It’s safe to say there’s never been a winter season like the one fast approaching. That’s because while shifts in consumer expectations and habits have historically been a game of inches and single percentage points, we’re now seeing sudden, dramatic changes in how guests interact with mountain resorts, what they need and want from them, and even how they see resorts fitting into their lives.
All of which is to say, there is an awful lot of unfamiliar terrain for mountain resort marketers to navigate when putting together their communications plans for the 2021-22 winter season. The term “unprecedented times” has been used so heavily over the past 18 months as to become cliche, but that doesn’t make it untrue: These truly are unprecedented times for the mountain resort industry.
To create an effective marketing plan for this upcoming winter, there are several factors that every resort communicator should consider as the first flakes of the new season approach. The first: A marketing plan must encompass more than ad buys and email campaigns. A good marketing team knows who it is talking to, both externally and internally, who is doing the talking—hint: it’s not always the PR director—and what really matters when it comes to sharing a brand.
Here are five considerations for marketing in 2021-22.
1. Guest Flexibility
For many people, the pandemic ushered in a new age of flexibility. The desire for lifestyle changes and the rise of remote work and flex hours have shifted consumers’ locations, behaviors, and expectations in ways that marketers cannot ignore.
The urban exodus. The well-documented exodus from the cities to the mountains, a phenomenon that occurred—and continues to occur—across North America, is dramatically impacting resort towns. This shift has been hard to track with accurate, verifiable numbers, but there’s no shortage of anecdotal evidence, and it’s notable that out-of-state real estate transactions in many rural, mountainous regions are up sharply. For instance, Vermont home sales to out-of-state buyers jumped 38 percent between 2020 and 2021.
What does this mean? Resort marketers need to understand the changes in their local populations, first from a demographic perspective, and then from an expectations and lifestyle perspective. An eyes open, ear to the ground approach may work; after all, many resort communications personnel live within the impacted communities. Marketers should also reach out to the local chamber of commerce and even local real estate agents for additional eye-witness reporting.
Ultimately, of course, the marketing team will want to develop content that speaks to these new residents and their experiences, while also introducing the resort’s brand. These new homeowners may come from different backgrounds and have different socio-economic realities than the resort’s usual clientele. Resort marketing teams should be aware of the potential for expanded diversity in a resort’s audience.
Resorts should not count on new denizens simply “finding out” about the resort either. Issue a warm welcome and invitation that lowers the barrier to entry. Extending introductory offers is one strategy to motivate newcomers to discover everything a resort has to offer.
Remote opportunity. Another consequence of the new era of remote work is the fusion of work and vacation/recreation. As employers shift to allow workers greater flexibility, resort visitors come with a whole new set of expectations and bring new opportunities. To take full advantage of the shift, a resort should consider what services it can offer remote workers. Wi-Fi is pretty much a given at this point, but what about a clean, quiet space for guests to take conference calls? How about creating longer-term packages aimed squarely at the “working vacation” crowd? (Jay Peak, Vt., saw huge success offering long-term rental opportunities over the past year.) Resorts could also create “work-and-play” promotions that offer discounted rates for multi-day midweek passes.
Whatever strategies are implemented, the trend is clear: The easier a resort can make it for guests to attend to professional responsibilities between runs, the more skier days it is likely to see.
2. Participant Demographics
Outdoor participation demographics are changing rapidly. According to a recent report published by the Outdoor Industry Foundation, these new participants are more likely to be:
- ethnically diverse
- from urban environments
- slightly less affluent
Their motivations are a bit different, too, according to the same study. Their outdoor participation has been primarily led by the desire to get out of the house and to improve physical and mental well-being. Given that about a quarter of these new participants do not intend to continue their newfound outdoor activities as the pandemic wanes, it’s important not to take them for granted and to lower every barrier to ongoing participation as much as possible.
Retain newbies. The key to attracting and maybe even retaining these new participants is two-fold. First, be certain these new participants see themselves represented in resort marketing content, as well as among resort staff. Also, be sure to acknowledge their motivations for participating. Remember that, for many, winter sports are about emotional health, connecting with nature and loved ones, and stress mitigation, as much as they are about thrill and adrenaline.
Second, wherever possible, lower logistical barriers to entry. Many new people need information about where to go, and how to participate at the most basic level. Make it as easy and obvious as possible for them to get started. Remember: Many mountain sports are intimidating to the uninitiated.
