 200 children’s skis, and raised the cost of the four lessons to $299 ($249 for kids). By mid-September, the resort had already sold about 100 lesson packages, 50 each to would-be skiers and riders.
Killington co-brands the skis and boards with its own colors and logo, but Megnin says, “this isn’t about Killington. It’s about trying to find ways to get people on snow and get them committed. At 97 percent, I think we’re onto something here.”
Megnin says the next step is following those skiers and skis to see what happens to them in subsequent years. “We’re talking about a lot of things, even putting microchips in the skis,” he says. “If the skis end up sitting in a garage somewhere, we want to know that. We want to know if the skier continues with the sport, and where.”
Megnin has taken the Killingtonprogram on the road, touting it at industry shows, and says at least a half dozen other resorts are trying something similar this season. Cranmore, N.H., for example, is partnering with Rossignol to offer a three-lesson package for $299, with a brand new pair of Rossi skis at the end. Beginners who complete all three lessons will also receive a discount coupon for a new pair of Rossignol boots. Initially, only 100 packages will be available. Bromley is offering a similar program for juniors.
Terrain-based learning (TBL) has become all the rage in the past few years. Mountain Creek, N.J., pioneered the large-scale implementation of TBL in 2012, and the concept will be in place at dozens of resorts this coming winter.
TBL uses specially created terrain features to help teach beginners how to ski and ride. Hugh Reynolds, director of sales and marketing at Mountain Creek, says the response to the new teaching style has been “amazing. Guests don’t even realize they’re learning. They’re just having fun.”
Last season, Cranmore became the first New Hampshire area to offer TBL to beginners. “We had been giving the same beginner lesson for the last 40 years,” says Karen Dolan, Cranmore snowsports director. “People were just not having fun out there. They were not progressing, not smiling. We knew we had to do something different.”
The numbers provide a measure of success. Reynolds says that 65 percent of beginners who buy a three-day lesson package at Mountain Creek come back for a second day, and 40 percent finish all three days.
“Obviously, the numbers are great,” he adds. “But the biggest change is in the guest experience.”
Reynolds notes that beginners’ expectations are “so far out of line with reality, they’re almost set up for failure right from the start.” Many expect to be skiing and riding the park or all over the mountain on their first day. “TBL brings it back to fun,” he says. “It doesn’t provide an experience that meets their expectation, but it provides an experience equally as fulfilling.”
Mountain Creek “guarantees” its three-day lesson package. If beginners are not able to ski down simple greens after three lessons, they can come back for another lesson, free. They also receive a free season pass for the rest of the season. “It’s all about bringing the fun back,” Reynolds said.
Dolan says TBL has also brought the fun back at Cranmore, too: “People are smiling, challenging themselves to move on to the next element.” She says the resort did a thousand more lessons last year than the year before, and the number of beginners who came back for a second day more than doubled, from 12 to 25 percent.
Becca Deschenes, marketing manager at Cranmore, notes that switching to TBL is a huge commitment. “You need the whole management team behind it, groomers, snow makers, instructors.” But more and more ski resorts are making the commitment nonetheless.
There are many other growth initiatives on tap for the current season and beyond.
Multi-year, discounted lesson-and-pass programs are one growing concept. For example, Copper Mountain complements its TBL offerings with the launch of Ski and Ride School University. The combination provides a hassle-free way to give skiing or snowboarding a try, and provides plenty of incentive to stay with the sport.
For $199, the package includes three ski or snowboard lessons, lift tickets, equipment rentals, close-in parking, and lunch. Upon completion of the third lesson, Copper will toss in a free season pass, so guests can return throughout the 2014-15 season—similar to Mountain Creek’s deal. However, graduates also receive 50 percent off their 2015-16 Copper Mountain season pass, to make it financially easy for newbies to return for a second year.
If that concept sounds familiar, it is: Copper sister resort Mt. Bachelor instituted a similar plan two years ago, and won NSAA’s Conversion Cup for it.
The opportunities to offer incentives are boundless. Several dozen New England resorts, forinstance, have put together a coupon book for both city and mountain retailers to distribute to people who lease skis or boards. The book includes hundreds of dollars worth of deals, many aimed at friends and family.
“The goal is to get people to the resorts, and then let the resorts do what they do best, provide an outstanding ski or snowboard experience, where they can work on that retention/conversion process,” says Horrocks, whose Snocountry.com is part of the initiative.
New England state ski associations and others are also working to position the region as the place to learn to ski or ride by offering a uniform low price point. As of the end of September, all Vermont and New Hampshire state association member areas, and some in Maine, had committed to offer a $29 lesson package during January Learn to Ski and Snowboard month. Ski areas are also putting more emphasis on learning, especially on their websites.
“Learn-to, retention and conversion need to be at the forefront of every resort, every year,” says Jake Jacobsen, director of business services at Gunstock, N.H.
More globally, several resorts are working with RRC Associates to find ways to analyze resort lesson data and track retention and migration of skiers and riders on an industry-wide basis.
“The point is to find ways to find these people four and five years into their ski career to see how we’re doing and how they are migrating,” Megnin says. “We need to look at the data from an industry-wide perspective, not just a resort perspective.”