Before Covid, Bolton Valley, Vt., did about 70 percent of its business through walkup sales.
“We were behind the times, behind what tech was allowing other ski areas to do,” admits resort president Lindsay DesLauriers. “Having more pre-purchase capability online was something we wanted to move toward when we bought the ski area four years ago. But that ability is quite expensive, and we said, ‘all in good time.’”
Then Covid hit, and if ski resorts wanted to open and operate, they had to agree to strict capacity restrictions and find a way to manage crowd size. “All in good time” became “now or never.”
“We bumped tech up on the priority list,” DesLauriers says.
Despite some kinks and a rolling implementation, DesLauriers is thrilled with the results. “It’s been amazing and wonderful,” she says. “Really positive, not just in dealing with Covid but also for the customer experience.”
All across the country, resorts took the technology plunge—as Bolton Valley did—in what will likely turn out to be a major benefit of the pandemic. Whether resorts were already tech adopters or new to the game, technology will be one of the resounding success stories from this surprisingly good ski season.
Taking the Plunge
Bluewood, Wash., has a similar story. The ski area has two chairlifts and two surface lifts, and a best winter (before this season) of 39,000 skier visits. Pre-Covid “tech” at Bluewood was limited to a not-too-user-friendly website, social media, and some third-party online sales with which general manager Kim Clark was not too happy.
“The resounding message through all the [SAM] huddles before the season was, ‘embrace technology,’” says Clark. So, Bluewood spent $350,000—a significant investment for the resort—to rebuild its website, put up two new ticketing kiosks, and buy a point-of-sale system.
“I couldn’t be more pleased,” Clark says. “We’ll probably end up 50 percent over our best season, and 70 percent ahead of last year.”
Improving the customer experience. At Red Lodge, Mont., “Covid nudged us to commit the capital to improve our processes for our customers,” says Spencer Weimar, assistant general manager. “It pushed us off the plank, so to speak.”
That commitment included implementing technology from Aspenware. This season, Red Lodge sold only tickets online, but Weimar says the resort will roll out advance purchase lessons and rentals in the future. In fact, it planned to test those systems during the final month of this season.
“We will pursue all ancillary items, even ski bag checks, and offer some great package deals—lessons, rentals, tickets—online,” he says.
From the guest experience perspective, Weimar says the transition was seamless. “Guests caught on pretty quickly. Even before we had any signage on our ticket kiosks, they gravitated to them. We forget how tech savvy they are.”
Hidden opportunity. Bolton Valley invested in new software from Axess using Covid grant money provided by the state of Vermont to help ski resorts modify their operations for the pandemic winter. “It turned out to be a great opportunity for us,” DesLauriers says.
Bringing online sales and pricing onto Bolton’s own platform resulted in a much more nuanced yield management than outsourcing those sales, she explains. “We’ve seen it translate to a higher yield for every unit.”
For example, Bolton introduced a half-day ticket, which DesLauriers says allowed the resort to sell multiple access times each day while maintaining the same number of skiers at any one time.
New sales strategies. Boreal/Woodward Tahoe, Calif., went even farther, dividing ticket inventory across seven hourly start times for its new Go Time ticket. “We utilized tech to know who’s coming and when they’re coming,” says Max Gaal, senior manager of mountain sports. Also, pricing for different age brackets was eliminated to further simplify the purchase experience.
In a similar vein, Sugar Bowl, Calif., used tech to setup pods for rentals and sold time slots for pickup.
Shrinking queues. At Bluewood, which implemented software from Midwest-based White Peaks Technology, Clark says the resort sold about one-third of its daily ticket allotment online. Day tickets account for about 80 percent of Bluewood’s visitors.
“We allowed guests to save $2 per ticket if they bought in advance,” says Clark. “Taking one-third out with pre-sales was significant. It spread out ticket lines. We had some pretty significant ticket lines before.”
Bluewood also did about one-third of its rentals online. “It really sped things up for those who took advantage of it,” Clark says. “As guests get more and more tech advanced themselves, using our online system, we will be able to advance those numbers. Right now, those numbers are working really well for us.”
