SNOWMASS VILLAGE - A venture partner with a knack for anticipating "the next big thing" gave some tough love to ski-industry officials on pricing and marketing Thursday during the Mountain Travel Symposium in Snowmass Village.
Erik Blachford said ski resorts are going to have to change some of their key methods of doing business to remain competitive, let alone grow, in the era of social media and mobile devices.
He praised the initiative by Aspen Skiing Co. and six other independent ski resorts for teaming to offer the Mountain Collective, a special ski pass that can be purchased hassle-free online. He said the ski industry needs to take the concept even further, possibly with a pre-paid pass that's good for any ski area. The ski industry might even want to establish its own currency, in a similar vein to frequent-flier miles, to attract more people into the sport.
Blachford gets hired by venture-capital firms to find and manage investments for them. He also is a founding team member and former CEO of Expedia, the online travel agency that helped revolutionize the travel business. The organizers of the Mountain Travel Symposium brought him in as a speaker to provide an outside eye and fresh perspective.
Blachford said the ski industry is geared toward the most affluent 3 percent or so of people on the planet, so strong growth will be difficult.
He asked why the industry hasn't tried harder to draw new people into the sport by offering a "first ever" free ski pass and loading it up with "goodies" that make it enticing, such as free ski and boot rentals.
When Ian Arthur, an executive of ski-industry giant Intrawest, asked how the pass could be tracked so only true first-time skiers were using it, Blachford said he was missing the point.
"It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter," Blachford said. Give away the pass, build good will, and entice people to spend money on other items at your resorts, like hamburgers at the on-mountain restaurants, he said.
"What do you lose other than a little wear and tear on your rental equipment?" Blachford asked.
He also strongly advised ski resorts to make their lift tickets and vacation packages readily available on "supplier sites" such as Expedia rather than hoard them on their own sites.
"People want to shop how people want to shop. The industry can't control that," he said.
It's a lot to expect consumers of ski vacations to go to several individual resort websites to compare offers, according to Blachford. That said, resorts should use technology on their websites that is at least as good as the supplier sites, or prospective customers will get frustrated. The affluent aren't the kind of people who are patient and will pick up the phone to learn more if they can't get all the information online, he said.
Blachford also encouraged ski resorts to use their existing customers to help promote themselves. Research indicates a 1-9-90 ratio among social-media users - one person per 100 will actively post images and video, nine will do something with that information such as "like" it on Facebook or share it, and 90 will let the information flow past them without getting actively engaged, according to Blachford.
Ski-area operators should find the "great evangelists" of the resorts and encourage them to share their images and video. It doesn't have to be expensive, he said. Often the evangelists will settle for exposure on a resort website, he predicted.
Like prior speakers at the conference, Blachford said technology is bringing sweeping changes to social media. We're on the cusp of seeing live streaming of high-quality video. People using special equipment such as the Google Glass, which is being tested, will be able to send a constant barrage of real-time video to their Facebook pages of themselves skiing down Aspen Mountain. And a lot of people out there believe their friends will want to watch every minute of their day.
"We are living in the most narcissistic time in human history," Blachford quipped. Fortunately, ski resorts are in a better position than most industries to take advantage of the instant-video trend because they have "one of the great experiential products in the world," he said.
All the mundane experiences likely to be showcased in instant-video streams "sort of bums me out," Blachford said. "Then I think of skiing on a pow day with Google Glass or something else on, and I'm streaming it back live, and people are watching me, and I'm doing it, and they're not, I'm thinking, 'Yeah, that's some pretty basic, human stuff.'"
He advised marketing executives for ski resorts to enlist customers help by identifying customers who will draw attention, possibly even buy them a Google Glass and get them live streaming to the resort website.
One word of caution from Blachford was not to feature constant video of a 25-year-old hucking a cliff.
"Know your audience," he said, and show video that will appeal to all aspects of the audience.
And resorts also must realize that they can't rely solely on posting incredible, live video to attract new customers. Broader marketing and sales efforts still will be necessary.
"Social media can turn people on to something, but it can't close a sale," Blachford said.