3. Lines of Communication
Back in the good old days (like two years ago), a large portion of guests had their first resort interaction at the ticket window, where ski areas had the opportunity to make a great first impression, as well as convey any necessary information.
New ambassadors. Now, it’s more likely that the ticket office is a guest’s smartphone. Naturally, as many operators have figured out, that means having a seamless online e-commerce experience is a must. Without a friendly ticket seller, though, an operation is much more reliant on field workers (lifties, patrollers, instructors, etc.) to serve as resort ambassadors. As such, it’s imperative to ensure that customer-facing staff have the necessary training and information to fulfill this role.
For digital interactions, a resort’s website—particularly the mobile version of that website—is now more important than ever. Functionality is paramount, of course, but with fewer face-to-face interactions, so too is a site’s ability to express a resort’s brand. Resorts that have been putting off a website overhaul shouldn’t wait any longer to make it happen.
4. Trust and Transparency
The U.S. is living through a historical low in the public’s faith in major institutions. Whether it's the government, the media, or even big nonprofits, the trend is declining trust and increasing skepticism. That’s the bad news.
The good news? According the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, businesses were the most trustworthy of all institutions in 2020. Meanwhile, employers have become pillars of trust for many thanks to months of thoughtful leadership amid the pandemic. What does this have to do with a marketing plan? » cont.
HR is a critical extension of marketing for ski resorts. A resort’s people are at the heart of the customer experience; they are representatives of the brand and everything it stands for. In many regards, they are the brand. How a resort recruits, supports, and communicates with employees has a major impact on the guest experience and on the brand impression.
Transparent internal communication with a resort team is not any more important now than it was in less fraught years. But, as the Edelman report confirms, employee trust in their employers is trending higher, giving resort leadership a unique opportunity to continue strengthening this relationship. This means leading with facts, even when facts are inconvenient. It means having the courage to communicate transparently, even when it’s uncomfortable. And it means responding to peoples’ fears and concerns—no matter how overblown they may seem—with empathy and compassion. Meanwhile, employers need to provide a safe, judgement-free environment for employees to talk about mental health, and implement policies that support employees in the treatment of these issues.
The rules of transparency apply to external communications, too. Guest expectations for transparency are heightened for many of the same reasons as employee expectations, and after more than a year of ever-changing and often-confusing messaging from government and other institutions, there’s an even greater desire for brands to speak plainly and honestly. Building trust in a brand is a process, and every single communication from a brand is an opportunity to deepen that trust. Ironically, one of the best ways for a brand to build trust is to acknowledge its own limitations and very human tendency to occasionally misstep or misspeak.
5. Company Values
While many brands may have previously felt uneasy about articulating their values and taking a strong stand on issues of equity and justice, the option to remain quiet is really no longer an option at all. Not only is there the moral imperative to move the needle in the direction of greater equity and justice, many younger guests and employees expect brands to take a stand on the issues that impact their lives.
Consumers feel an increasing sense of connection to brands they identify with, thanks in large part to social media, and there is growing frustration among consumers and employees with the perceived lack of action of many institutions. So, resorts that don’t express clear values risk being perceived as out-of-touch and even complicit.
Decide on key values. A resort doesn’t need to take an activist’s stand on every single issue, but operators absolutely do need to develop a roadmap to decide which issues are most important to the resort and its community. Once this work is done, it’s critical to actually speak up and, when appropriate, to help amplify the voices of guests and staff.
Will there be feedback? Yes. Will some of it be critical? Most likely. But it’s a drop in the bucket when one considers both what guests and employees expect of a business and where a business’s ultimate responsibility lies.
How a resort communicates its values and allyship depends on the audience. In all cases, it’s important that people feel that they are being heard. Giving employees an opportunity and a process to express themselves is critical, as is responding thoughtfully and respectfully to customers, either in person or via social media channels.
If a resort hasn’t yet implemented a clear and easy-to-use feedback process for both employees and guests, now is definitely the time to start.
Get to Work
This is a historic moment for the ski industry, and a large part of what makes it so is the unprecedented opportunity to broaden the industry’s appeal, engage new customers, reimagine the industry’s role in addressing social issues, and even redefine what snowsports activities mean to the existing audience. Seizing these opportunities can propel the snowsports industry forward in healthier, more sustainable ways. Ski resorts simply need to do what this industry has always done so well: Roll up their sleeves and get to work.