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January 2015

Programs for Summer

Summer activities can be profitable. So can summer events. But the trifecta is activities, events, and programs.

Written by Claire Humber, Director of Resort Planning, SE Group | 0 comment

Industry conversations about summer operations often focus on activities and events. From mountain biking to mountain coasters, activities attract new guests and offer things to do for those already staying at the resort. In the right markets they can also yield significant revenue. Special events may not realize the same level of significant direct profits, but the secondary revenue (think lodging and F&B) gained from drawing large crowds can be substantial. Again, in the right markets, hosting events can be very profitable.

What’s missing from these conversations? Programs. The trifecta of multi-season operations is activities, events, and programs.

Many resorts are already familiar with the benefits of programming in winter operations. For example, they offer kids lesson programs, including pre-registration (knowing how many are coming before they arrive!), advanced payment, guaranteed visitation (showing up regardless of the weather), and the secondary revenue gained from the child’s entourage of parents and siblings.

Summer programs can range in focus (sports and fitness, health and wellness, education, arts and crafts), duration (part-, full- or multi-day), and target audience (kids, adults, families). And unlike many activities, which can be capital-intensive, programs often make use of existing facilities and supporting infrastructure. Most importantly, successful programs depend on a creative management team and enthusiastic instructors and staff. Here are a few examples.

Aspen Skiing Company has forged a relationship with the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) to offer free, 45-minute nature walks at the top of Aspen Mountain. The walks are available every hour, offering interesting information about the native plant and animal species that call the mountain home.

Rather than a revenue-generating activity, “it’s more of a value-added experience for our guests,” says guest services director Carolyn Barabe, as well as “one more thing that we can add to the list of things to do” on the mountain in the summer. Offering some form of environmental education aligns with ASC’s core values of sustainability and stewardship. The collaboration with ACES is very positive, and the interns that lead the walks are great at what they do. And, most importantly, Barabe notes, they always get positive customer feedback.

Ski Roundtop entered the summer market to level out the highs and the lows resulting from the seasonality of the ski business. It developed activities that appealed to different market segments: a ropes course for team building; paintball for active groups; and the Mountain Adventure Park with activities geared toward families looking for an outdoor option for fun.

As marketing director Chris Dudding recalls, it was during a weekly staff meeting “where do we go next?” conversation that they realized, “with all of the stuff that was already here, we could have a killer summer camp.”

The program started six years ago with the goal of registering 48 kids per week for a couple of weekly sessions. Today the program runs for seven weeks and enrolls 1,000 kids. Virtually all is booked, and paid, in advance. The kids “just show up and have fun,” Dudding says.

The summer camps at Roundtop are very profitable—more than 50 percent profitable. Because the activities and facilities were already in place, expenses are primarily labor. And the labor is very easy to control, since the business is predominantly pre-booked. Plus, a number of the camp counselors are ski instructors; others can be drawn from local colleges with strong recreation programs.

Another advantage: Campers come during low midweek visitation periods, which allows for better utilization of the resort’s summer assets. And, like the familiar snowsports programs for kids, advanced registration provides great insulation from the vagaries of summer weather. The base area facilities provide necessary shelter during thunderstorms, but—to the resort’s great surprise— the kids are not fazed by rainy days. “It can be pouring down rain or really sunny, the kids are coming either way,” says Dudding.

The Michigan Legacy Art Park at Crystal Mountain, Mich., celebrates Michigan history through sculpture and performing arts. Operating as a non-profit separate from Crystal Mountain, the outdoor Park has been housed since its founding in 1995 on 30 acres that the Crystal Mountain Master Plan had long set aside for hiking and nature appreciation.

The Park consists of more than 40 sculptures and poetry stones, all of which are spaced along a 1.6-mile hiking and ­X-C trail. “Every sculpture tells a story about Michigan’s past,” says MLAP director Renee Hintz. The Park also houses an amphitheater, which hosts weekend art workshops and a five-event Summer Sounds Concert Series.

All this draws about 10,000 visitors annually, mostly in summer. Attendees include dozens of school groups each spring and fall. Many summer camps in the area also bring campers for a visit. The park is also open to the general public, and is a valuable amenity for Crystal homeowners and lodging guests. All get free admission to the park, including the five-event concert series each summer. So does everyone 17 and under. For others, admission is $5.

What’s the value to the resort? “Having this kind of really profound part of our campus takes Crystal to another dimension in terms of what people can experience here,” says co-owner Chris MacInnes. “Our mission is to be a stage where people can have exceptional experiences, a place for people to connect with self, one another, nature, and ideas.

“There’s another aspect to this, too. More and more people are making Crystal their home, and they want more than just golf and skiing and pubs and restaurants. They want substantive relationships, a deeper level of engagement. Many volunteer and help out in the Park. It ties them to Crystal and to the local community that they want to be a part of.”

In its first season, Nashoba’s Tiki Trail 5K Series was held four Wednesday nights. Nashoba considered mud runs and obstacle events, but decided the 5k trail runs would be less labor-intensive and more widely appealing. And appealing they were: the number of runners grew from 100 the first week to 205 on the last.

“The Tiki Trail 5K Series really has allowed us to show off a large portion of the beautiful property we sit on,” says GM Chris Kitchin. “We have been able to add an event that enhances the other summer offerings we have.”

“It exceeded our expectations in many ways,” adds marketing and group sales director Pam Fletcher.

For one, it showcased Nashoba’s summer and winter offerings to a whole new market of customers. “The Tiki Bar [located on a beach at the snowmaking pond] has only been open for five years for corporate outings, and just four years to the public, and many people still do not know it is here,” she says. To help change that, the registration fee included food and drink. “We also held a bib number raffle and that kept the crowd in the bar area,” she adds. “A majority of the runners would make an evening out of it. The Tiki Bar and Grill also offered a way for the whole family to enjoy the Trail Run, even if they didn’t participate in the race.”

One corporate client booked its summer company event around the Tiki Trail Run. It brought in 135 guests and encouraged them to sign up. More than half did. “I had them in their own tent with their own buffet and servers. The planners hoped this would be a great team building activity, and it was,” Fletcher says.

“I certainly see us expanding the series next season. I also expect to see more companies use it as a part of a catered corporate outing.”

All this just scratches the surface; the possibilities are almost endless. Several areas across North America have hosted Wanderlust, a week-long yoga-based fitness program that draws hundreds, if not thousands. Sun Peaks, B.C., holds a Women Only Weekend (WOW), in which women can mix and match activities. Stowe, Vt., hosts a weekly farmer’s market, and Wilmot Mountain, Wis., holds a weekly flea market in its parking lot. Once you start looking for them, programming concepts start popping up everywhere. Why not at your resort, too?

The key to a successful summer business is creating a critical mass of offerings, and programs are definitely part of that mix. They should complement the other activities and fit within the brand of the resort, so they don’t distract from messaging and the general feel or personality of the resort. Programs are a great way to re-task winter facilities for year-round revenue opportunities.

If done correctly, summer programs such as camps can utilize other summer activities and assets, which adds to the ROI of not only the camp but also the activity. With a basket of offerings that build on each other, investing in summer business becomes not only easier but also an opportunity to add serious cash to the bottom line.

Most resorts already have a venue for summer programs that other organizations can only dream of. The land, infrastructure, online assets, and staff are already in place. In most cases all that is needed is a good team with a vision and wild ideas to get it off the ground. — Kevin Stickelman