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Inspiration
A Collection of Pandemic Lessons Learned from 13 Ski Resort Marketers and GMs

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GREGG
BLANCHARD
       

A few weeks ago I got an email from Sugar Bowl’s Jon Slaughter. Jon was an early SlopeFillers reader and has always had great feedback and ideas in the early days. This time was no different:

“I had a post idea which I would love to contribute to but also would love to read and hear from others: “Lessons learned following a year of pandemic decisions.” I bet we could drum up a bunch of great thoughts…I would be happy to help do some outreach to my contacts.”

It took me about 2 seconds to realize this was a fabulously simple idea. So we reached out to our friends, gathered, and loved what we received from the generous marketers who took a minute to share their thoughts.
I’ll let Jon’s thoughts kick us off.

Jon Slaughter
Executive Director of Marketing, Sugar Bowl Resort

Don’t feel pressure to rush into decisions. In the spring things were changing at an extremely rapid pace and I fell victim to being reactionary with how to handle some guest service issues. In hindsight, we should have taken a breath, communicated that we were taking time to evaluate how all this is impacting our operation and informed guests we will come to a thoughtful decision at a later date. I’m not confident my decision would have ended up anydifferently, but upon reflection, it’s obvious there was no need to rush

Spencer Weimar
Assistant General Manager, Red Lodge Mountain

Resisting the pressure to make snap decisions when guests are asking and other ski areas are rolling out plans was easier said than done. We did find a way to slow down and take our time with rolling out our 2020-21 season pass sales. Normally we launch around the end of March. We took our time to work through the rapidly changing information about COVID-19, talk to other ski areas and reach out to key stakeholders on which of our ideas had the fewest drawbacks. We ended up delaying the launch of pass sales until the last weekend of May with a tier one pricing deadline of July 15. We ended up having our best ever early pass sales.

When facing the pandemic and uncertainty it was important to determine core values to set the course. Our core values focused on safety, following best practices from Health Officials, setting an example for the community of Red Lodge, ensuring the health of our employees while at work and protecting the long term financial health of Red Lodge Mountain.

As always with key stakeholders there are many with different needs. Ultimately we started with keeping our employees. In a service driven business we realized if we did not keep our staff healthy and safe at work it would be difficult to remain open. And having a full ski season was the key need of our other key stakeholders – Season passholder and our owners.

And finally we made the commitment to stay the course with our plan for the season as long it met our core values and continued to satisfy our key stakeholders. This commitment was tested as Montana elected a new governor who removed many of the mandates in place. The most trying change was the removal of the mask mandate in late January. We continued through the remainder of our season with masks required indoors, in lift lines and an anywhere physical distancing could not be maintained. This was met with some resistance but we believe it helped our staff to remain healthy and avoid any lost operations due to COVID.
By no means were we perfect and we definitely ended up shooting from the hip on a number of items.

Greg Fisher
General Manager, Granite Peak

By making advanced tickets necessary for weekend business it brought a new sense of urgency to our resort and probably others in the Midwest. While our resort didn’t utilize a dynamic pricing model like many in the East and West have done in the past – the idea that our resort could and did sell out, created a sense of demand that I don’t believe the Midwest was acclimated to. If guests couldn’t get the day they wished an alternative was chosen. This inevitably spread out crowds to comfortable levels while increasing overall visits to our resort over a Friday to Monday period. This created a better scenario for staffing, forecasting, guest experience, safety, and overall operations. Something we’ll continue into the future.

Sean Mirus
Marketing & Events Director, Schweitzer

My biggest takeaway…especially from a marketing position is continuous, open and honest communication. We got TONS of feedback (positive and negative) on our blog posts from Tom about what we were doing, how things are going, etc

Steve Wright
President/General Manager, Jay Peak

Truth be told, we didn’t really shoot from the hip much. We did some things differently (delivery food, delivery booze, scaled some restaurants shut, opened certain lodging properties only at a certain compressions, created some longer term lodging options) but everything was relatively planned I guess. As far as lessons-learned it’s more lessons-reinforced for us. The only reason we’re still open, and performing a touch better than we expected, is because of the team.

We’ve whittled staffing levels from 1500 or 1600 to 350 and they have been carrying the water (theirs and those of their teammates that were not brought back on because of business levels). Many of these folks would be making more to stay unemployed than what they’re making here because of federal top offs and state extensions and still they chose to show up. We know that we only go as far as our staff takes us, and we know that they feel a connection to this place that’s stronger than a federal shutdown (and now a pandemic), and this season has just borne that out in sharper relief. For us, new tactics and strategies go and come and go again, and we’ll have our share of them as a result of operating differently, but operating at all is a result of people working hard, making good decisions, being flexible, and supporting one another. That’s probably not ground-breaking tbh, but it’s, by far, the most important part of what kept us whole and together during this and a lesson that we try hard to never forget.

Lisa Nigon
Homewood, Marketing Director

Like all other resorts, our team had a lot of new things to communicate this season, new policies, new procedures and new systems. Being so concentrated on all of the new things I lost sight of one of our ‘standard’ marketing planning tactics that had worked well for us in the past. It wasn’t until we were in season one of my employees reminded me of this internal process we had used previously. So the lesson I learned was, don’t be so overtaken by the new that you lose sight of what has worked well in the past.

JP Goulet
Director of Marketing, Powder Mountain

One of the unforeseen issues, which clogged up our ticket office, was guests needing to constantly change reservation dates due to covid-19 related issues like exposure, travel, sickness, etc. We are currently working on giving our guests the ability to change their visit dates in advance for a small fee.

