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NSAA Report: Database Marketing on Steroids (The Good Kind)

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This week I’ll be reporting some of the marketing goodness that came from this year’s NSAA National Convention and Tradeshow. It was great to meet many of you and many thanks again to NSAA for providing a press pass on such short notice.

A few weeks ago I did an email interview with Corey Ryan, whose name makes up half of the Ryan Solutions brand. The interview was about the company, about Corey, and about what they can do for resorts. I was impressed…and then I went to the NSAA Convention. Since I had already heard the Ryan Solutions spiel (or so I thought) I chose to go to skip out on their presentation and hit a different session. Twenty minutes, a boring sales pitch, and a handful of regrets later, I got up, acted like I had a phone call, and snuck over to hear Corey. The room was packed. No open seats anywhere. I had to pull a chair from out of the hall and block half the doorway to sit down.

The reason for it is because Ryan Solutions does amazing stuff. Truly amazing stuff. If your resort wants to do something, anything with database marketing / CRM, they can help. Unfortunately, due to my tardiness I missed out on the meat of the presentation and my computer monitor weakened eyesight couldn’t make out too many of the juicy details, but let the fact that 100 resort marketers were packing into a room meant for 80 just to hear Corey speak be a testament to his company. Here’s the interview:

SlopeFillers: Alright, Corey, quickly tell me a little bit who you are, your past involvement in the ski industry, and Ryan Solutions.
Corey: Ryan Solutions was started in the spring of 2004 after i spent the previous few years working at and helping Vail Resorts build and use their own marketing technology infrastructure. We’re currently officed in Minturn, CO and Cincinnati, OH and have just under 10 people who average over 12 years of ski resort experience.

We’re a database management company with a focus on helping resort clients improve their communications with their guests. We do this by integrating their operational systems (e.g. Point of Sale, Property Management, Central Reservations, etc) into one complete database with demographic, behavioral and attitudinal profiles. Our clients then use this data to send more relevant messaging that leverages each guests’ unique profile. Additionally, because the integration is fully automated, our clients have the ability to send fully-automated, transactional messages – including pre-arrival, in-resort and post-departure communications, along with electronic comment card and market research capabilities.

SlopeFillers: With your background, what have you seen as the biggest recent change or trend in the ski resort marketing landscape and what is Ryan Solutions doing to follow that?
Corey: For us, the trends we’re pursuing are the continuing evolution of conversational and transactional marketing. Specifically, having the ability to uniquely respond to a guest’s desires, behaviors and comments. We work diligently to gather more and more data at the resort and from the customer – including reservations, ski and ride school bookings, purchases, scans, survey responses and even click behavior. The more we know about a guest, the better job we can do at tailoring each message to that guest to provide him or her with the right message, at the right time. In the face of limited budgets and reduced marketing staff at our clients, we rely on technology to automate and accelerate this process.

SlopeFillers: Ryan Solutions clearly works well for a lot of resorts. What are some alternatives that resorts have to choose from and why/why aren’t they working?
Corey: Resorts’ options are really pretty limited – do what we do ‘in house’, work with one of our competitors, or avoid the game altogether and continue to view direct marketing as a one-size-fits-all approach.

To build out the infrastructure to do what we do ‘in house’ is really expensive. It also requires a significant amount of expertise – both on the marketing side and the I.T. side. The I.T. side is where most of the cost would come from. The current vendors that serve the resort industry, from an operational system point of view, do what they’re intended to do extremely well. However, they’re not intended to serve as marketing decision support systems. They typically do not provide the necessary interfaces for an individual resort to obtain their own data. Nor do they maintain that data in a form that has been optimized for marketing.

It’s critical that we have both an understanding of these systems and their underlying data models, as well as, maintain a good relationship with them. In addition to the vendor interfaces, there’s a world of knowledge in data warehousing, address and customer data hygiene, transactional processing, product management, rate, revenue and inventory management and a need for the I.T. people to have a solid grasp of exactly what Marketing wants.

The I.T. side is clearly the biggest barrier to doing what we do ‘in house’ and there are really only a few multi-resort operators that have the technical infrastructure to do so to the extent we provide. When we talk to these multi-resort operators, what we offer is generally a lower overall cost to provide these services, as well as, more expertise – including a solid understanding of what’s working in database marketing / CRM across many other resorts. So even if they have the resources, it does not always make financial sense to do it themselves.

