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March 2016

Reaching New Markets

Mountain resorts have their share of challenging winters. Last year, the Pacific West barely eked by, and this year the East had to use snowmaking muscle to power back from a weak start. Some resorts are finding a key strategy for such times, and one that may just help push the winter sports industry to a new level in the future: broadening their markets by recognizing, attracting, and then embracing the diverse communities in a mountain resort’s demographic.

Written by Moira McCarthy | 0 comment

No one knows this better than Karl Kapuscinski, president and CEO of Mountain High Resort in SoCal and Stevens Pass Mountain Resort in Washington. “In these last years of no snow, I can honestly say that if not for the diversity we had established in both places, I’d dread to see our numbers,” he says.

Both resorts are seeing a constant and steady upswing in the number of Asian Americans and Hispanics they see on the slopes. All that is good for many reasons, Kapuscinski says, and at the end of the day, what matters is the mindset and way of being of these new clients.

Oddly, he says, it may just be the groups’ lack of history with mountain winter sports that make them so vital to success in rough times.

“Like snowboarders in the 1990s, they are a lot more weather resilient,” he says. “They show up when they have the time, not when the weather seems ‘right.’ They see and feel that [they] can have a lot of fun on five acres of snow, learning as a family. This has a huge impact, especially in times when conditions are not optimal.”

Mountain High and Stevens, along with Mountain Creek, N.J., have been among the leaders in reaching, attracting and then pleasing diverse communities. That’s because all realize it is a long, intentional process that demands patience. And all realize that there’s a whole lot more to it than offering special food options in the base lodge (although that does not hurt).

Start at the Beginning

At Stevens Pass, the bigger conversation on reaching an entirely different market began in earnest around 2013. Resort upper management was inspired by what it heard at an NSAA conference on the topic. Says resort communications and social media manager Alysa Hetze, the resort viewed what the Kings County and Seattle area community looked like, and recognized how different the resort’s guest profile was. Clearly, Stevens was not reaching all the clientele it could.

“And that is the huge bigger picture,” she says. “We want our resort to look like a dining opportunity or going to a movie in Seattle. We want it to be open to everyone, and we want it to reflect everyone just like those activities do. We could see we were not performing up to demographics.”

So, what to do? One key decision—of which other resorts should take note—was to create and fill a position for a full-time multi-cultural coordinator at the resort. To fill such a position with the right person might seem a challenge: the primary market to reach near the resort is Chinese and Korean, so an understanding of those cultures and the ability to speak the language is paramount, along with an understanding of the mountain snow sports industry. Easy, right?

Surprisingly, the area found one of its own employees fit the job to a T. Brittany Smith had grown up in Colorado, and worked exclusively in recent years in resort sales and marketing. More importantly, she had also lived in China, and speaks fluent Chinese.

Her job now involves attracting a new clientele to the mountain, and also teaching the resort how to treat these customers in the way they feel most comfortable during their visit.

This past season, Stevens focused on its beginner program and how it can welcome different cultures. That, Smith says, involved realizing that to lure people in, the mountain had to recognize they were talking to a market that may have absolutely no background in or knowledge of snow sports.

“When we go into a community and meet people at an event, we have to do so realizing they may know nothing of what we are there to talk about,” she says. That means keeping the message simple, and not getting bogged down with details or information that are not relevant to the audience.

Smith flies the Stevens flag at various events in Seattle’s Chinatown International District, including Lunar New Year, Dragon Fest, and Mid Autumn Festival. The Chinatown International District Business Improvement Area stages the events, and Smith developed a partnership with the group during her first season as multi-cultural coordinator. This partnership has opened up numerous opportunities to promote the resort and educate that community about winter sports.

The resort backs up that introduction with an immediate feeling of inclusion for the potential new skiers and riders. Hetze says that often comes down to the social media effort and website management. “We really want to use that to reach those communities and bring them here,” she explains. For that reason, the resort is working on translating the website for many languages. Asian languages will come first—Chinese, Japanese, and Korean—and Stevens hopes to do the same with Spanish eventually.

So how is the combination of a strong beginner program and an enlightened outreach working? It’s too early for a lot of statistical analysis, says Hetze, but so far, the indications are promising. “We are coming off of our best holiday season ever,” says Hetze of the 2015 Christmas/New Year’s holiday. “Our beginner lessons are up 212 percent over last year, and 60 percent over the year before.” A lot of the increase, she says, came from ethnic communities, which is surely a sign that the resort’s efforts are working.

Smith sees some telltale signs as well. “You know, I see a lot of diversity in our rental line now,” she says. “That’s what matters. We want to make Stevens Pass a place that celebrates anybody and everybody. We want it to be a place that no matter who you are, you can see yourself on the hill and in the staff.”


Sister resort Mountain High has been working on making its Asian and Latin populations feel more comfortable and welcome for more than a decade. Says chief marketing officer John McColly, the three largest challenges are language barrier, cultural differences, and understanding a strong level of family-oriented lifestyle.

That’s a lot to take on, he says, and what the area has realized is that it cannot address it all at once. Rather, the resort is “taking on low-hanging fruit and accomplishing what we can with what we have.”

