I see a lot of new apps, sites, and other ski-focused businesses come across my desk. And, so being, I’ve slowly become less and less intrigued with new ideas.
But there’s one site recently that caught my eye: Scout.
A combination of printed books, first-hand experience, and solid design made me curious about the story behind the business. So, I reached out to Scout’s mastermind, Sarah Plaskitt, and here’s what she said.
Gregg: Alright Sarah, let’s get a little background on you. Where did you grow up? Where did you start skiing? What’s your story between that first day on snow and the day you started Scout?
Sarah: I grew up in Sydney, Australia. It’s a beach city, but fortunately my parents loved mountains and skiing too. When I was 3 years old we went to a tiny Australian ski resort called Mt Selwyn and they took my older sister into the rental shop to get her kitted out. When she came out I said “What about me?!” and begged to be taken skiing too. From that day on I’ve been hooked. As a family we didn’t ski every year, but we were lucky to do some great trips overseas. However unlike many other Aussie families who were going to Vail, Whistler and Meribel the Plaskitt family went to Wolf Creek Pass, Les Contamines (a tiny resort in France) and Niseko, Japan in 1988 when we were the only Australians there. I love that my parents chose to take us to those places as I think it instilled a sense of exploration in me.
Following college I became a journalist and then worked in advertising agencies as a brand strategist in Sydney and New York. When I came home to Australia in 2013 I felt it was time to do something I loved. It was while sitting at my desk during yet another late night at my old job and on a facebook chat with my ski buddy in Denver, that the concept of Scout was born.
Gregg: Imagine we’re on the lift and three towers before I ask you, “So, what’s Scout exactly?” What’s your 30 second response?
Sarah: Scout is a cross between an online skiing guidebook, a magazine and a travel agency. We see everything for ourselves and do our own write ups so what you get is detailed, honest and independent information by reading our reviews and/or talking to our booking specialists. We make sure you get exactly the right resort and hotel for your needs, and make the process easy and enjoyable.
Gregg: Speaking of books, that’s one thing that caught my eye about Scout. At a time when entrepreneurs are scrambling to build apps, you send every guest a physical, printed guide. What’s the story behind that strategy?
Sarah: I need to work hard to differentiate Scout as it’s a competitive marketplace. And everything I do on Scout I try to think back to what I would want when I was taking ski trips as a regular consumer. There’s something neat about getting a physical (old-school) guidebook in the mail prior to your trip with all the information you need for that resort, plus some insider tips to help you find some local favorites. It gets you excited and helps you plan. Then you can take that book with you and use it throughout the trip.
Apps definitely have their place, but I felt that having it printed in a pocket sized book was more unique and useful. My customers love them and I have people begging to buy them, but they’re exclusively a gift for people that book via Scout. It’s turned out to be one of the most loved and most talked about parts of the brand.
Gregg: That’s awesome, I’ve seen a similar response to print materials recently. Let me back up a little bit and ask more about the way you visiting every location in person. What’s the strategy on those trips? Are they comped, are you interviewing locals, how long do you stay, etc.? What’s the game plan to make sure a trip provides everything you need for a physical guidebook and online listing?
Sarah: Prior to starting the business and when I was living in New York I skied a lot out west. All my friends knew I had been to a few places and would ask me for advice about where to stay, eat, drink, ski etc. I was sending these long detailed emails back and that was when I realised there was very little independent and trustworthy information out there. I felt that was integral to the business so started travelling around all the resorts and hotels to review them.
Some people think I’m a ski bum and I just travel the world skiing. It’s actually bloody hard work! I visit around 5-8 properties each day (my record was 12 in one day) and I’ll work all night. Some of the hotels are comped, some are discounted, some are full price. I never let that affect my reviews (in fact some that have been comped haven’t made it on the site) and I move between resorts quickly so that I can cover more places. I always try to chat to locals, get their tips and next year I’ll be starting a new section for each resort with tips as told by a local.
Of course, it’s important that I ski the mountain so I can explain it in my own words and usually my ski tickets are comped which is nice. What’s been interesting is that because the Scout model covers editorial and sales, the resort marketing teams can get confused as to who should be looking after me (PR or sales teams or both). I don’t mind that it confuses them… it proves that I’m doing something different.
Gregg: Speaking of differentiation, how has that first-hand knowledge helped set yourself apart from competitors?
Sarah: It’s my biggest point of differentiation. When I start talking to customers (either on the phone or via email) they’re like “wow, you know your stuff”. I love talking to people about their trips and sometimes I’m the one on the call getting more excited than they are! I went to MTS for the first time this year and saw how most of the other ski travel agents learn about the hotels and resorts… getting sales pitches across a desk in a conference room. It made me proud of what I’ve done and confident about the business model.
I’m not saying that all travel agents don’t have first hand experience as a lot of them do Fam trips which is great. I’m also not bagging MTS at all – I think it’s an excellent concept and serves a great purpose, I got a lot out of it. But nothing quite beats having a wealth of first-hand knowledge. I am pretty sure that not one other travel agent out there has seen 525 properties in 75 resorts!
Gregg: I think that combination of hard work and personal visits really is unique. That’s awesome. So aside from putting out an awesome product with great service, what can a resort do to maximize their visibility through your efforts? Or is the lack of resort influence a key element of your model?
Sarah: I’m open to resorts inviting me to visit and helping with the trip, but they can’t do anything to maximize their visibility on the review part of scoutski.com or in Scout newsletters, nor can they affect what I write (though I always work with them to make sure facts are correct and content is up-to-date). I had a well-known resort whose sales contract stipulated that they had to approve all content in any brochure or website. Fortunately they respect what I’m doing and made exception to the rule for Scout.
Aside from the reviews, I’m always looking for new story ideas for the magazine and for social media posts, so it is possible for resorts to get more exposure that way.
Gregg: Anything else worth mentioning about your model, what’s coming, or resort travel in general?
Sarah: The business model will no doubt morph and change in the future. One big advantage of running your own business is that you can be agile and make changes quickly according to what consumers want and need, adopting new technologies and just making the product and service better. I’m looking forward to travelling to some new resorts this season and re-visiting some old ones. I’ll definitely be going back to Japan to continue to expand my offering there, but the rest I haven’t planned yet. I always try to take a few days off from scouting to do some ski touring – I’d love to do that in Norway this season.
Published October 21st, 2015 by Gregg Blanchard.