Stacey Glaser
Marketing Director, Mountain Capital Partners

Have you ever played Bananagrams? It’s like speed Scrabble. What I’ve learned from playing (sometimes winning, more often losing) that game is that if you want to win, you have to be completely willing to abandon your strategy and start all over. Those who don’t will be helplessly stuck with a nearly-perfect puzzle while still holding onto a rogue R, Q and X with nowhere to go.

As simplistic as it sounds, I’ve reminded myself of this strategy over the last 12 months. Clinging to our “old” way of doing things (even those beloved winning formulas that were so tried and true) wasn’t going to have the same outcome. Once our ski areas abruptly closed last March, we went to work: we re-imagined how to shift our guests’ purchase paths from mostly in-person to mostly online. We dedicated people and resources to developing online food ordering (as we knew we would likely see the most restrictions and guest hesitations around our food and beverage outlets). We felt an immense responsibility to our communities, so we carved out 2% of our 2020/2021 pass sale proceeds to share with area businesses that may not have been able to benefit from PPP loans. Our marketing message evolved from direct language like “Buy Now” and “Sale Ends” to more hopeful, inspirational messages, like “We Believe in Skiing.” We doubled down on our mission, vision and values: Give People the Freedom to Ski suddenly carried more meaning than ever, and we leaned into those statements when the path felt uncertain.

If I could go back and talk to myself 12 months ago, I’d tell myself to keep moving forward with resilience and grace. Be comfortable with changing the strategy. It’s going to be OK.

For good measure, I’d also shout, “Bananas!” :)

Dave Rathbun
General Manager, Purgatory

Initially, daily Google Meets and Zoom calls provided an important way for our team to stay connected, to communicate and ultimately, to allay stress and fear to the extent possible. There is no question at this point there is extreme “Zoom Fatigue,” however, this means of communication played a significant, positive role in our employee communications and experience early on.

Every employee and customer had their own outlook on the threats presented by covid – realizing this early helped our team become very flexible in evaluating, implementing and adjusting safety and hygiene solutions to take divergent views of the threat into consideration throughout the pandemic as circumstances constantly changed. In the end, 86% of our guests were satisfied with covid precautions we put in place (Guest Research survey).

Necessity for contactless transactions and fulfillment challenged us to pursue technology solutions for online sales, ticket, lesson and rental fulfillment, and food and beverage ordering and payment that will continue into the future and help us improve the guest experience.

Without our committed year round and seasonal employees – about 30% fewer than in a normal year – we would not have been able to survive, let alone succeed to the degree we have. The best description for the performance of our team this year I can offer is simply, “heroic.”
Passionate skiers/riders trump terrorism, economic downturns and now, global pandemics. For those of us who have been doing this for a while, we add pandemic to the list of calamities that our amazingly resilient community will overcome to pursue their passion for sliding on snow. Thank goodness!

Nick Polumbus
Director of Marketing & Sales, Whitefish Mountain Resort

I think the biggest thing is being comfortable being wrong. Seems like with every decision we made this past year 40% of our audience thought we were wrong, 40% thought we were right and 20% just wanted an answer so they could go skiing. The next decision would be the same percentages but different people. To support that, I think in times like these you have to remember nobody had a rule book much less a play book. You have to make the best decision with the information you have on hand and be ready to be wrong and thus ready to change.

Paul Raymore
Marketing & Sales Manager, Diamond Peak

One of the biggest takeaways that I’ve gotten from this season of constant change is to embrace what I would have thought of as “oversharing” a season ago. Whether that’s posting detailed reasons for a chairlift being down for maintenance, getting into the specifics of why we chose to keep our indoor dining facilities closed all season on social media, or having our Patrol dog model all the different ways you can wear a mask incorrectly, this season our customers truly seemed to appreciate seeing some of the thought processes that go into our decision making here at the resort.

The positive reception to some of our lengthier “in the weeds” communications with our guests – whether via email, social or on our website – has me planning for more of this type of messaging moving forward, even though it can be a challenge to pull this type of information together.

Talia Freeman
Director of Marketing, Beech Mountain

Do you remember the “pivot” episode of “Friends”? Ross tried to navigate the couch up the stairs by pivoting and screaming “pivot” over and over again. As I navigated each day this season, I could hear Ross Geller’s voice screaming “pivot,” over and over again. I’ve always prided myself on having multiple backup plans, but if I’ve learned anything this winter season it is the art of pivoting when all else fails. As long as we pivot in a new direction with a smile and grace, our customer knows no difference.

Jesse True
Director of Marketing, Arapahoe Basin

This season forced us to learn things quickly and may have accelerated our path by a few years in just a few short months. This season was a strong reminder to keep doing things our way and not to be afraid of that. Sometimes it can be hard to separate yourself from the competition when there are so many neighboring ski areas that loom large, or it can be hard to put a stake in the ground when so many people hold an outdated vision of your ski area.

We came out swinging from the time we reopened for 2 weeks after the March 2020 COVID-19 shutdown (the only ski area in the state to do so). We plowed into this season with restricted passes and tickets, focused on talking up our challenging terrain, and remained very nimble.

Our loyalists followed. The people who want a really awesome ski and ride experience with some great food and a lower-hassle experience to go along with that are finding their home here and are coming along with us as we evolve. We learned we can buck a lot of industry trends and still be successful.


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FYI: I'll be talking about measuring resort conversion rates during Insight Online on May 26.