In regards, to our competitors – we have a few and I’m sure they have satisfied clients. We continue to attempt to distance ourself from them in several areas. This would include hiring more experienced, knowledgeable staff. We simply don’t have entry level jobs. Our employees have all been on the front line of a resort’s Marketing and I.T. staff for a decade or more. We understand our clients business challenges and needs.

We also try to create a competitive advantage through better understanding and knowledge of the operational systems, as mentioned. At most ski resorts, Marketing is the enemy of the I.T. Department. Resorts that need to go to I.T. every time they need a list, either for in-house use, or to provide updates to our competitors, fall behind and create resentment from their I.T. Departments. By having secure, proven and fully automated interfaces to their operational systems, we quickly become an I.T. favorite.

Our focus on automation also enables a tremendous inventory of transactional marketing that we couldn’t otherwise do. It is a key driver in allowing our clients to improve customer service and communication as a marketing initiative.

Finally, the resorts that don’t do what we do, can get left behind. While some smaller resorts actively engage in progressive, systematic database marketing (and some undoubtedly do it well), most don’t have the resources. There’s significant incremental profits and improved guest satisfaction in getting the right message to the right guest, at the right time. Without the right systems and processes, it’ll take a bit of luck to get this all correct. Resorts that engage In one-size-fits-all direct marketing are leaving money on the table. To successfully engage in upsell, cross-sell, retention and re-acquisition strategies, you need an understanding of what each guest wants and the ability to apply that knowledge to your marketing communications.

SlopeFillers: So give me an example of a resort that has begun using Ryan Solutions, the basic idea of what you setup for them, and some of the data behind their results.
Corey: Most of our resort clients have very similar services. This would include hosting and maintaining a marketing database / CRM for them, integrating and automating data feeds from their point of sale system and their property management systems (a few others add tee sheet, central reservations and Food and Beverage systems) and providing an email service provider that can utilize all of the integrated data. For quite a few of them, we also play a strategic role in the creation and execution of their marketing plan.

Some of the additional products or services we provide would include post-transactional surveying, a new client facing portal and data mining toolset and an online data entry utility which allows them to obtain more off-line data in a faster timeline and lower cost than they’d previously done.

I need to be sensitive to providing too much information on any specific client. However, i can say all of our clients quickly improve their data collection at the front line without negatively impacting the guest experience. From an outbound perspective, one of the first campaigns we set up would be a series of transactional messages, including a basic pre-arrival message and a post-departure message. These can vary based on whether we’re referring to lodging data or point of sale data, such as ski lessons. The tone for these is usually a service-oriented one that helps guests make the most of their upcoming vacation. Our clients reported an average open rate 64% on these campaigns this year, which is more than 3x that of a typical newsletter or promotional campaign. Clients are reporting more satisfied guests, more prepared guests and a greater number of arriving guests that have pre-purchased ancillary products – including ski and ride school, rentals, fine dining and spa. Resorts that are taking this further and versioning these pre-arrival emails to first time vs repeat guests, or families vs non-families, passholders vs non-passholders, etc., are seeing even more dramatic results.

We’re really proud of some of the post-departure surveying our clients have put in place. These results have helped them identify operational challenges and led to immediate and profitable improvements. Additionally, our clients are directing highly satisfied guests (Net Promoters) to third party, consumer review sites such as and, as well as to their own social outlets, such as Facebook. We’ve seen resort and hotel properties dramatically improve their online reputation in a short period of time. Additionally, this survey data will now allow us to profile guests on an ‘attitudinal’ basis which is a tremendous asset to go along with the behavioral and demographic profiles we create and maintain for them. Predictive models based on past behavior are fantastic, but we really like it when a guest tells us exactly what their intentions are and what it would take to get them to come back.

On a more traditional, direct marketing basis, we’ve helped clients optimize their email marketing for better performance and measure, refine and improve their postal mailing performance.

All of this really just boils down to communicating in a more informed and relevant manner to their guests. It just makes sense, even across some of the campaigns and projects where the results are less tangible.

About Gregg & SlopeFillers
I've had more first-time visitors lately, so adding a quick "about" section. I started SlopeFillers in 2010 with the simple goal of sharing great resort marketing strategies. Today I run marketing for resort ecommerce and CRM provider Inntopia, my home mountain is the lovely Nordic Valley, and my favorite marketing campaign remains the Ski Utah TV show that sold me on skiing as a kid in the 90s.

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