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May 2016

Buy Now and Save

Online ticket sales give customers a means to find bargains and buy in advance. Are resorts reaping any benefits, too?

Written by Dave Meeker | 0 comment

Third party partnerships are not a new concept in the ski industry. Wholesale tour operators have been profiting from selling ski trips for decades. But the concept of selling lift tickets online through a third party is relatively new. As with anything new, there are skeptics and staunch supporters. Companies in this space tout slick storefronts, dynamic pricing models, and additional marketing reach—all of which they say are designed to put more skiers on your mountain during need periods. Is it working? Are these third parties now a vital part of the industry? The answer depends on who you talk to.

Like plane tickets and hotel rooms, lift tickets are more or less valuable at different times due to demand, and therefore the price should reflect that. E-commerce makes dynamic pricing possible, and perhaps even desirable.

Before the advent of e-commerce, the primary point of sale for lift tickets was at the window. “The way that tickets were sold back then was equivalent to a hotel selling all of their room nights at the front desk and having every night be priced the same,” says Evan Reece, co-founder of Liftopia, the industry’s largest online third-party ticket seller.

It was that realization more than ten years ago, coupled with the growing world of e-commerce, that gave Reece the idea for an online marketplace where lift tickets could be purchased in advance for specific dates, at prices derived from data relative to demand. “Our hypothesis was that if dynamic pricing based off of data had made such a positive impact on the hotel industry—not to mention airlines, car rental companies, advertising, etc.—then in theory it should help resorts,” says Reece.

Birth of a New Channel

When starting out, Liftopia was met with a lot of skepticism (some of which remains, Reece admits). As a new company with no track record, Liftopia had to convince resorts to, 1. Sell tickets on the Internet, 2. Sell date-specific tickets, 3. Have different prices for different days, and 4. Do it all with them.

Considering how coveted lift tickets are by resort operators, it was a tough sell. After Liftopia’s first year it had 10 “resort partners.” Now, 10 years later, sells products from more than 250 resorts across North America. And in 2012, the company launched its Cloud Store—a white label e-commerce platform that more than 110 resorts now use on their own websites. Using each channel comes at a cost, with Liftopia charging a commission for every product sold.

Now with 45 full-time employees, including an entire team dedicated to pricing strategy and data analytics, Liftopia has “become a revenue management department for many resorts, because the data we have is so powerful,” Reece says. It’s this data, and the pricing model it produces, that has many resorts turning to Liftopia to collaborate on their pricing decisions.

“Some resorts will work closely with us and ‘give us the keys’ to adjust pricing and maximize revenue, where we are helping them assign their window rate structure, their season pass pricing structure, and their advanced booking structure across all of their products,” he says.

Newer to the third-party online ticket game is, which started to partner directly with resorts in 2010. Founded by Brandon Quinn, his wife Heather, and his sister Erika, takes a bit of a different approach than its competitor. Quinn views their resort partners as the pricing experts: “The bigger resorts establish their own pricing, so we leverage their experience,” he says. “We feel resorts at that level have a better pulse on their rates and their pricing, so we utilize that.”

Smaller resorts have a different set of challenges, like seasonal turnover, so Quinn and his team offer guidance to help them find “that magical number and see what sells while making sure they’re not giving away the house and farm.”

According to Quinn, has experienced tremendous growth over the past two years. He attributes that growth to the relationships the company has created with its resort partners, having a flexible commission structure, and sharing guest data. “You have to treat your resort partners with the utmost respect and abide by their rules,” he says. recently launched its own white label e-commerce platform—dubbed “Ski Commerce”—that uses Inntopia software to power the storefront. Four resorts are currently using Ski Commerce as their online store, and Quinn hopes this is only the beginning. “The Ski Commerce platform is probably one of the biggest growth components to our future, because half of the resorts out there don’t have any kind of e-commerce,” he says. “This is a really simple, fast, efficient, and affordable way for them to sell online.”

The White Label

Today, e-commerce is no longer a vanity for ski resorts—it’s a necessity. The buying habits of consumers have changed, and the marketplace to purchase lift tickets online has been gaining momentum. The percentage of lift tickets purchased at the window continues to decline while online ticket sales grow.

For any resort, it’s preferable to drive traffic to its own website rather than elsewhere, so having a user-friendly e-commerce solution is important. As one marketer put it, “We shouldn’t make it difficult for people to give us their money.”

Whether it’s a white label platform, custom storefront, or a platform based on existing point of sale technology, every option is different. And the choice depends on the resort’s goals, strategies, market, and capabilities. There is no “one size fits all” solution.

Liftopia’s Cloud Store is currently the white label e-commerce platform of choice for resorts of all sizes. According to Peggy Hiller, VP of operations at Arapahoe Basin, the resort explored another e-commerce option first. “We tried doing it in-house using our own point of sale software, but it wasn’t designed for yield management,” she says. “That’s why the Cloud Store was just night and day from what we were able to do in-house.”

Crystal Mountain in Michigan uses the Cloud Store and also utilizes Liftopia’s pricing model, which is an important part of the resort’s strategy, says guest services director Ron Shepard. “The biggest change I’ve made in our Liftopia strategy was to stop trying to second-guess their algorithms and trust them more,” he explains. “They have so much data, we use their knowledge to help us make good decisions.”

According to Crystal’s COO Chris MacInnes, the Cloud Store really shows its value when weather isn’t ideal because the resort can’t drive ticket rates—but the Cloud Store drives business. She says about a third of their total revenue comes from online sales of dynamic products.

