If your job title has “marketing” in it, and you’re feeling paralyzed by the uncertainty gripping the ski industry in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, you’re in good company. The crystal balls of even the most seasoned ski area marketers are clouded. While each day reveals more information, it also raises more questions about how to transition our marketing from crisis management to business recovery.
Little about the future is certain, but a model for recovery is emerging that does not bode well for the travel industry. It is a model that sees both global and national travel restrictions lifting slowly and erratically, and in ways that will prove particularly challenging for resorts that rely on long-haul or destination guests. Despite the difficulties posed by this model, there is a marketing strategy to work within it. It’s one that many operators have forsaken in recent years: building a brand community from the local market out.
The Path from Crisis to Recovery
The business world is full of predictions for what an eventual COVID-19 recovery might look like, yet many share a number of similarities. Travel industry research and insights company Arival (www.arival.travel) is typical of the forecasters, and predicts the industry will see four phases to recovery:
1. Lockdown. The current phase, at the April time of this writing, predicted to last anywhere from 2-4 months (with potential resurgences if future outbreaks occur). Travel demand is down to almost zero, at less than one percent of 2019 numbers.
2. Easing. A gradual softening of social distancing measures and travel restrictions, limited tourism re-openings, and a slow rebuilding of travel-related businesses. This may start this summer (in an optimistic scenario) and last anywhere from 4 to 9 months. Arival anticipates demand will grow to anywhere from five to 40 percent of 2019 numbers.
3. Returning. With removal of all significant travel restrictions, widespread growth appears as economies recover. This phase could begin any time between this fall and next spring, possibly lasting through the 2021-22 winter season. Demand rises to 40 to 70 percent of 2019 numbers.
4. Recovery. A return to “normal” pre-COVID travel behavior is likely to occur by spring of 2021, in the optimistic scenario, and as late as summer of 2022 in the pessimistic view. In this period, demand is forecasted to recover to 70 to 90 percent of 2019 numbers.
Will the ski industry follow the broader travel industry? Following the Great Recession in 2008, resorts rebounded quickly: They saw above-average visits in the winter of 2008-09, near-record volume in 2009-10, and set a record in 2010-11, when weather and snow conditions were almost universally strong all across the country. Snow, it seems, trumps the economy. This time around, though, the coronavirus effect will be layered on top of the economic downturn and recovery. Will health concerns trump snow? That may well stretch out the time frame.
For those of us in marketing, transitioning from our locked-down state into the easing phase is near-term enough that we can (and must) begin to plan. During this upcoming phase, it is realistic for many resorts to expect a significant change both in who we see visiting and how they visit, as people are likely to remain closer to home.
Resorts that currently serve a local or regional audience with limited ancillary services may maintain much of their current customer base and see a faster return to “normal.” Destination resorts with significant tourism infrastructure and a focus on long-haul guests may face larger challenges, as it’s reasonable to expect a higher percentage of day visits from frugal local and regional customers and fewer multi-day destination guests in a vacation-spending mindset.
The Easing Phase
Start by building your brand community. During the easing phase, the question we should be asking ourselves is, “What marketing strategies can we implement that could tap our local and regional customers?”
For some resorts, the focus on this customer may feel like business as usual; other resorts might require a whole-scale shift in target markets. Regardless of the geographic location of your current customer base, though, a business as usual approach to marketing—the tactical promotional offers, pass deadlines, and vacation packages many of us might normally be pushing right now—isn’t appropriate.
Build the brand locally. A more appropriate focus—one that aligns both the needs of the business with the mindset of consumers—is to rebuild a strong, engaged community of local and regional brand enthusiasts who also represent the best potential for near-term revenue.
Why focus on building community first? In times of crisis, it’s a natural human reaction to focus on family and community. Like it or not, humans are instinctively tribal creatures (read author Sebastian Junger’s great book, “Tribe”), and challenging times stand to emphasize our tribal nature. We seek to surround ourselves with people that share our values, our ideals, and our common interests.
Brands are as much a part of our “tribes” as people are. Just as members of a community expect their fellow citizens to act in alignment with their values and promote the greater good, consumers expect brands to do the same. People will choose the brands they buy—or the resort they choose to ski at post-COVID—based on how that brand fits into their “community.”