One successful step was to take existing ads and rebrand them, often with audio translations or subtitles. “With digital it is so easy and targeted,” he says. Mountain High does, of course, use an agency for that, since language and cultural differences can lead to gaffes if not handled correctly.

“Get an agency that has some knowledge of the community already,” McColly says. “You can waste a lot of time spinning your wheels otherwise.”

“Don’t go it alone,” Kapuscinski adds. “And don’t use one agency for all cultures. You need agencies that understand each market.”

Kapuscinski is also working hard at making the resort’s staff reflect the community it serves and aims to serve. “We simply cannot hire enough multiple language employees,” he says. “Our goal is to add as many as we can. There’s a Mercedes dealership out here that sells cars in 11 languages. I’m not sure we can get all 11 going here, but we’re going to do our best. We want to get to the point that we can say, ‘we can teach you to ski or ride in your own language.’ And we’ll get there.”

And yet, says Kapuscinski, the goal isn’t just getting new cultural groups there and being able to speak their language—it’s treating them the way they like to be treated after they arrive.

“This community is willing to open their wallets,” he says of the Asian population around his resort. “They come expecting to pay. But they expect an excellent experience, too. They come wanting to spend money. We have to make them feel good about it so they know they can come back again and have a great experience.”

This means making sure ski and snowboard lessons are taught the way the Asian community enjoys and expects (family based; easy to understand). It can also mean focusing on things like food in the base lodge and base area. An Asian and Hispanic section has been added to the resort’s food court. For that same reason, Stevens Pass has hired a chef of Asian descent.

Mountain High has also worked hard at building word of mouth, which goes a long way since the Asian market is all about loyalty. Things like getting community influencers, such as DJ’s, musicians, radio personalities, successful business people, or TV stars to embrace the sport and the resort, works well. “Word of mouth is much stronger in this market,” McColly says.

A Matter of Trust

In the East, Mountain Creek Resort is located a short jaunt away from the giant melting pot that is New York City. Sara Hazen, the resort’s senior director of marketing and sales, remembers a few years back when resort leadership realized that, in order to grow business, it had to find ways to reach the diverse communities within the nation’s largest city.

Mountain Creek now employs a marketing agency to help it attract a more diverse demographic, particularly Asian Americans. According to Hazen, “The agency really understands the language, the imagery, and the culture.” Trusting the agency with things like translating film and advertising just makes sense, she says.

The resort is also implementing different ways to help all guests feel welcome during their visit. This includes having waivers and rental kiosks localized for a few different languages, and hiring staff who can teach lessons in Chinese and Korean. Mountain Creek has even gone so far as to add events to its calendar, such as a Lunar Festival, specifically targeted to its Asian guests.

Those kinds of steps, taken slowly, with support so as to be on target, may just be the keys to help resorts that are located near diverse populations thrive. Kapuscinski believes the industry may be looking at its next great wave.

“There was World War II, and then the ’70s when skiing was romanticized, then the 90s with snowboarding,” he says. “Now we have this wave of ethnicity coming to the sport. It could be the most lucrative wave of all. We should focus on them, not the Baby Boomers.”

And for Smith, it’s a simple joy hidden under a giant challenge.

“My favorite days are when I get to stop and speak Chinese to a guest,” she says. “I just get so excited. And you know what? I think they do, too.”

Starter Steps

1. Get involved with someone with credibility in the market. TV stars, radio personalities, successful and popular business people in the community are all key influencers. The “word of mouth” factor is strong in ethnic communities, and having a respected celebrity deliver your message pays off. Accomplishing this is as simple as getting them out to experience your resort so they can talk about it.

2. Hire an agency with knowledge of the market. Even if you think you can do it on your own, don’t. There are cultural nuances, language issues, and more that one culture may simply not know about another. An agency that knows the culture can save you from mistakes and embarrassment.

3. Use multiple media. Advertise on TV, radio, billboards, and the Internet. The ability to target your advertising today is easier than ever.

4. Reach out through PR. Create or recreate your PR program in multiple languages, and then use an agency that understands who you are pitching to refine your message.

5. Attend cultural festivals and trade shows. Booking group business from these venues is a great start to introducing new cultures to mountain sports.

SAMMY Guest Editor

We have a thriving Latino population in southern Oregon. Families come regularly to play in the snow around the mountain, but only a few are already skiers and riders. We need to more openly embrace their culture and improve the ways we communicate as a local resource for both fun and employment. To that end, we recently invited Caminos, the premier Latino magazine for southern Oregon, to Mt. Ashland. They did a wonderful piece on snow play and highlighted Mt. Ashland for skiing and riding. We hope to advertise soon on a local Spanish-language radio station to attract new families.

Being a non-profit community- focused ski area, we put a high priority on our learn-to programs. We essentially give away the experience to bring in the next crop of families. The strong family bonds of our Latino guests ensure that we are getting families skiing and riding together for years to come. We also strive to hire a diverse workforce that will make the area more rich in culture and allow us to better serve the varied ethnicities of the Rogue Valley. We still have a long way to go to make sure all our guests know that this is their mountain, and to make them feel comfortable and welcome playing and working here, but we are committed to that goal. Vamos a esquiar! —Hiram Towle