Accelerated adoption. Ski Cooper, Colo., had started down the tech route three years ago and, pre-Covid, was already selling more advance-purchase access products than walkups using software from Entabeni Systems.
“We didn’t need to change anything around tech we’d done in the past,” says Tony Torsell, senior director, skier services and resort administration. “It fit seamlessly into other changes we had to make because of Covid.” Instead, Torsell says, Covid bumped up the resort’s digital adoption rate.
“We always sold passes and day tickets online. Now we’re 100 percent online,” says Torsell. Ski Cooper also sold rentals online for the first time this season, although walkups were still allowed.
“Having the ability to sell rentals online and in advance has made a huge difference for both customers and employees and helped us become more efficient in the rental shop,” says Torsell. “We had the option before. We just never did it. Covid changed that. We had all the pieces in place. We just rearranged them a little bit.”
Lessons? Not Yet.
Because of Covid, many ski resorts opted not to have lessons available for pre-purchase online this season, even though they had the capability.
Safety first. “We did previously offer lessons purchased in advance,” says Torsell. But, because of Covid, Ski Cooper eliminated its children’s ski school, typically about half its ski school business.
“With all the restrictions, we just felt we couldn’t provide a safe environment for children. We took lessons only over the phone. Ski school staff had a conversation with everyone, which we couldn’t have put online, to really get across information we needed guests to know in advance before they got on the property,” says Torsell.
Massanutten, Va., which began using Inntopia three years ago, also chose not to offer online lesson bookings, but guests were able to reserve rentals and were required to purchase lift tickets in advance.
“We weren’t comfortable having a lot of instructors available,” says general manager Ken Hess. “We also eliminated our traditional children’s ski center.”
Lesson bookings may look different in the future, though. “We’re looking at how we can better accommodate lesson reservations,” says Hess. “In the past, the majority were walkup groups. This season, lessons were mostly private. We want to keep that as much as possible. A private lesson is a much better experience for the instructor and guest.”
When it came to tech solutions, food and beverage was another missing link, but not because of Covid.
“There is no integration that includes F&B and lodging,” DesLauriers says. “There is still not an adequate product or platform that can manage all different aspects of total resort operation. A lot of these products do offer F&B components, but not at the level of sophistication we actually need. We have multiple F&B venues. Integration is key, and it’s what’s missing from our perspective.”
Implementing new software—or expanding how a resort uses its existing software—can be challenging. It takes time to do, and then there’s a learning curve for both staff and guests.
“We’re a small, independent mountain,” says Weimar at Red Lodge. “Resources to do a project like this are limited. We started implementation in September and launched our system when we opened Thanksgiving. It was pretty impressive our team was able to pull it off. Some days, I questioned if we would get there.”
He says the new software system was definitely more labor intensive at first, but “we were able to reduce it as we understood it.”
“The biggest challenge is the time and effort it takes to manage the system,” says Hess at Massanutten. “People wanting to change their reservation, add on to their reservation, was tremendously confusing and time consuming. Our call and email volume went through the roof. I thought we were ahead of the curve but the volume was so high, we had to beef up our call center.”
Bolton Valley also had to increase its call center staff, says DesLauriers, but the resort was able to reduce its guest services staff.
“Trying to find the sweet spot is an ongoing process,” says Hess.
A Nod to Disney
Technology was used in some more unusual applications this Covid season. For example, Ski Cooper erected a fence around its base area, creating a single point of entry to the resort. Like an amusement park, instead of scanning tickets at the lift, Cooper scanned guests as they arrived at its only entry point.
“It worked incredibly well. It gives us another contact point with every guest who comes onto the property,” says Torsell. “It allows us to have very precise information on how many are on the property at any one time and enhanced contact tracing if we needed it.”
Torsell says Ski Cooper will expand the concept next season, devising new pricing for uphill skiers, non-skiers who want to spectate or just hang out, and others.
“I’m a big Disney fan,” Torsell says of the likely source of inspiration for Ski Cooper’s single entry point. “I’m a firm believer our ski industry can learn a lot from Disney and other theme parks.”
Whatever the source of this latest trend, it’s clear that resorts of all sizes are adopting technology, and finding the benefits far outweigh the challenges.