In addition, a focus on brand building is timeless and futureproof. Regardless of how resorts navigate the path to recovery, brand messaging will always be relevant and appropriate. Tactical or conversion-oriented messaging might not be.
In this time of recovery and community building, brands must look inward and focus on their brand strategy to guide decision-making, and then outwardly communicate their values and purpose in ways that align with the sentiment of the times. Doing so will help to cultivate deeper, more meaningful relationships with customers.
TIME TO RESET? The current situation offers up a unique opportunity to pause and hit “reset” on how we market and who we market to.
• For resorts with little history of brand marketing and/or with a limited existing community of loyal brand enthusiasts, this may mean looking for ways to build a brand with the local and regional customer.
• For resorts that have been neglecting brand marketing to their existing local and regional community, or that have lower brand sentiment with those customers, this may be an opportunity to re-engage that market.
• For resorts that have strong existing brand communities in their local and regional customers, well, congratulations! Now is the time to double down and foster or celebrate that community more than ever.
Content and Creativity
Content is one of the best tools we have as marketers to build brand community. It naturally allows for deeper engagement and storytelling, making it a more natural tool for communicating values and creating more meaningful connections with consumers than traditional, interruptive forms of advertising (display, pre-roll, etc.).
Pair this with the fact that the distribution of content can be less costly and more targeted, and you have an approach to marketing during the crisis that isn’t likely to break the bank or require intensive resources.
CREATIVITY RULES! That said, creativity will drive the success of your content and its ability to reach and engage your audience. During the pandemic, we’ve all seen the flood of creativity that locking people in their homes has unleashed. From laugh-out-loud memes, to stop-motion videos of indoor skiing, creative ideas that tap into the current zeitgeist and resonate with customers based on this shared human experience are rising to the top.
This doesn’t automatically require major creative and production resources, either. Some of the best branded content we’ve seen this spring has obviously been produced quickly, with simple production techniques. Take Ford’s COVID response ads for example (search “Ford built to lend a hand”). In mid-March, Ford pulled all its high-production-value national vehicle advertising, pivoting to a brand message around the company’s support for those impacted by the pandemic. The ads used simple archival footage and basic text and graphics. It’s the type of creative that perfectly captures the brand’s values and the mood of the moment, while requiring minimal work to execute.
Closer to home, Smith Optics has taken a simple approach to brand-building during this time, modifying its “Pursue your Thrill” tagline to create a #PursueYourChill user-generated content campaign. This invites athletes and enthusiasts to share how they are staying healthy and safe (physically and mentally) so that they can pursue their thrill again when the time is right.
The beauty of these marketing efforts is how they align the brands’ values with the current situation. Rather than simply pulling their marketing or shutting down their spend, they’re using this time to make their brand communities stronger than ever.
As a resort marketer, what creative themes can you and your team play with to align your brand’s values with the mood of the current times?
HISTORY. Can you play with the heritage of your resort (like Ford did), building on the nostalgia many people are feeling right now for the past, to communicate your values and purpose? Can you look back at where you came from to express your brand’s reason for being? Can you dig into the archives of footage, photography and historical information to remind people why they should love you?
CHARITY. Has your brand pivoted resources or energy into supporting local charities or healthcare providers during the pandemic? Can you create content to tell the story of why and how your brand took these actions?
COMMUNITY. Can you tap into your existing customers and brand enthusiasts to share user-generated content? Many of us are longing to relive the memories of better times when we could travel freely and ski with our friends and loved ones. If your brand values revolve around connection, belonging or shared memories, can you create a digital way for people to share these memories and tell their stories about what the brand means to them?
For brands looking to build community where there isn’t one currently, or for brands looking to rebuild community with an audience that has become disenfranchised, can you lean into brand ambassadors? Are there community members with an authentic connection and passion for your brand, and who also have influence in the market you are looking to tap into? Can you use these ambassadors to re-engage consumers who may otherwise overlook your brand, and remind them of all there is to love about you?
Turning Challenge into Opportunity
While there’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic presents an unprecedented challenge for humanity and the ski industry, this too shall pass. How we weather the dark times is what defines us, both as people and brands.
This period of transition from crisis management to recovery presents a unique opportunity to pause and rethink your marketing in a way that may have seemed impossible in the past. How we as marketers treat this opportunity—while finding the balance to not be opportunistic—may well define how successfully we are able to emerge from this crisis as an industry.