But not every resort has such a neat fit. “For us, Liftopia’s pricing strategies don’t really work because the data used for it is only from people who want to buy online,” says Matt Palacio, senior sales manager at Sierra-at-Tahoe, which is’s newest adopter of Ski Commerce. “They’re not looking at the REIs, the Costcos, the lodging packages, the ski shops in town—things that bring us millions of dollars in direct-to-lift ticket revenue aren’t considered in Liftopia’s pricing strategy equation.”

When choosing which e-commerce platform to implement, Palacio and the team at Sierra-at-Tahoe had some specific requirements, like being mobile-friendly (both the Cloud Store and Ski Commerce are). But ultimately it came down to the need for one system to talk to another. “We wanted our e-commerce to integrate with our ticketing software, and that is something only the Ski Commerce platform can offer at this time,” explains Palacio. “We are able to automatically link the customer data into our marketing database so we can communicate with our guests more effectively, and it makes the on-site guest experience more efficient.”

Ski Cooper, Colo., was the first resort to sign on to use Ski Commerce. “Our initial foray into online lift ticket sales was a custom in-house solution. It actually worked quite well, but it also required a great deal of time, management, and organization,” says spokesman Patrick Torsell. “We tried a competitor, and they just didn’t seem to understand the peculiarities of smaller ski areas, so we started a dialog with GetSkiTickets.”

Similar to its counterparts elsewhere, Ski Cooper has seen its online ticket sales grow rapidly. “Online lift ticket revenue increased nearly 400 percent, September to December 2015 over the same period the previous year, which was our inaugural year using the platform,” says Torsell.

Where Consumers Go To Buy

While resorts are adopting e-commerce solutions for their own websites, and are where many consumers shop for lift tickets. Dozens of resorts in the East have products on; is just starting to break into that market.

Okemo, Vt., offers lift tickets on both sites, and that is part of the resort’s multi-channel distribution strategy. “When we were looking at GetSkiTickets, we were hopeful they would hit a market that was different from what Liftopia reaches. It was a way to maximize our visibility,” says Dave Kulis, VP of marketing and sales at Okemo.

Sierra-at-Tahoe also utilizes both sites successfully. “We’ve been on both third parties for the last few years, and we’ve seen online sales growth of five times over four really poor winters,” says Palacio.

Access to customers’ email addresses is a key differentiator between the two platforms for some resorts. “When someone purchases a ticket through, you can see the customer’s name and mailing address, but you can’t see the lucrative email address,” says Palacio. “With GetSkiTickets and the Ski Commerce platform, you get all that info. And that’s the Holy Grail. Building our database is super important, so we have more people to effectively communicate with.”

Says Hiller, “Without the full gamut of data, we run into challenges with the fulfillment piece when the guest arrives, not to mention the marketing. It would be easier, too, if the data was able to load right into our POS system.” That’s a common issue for many resorts.

It’s best practice to have customers opt-in to receive email communications, a practice GetSkiTickets is working on implementing: “We are streamlining our opt-in process so that customers, resorts, and ourselves are protected,” says Quinn.

Reece says it’s common practice for third party distributors not to share certain consumer data with partners. “Every time a customer buys from Liftopia, the resort is going to want to sell to that customer directly next time,” he says. “I would, too. That’s what keeps us working to get better, and show resorts value beyond the customers we’ve brought to them in the past. We bring value to them in terms of how we influence the behavior of the customers, and how we share information with them that makes their business more effective, and go from there.”

Resorts that use the Cloud Store are provided with all of the customer data, including email addresses, Reece notes.

The Role Of Third Parties

There will always be mixed reviews from resorts about the role of third party ticket sellers in the ski industry, simply by the nature of their business. Quinn says that their job at is to get new skiers and riders to visit resorts, not cannibalize existing business. But the jury is still out as to whether third party ticket sellers in fact deliver new business.

Says Kulis, “It really comes down to what we pay in commission and what we receive.”

With that in mind, Tyler Fairbank, CEO of The Fairbank Group, which operates Bromley, Jiminy Peak, and Cranmore, runs a program with to sell only certain products. “It’s intended to sell packages that we want to sell for certain time frames at certain price points that make sense to us,” he says. “We are able to take advantage of an expanded marketing effort by another entity to sell products that may not otherwise get as much exposure.”

Reece points to the need for a first-rate online channel, on a par with resort operators’ sophistication when it comes to physical operations and guest services. That’s where a specialized supplier like Liftopia comes in. He says that the overarching DIY mentality shouldn’t apply to e-commerce: “Thinking that, as a ski resort, you can build all the software that you use is akin to thinking that you can build your own lifts, build your own snowmaking, or build your own snow cats,” he says.

One new company, Specific Gravity, believes resorts can excel at selling lift tickets online without giving a cut to third parties. According to its website, Specific Gravity “is able to focus on optimizing sales channels to put revenue control in the account holder’s hands, freeing them of commission-based yield management.”

Specific Gravity founder Scott Guyette says that Inntopia’s Yield View is the best e-commerce platform he’s found. “It takes what works well with the white label solutions and allows resorts to control the revenue management in order to maximize yield and control volume,” he says. “The resorts own the data, the pricing strategy and the customer service.” Specific Gravity helps resorts customize the platform for their needs, he says, at “a fraction of what a full service yield management team would cost.”

The bottom line is, consumer buying habits have changed. Online lift ticket sales—through a third party channel and/or an e-commerce platform on your website—should be a part of any resort’s strategy. Now, the only question is, who is going to sell your lift tickets—you, or somebody else?