Paving the Way

While resorts are good at delivering on snow quality, lift modernization, and base amenities, seldom do they focus on the basic concept of good parking. Yet this can be the make-or-break aspect of a resort visit for many guests.
Point stated: a Reach Advisors study presented at the 2004 New England Winter Sports Summit found that for a vast majority of resort visitors, the number one "flashpoint" (i.e. thing that turned them off) was a bad parking situation. Yet, when that study was announced there and managers were asked to guess what the flashpoint was, only two of the dozens of them guessed right.

And never, you say, the twain shall meet? Not so. Because let's face it: while most resorts may not want to admit to parking issues, neither do they want their skiers to have to slog through acres of muck with tons of gear and a couple of toddlers in tow. Resorts are catching on and realizing the bookends of the experience-the first and last thing a guest sees at a resort-make all the difference. And the good news is, in most cases, you don't have to rev up the backhoe and start anew.

The idea of parking lots having such an influence on guests may make snowmaking experts and groomers cringe, but according to James Chung of Reach Advisors, it all makes sense. "It's human nature," he says. "There is so much anticipation about going skiing. You drive there thinking about that first view and that first breath of fresh air." Then you find yourself marooned on a desolate plain far from the base lodge. "A lot of ski areas are really good at stripping that buzz right off the bat," Chung says.

He points out that most other recreation facilities manage the entrance more successfully: "Think of other leisure experiences, like a nightclub: They have the velvet rope; the sense of arrival. They really manage that first experience." In his research, Chung has found out that "ski resorts, for the most part, just don't care. They think, 'it's not the mountain so it's not the product.' We've found it is the product."

The good news, he says, is that this blight can be remedied without breaking the bank. "Every solution does not have to be a capital expenditure," he says. "Customers know they are going to the mountains and not to Disney. Resorts just need to move skiers around so that it's not something they endure, but rather something they enjoy."

Styling at the Basin
Newbie Moonlight Basin had the luxury of approaching parking issues from the get-go of their resort plan. The concept is to provide many small, manageable parking lots rather than one big one. The resort also invests major time and management on parking, crowning one of their top employees as parking manager.

How small are the lots? No bigger than 150 cars, and each has an easy-to-spot drop-off area with staff on hand to help folks unload or load up gear. Once they drive away from that drop-off area, they don't have far to go. "You never have to walk more than 100 yards from your parked car to a lift," says Kris Olenicki, director of human resources/guest experience/events.

Even so, Olenicki believes the real key to a good parking experience is customer service. "The skier has to come in to a smiling face leading them to their parking space; they simply have to," she says. "We want every skier to be greeted with a trail map, directions and a friendly conversation." For that reason, the resort committed to hiring outgoing parking staff, not just folks who can wave a hand at a car. "We look for chatty, talkative folks for that job," she says. "And we give them training; lots of training. We expect them to know the entire resort and surrounding area, and we update their training weekly to keep them on top of things."

Among the other services provided to guests: Moonlight has been known to hand out free hand warmers to arriving guests, and to scrape off car windows on rough weather days so skiers arrive to a car that's ready to roll at the end of their ski day.

At Moonlight Basin, management wants each guest to be greeted with a trail map, directions and a friendly conversation. The area also proivdes valet parking.

The program seems to be working. "Our parking lot supervisor [whom Moonlight imported from his bellman's job at neighboring Big Sky] gets more thank-you notes than any other employee here. And he wins the 'best guest service' award every year. That says it all," says Olenicki.

Even resorts saddled with a long-ago designed mega lot can draw lessons from Moonlight's experience.

Second Chances
Ted Reeves, director of real estate planning and development for Okemo Mountain in Vermont, knows what it's like to deal with parking. The resort has long struggled to control both traffic in and out of their main base area lot and customer satisfaction with that lot. The advent of their second base, Jackson Gore, has given them a chance to tweak things for the better.

"The one thing we think about daily is how to move our guests as close to the trails as possible in as little time as possible and with the least stress possible," he says. "I have four kids myself, and I think of my wife and me schlepping bags and skis and lunches and kids. We really have to eliminate that hassle factor."

Okemo has worked to move traffic away from the main resort entrance in the town of Ludlow, where on a busy day a skier can sit in traffic for an hour, to the north where they can enter at the Jackson Gore base.

Once at the resort, Okemo traffic control manager Bruce Chapman uses a combination of good planning for each particular day (a parking lot can be filled many ways) and encouraging staff to help skiers get their gear dropped at the base and then parking their cars.

And then there are the shuttles. "We try to run as many as are needed," says Reeves, "and make them as comfortable as possible."

Beaver Creek faces an even bigger challenge. The resort, when built 25 years ago, was forced to place most day skiing parking outside the resort, three miles away in Avon. Ironically, that worked well, with skiers parking and hopping on buses that take them to the lifts. "We move more than 1,500 skiers per hour and it has worked well for us for 24 years," says COO John Garnsey. "We have no issues, and it's free." The key, he says, is consistency: "We run anywhere from four to nine busses a day, and we add them as we need them. Our goal is to never keep people waiting." In fact, while they've long had a smaller lot in the village, most day skiers prefer the larger lot. "It's easier, and again, it's free," he notes.

Beaver Creek being Beaver Creek, it has also created an alternate access point that is-smart thinking-lift serviced. Skiers park and take a one-minute bus ride to a "base" (called Beaver Creek Landing) where a lift whisks them up to the real base area, or better yet, to a second next lift that takes them right to the top. Skiers have the perception, thanks to the lift, that they're already up on the mountain when they are in fact being transported to the mountain. And that lift carries them back to their car at day's end, making them feel they've been on the mountain for even more time.

At Beaver Creek, a lift that takes skiers from the free parking lots to the base area makes guests feel like they are already having a mountain experience, rather than traveling on a bus.

In another year, Beaver Creek will debut a gondola from the town of Avon to the base of Beaver Creek Landing, meaning guests staying in Avon can walk from their hotel, hop on the gondola to Beaver Creek Landing, then ride the chairlifts up the mountain. No parking involved at all.

Other resorts simply find ways to make parking or busing more fun. If you take a bus from Jackson, Wyoming, to Grand Targhee, you may be lucky enough to get one of the Cowboy Poet drivers, who entertains riders the whole way. At Loon Mountain (among others), you can pay a valet to park your car.

Three Key Solutions
While there are many creative ways to take the pain out of parking, Chung has three recommendations for every ski resort. First, require as many managers as possible to park like a customer each and every day. "They need to bring their skis in the car, not leave them in a locker near their office. They need to park in the main lot and ride the shuttle bus, not in the special side lot right next to the building," he says. "Most managers have never done that." This, he says, forces managers to see first hand the service gaps and problem spots, and to look for ways to "turn the shuttle wait into fun. Operations guys will choke at this, but one requirement for any parking/moving situation should be humor. Make it a part of the overall experience. Build the situation into your brand touch points. Manipulate the mood. At a minimum, program some really great music into the shuttle buses."

Chung also feels, even with an additional cost, valet parking is a valuable service: "$12 is a bargain if you have five kids and a minivan. And it's optional, so there is no rip-off factor," he says.

A simple low-cost solution is to beef up your ambassador team and station them around the lots during peak arrival and departure times. Make them visible everywhere. "Buy some coats and a few more season passes," said Chung. "What's that going to cost you? That's just smart thinking. You can take what [parking arrangement] you have and make it something guests enjoy instead of endure. Skiers will love you for it." Your customers may find they have, after all, found paradise in a parking lot.
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