‘The Hassle Factor’ gives Skico nightmares | AspenTimes.com

‘The Hassle Factor’ gives Skico nightmares

Mark Fox/The Aspen Times Crowded shuttle bus at Snowmass Thursday, Nov 24, 2005

Aspen Skiing Co. Chief Operating Officer Mike Kaplan has one specific nightmare that plays out on a split screen in his mind’s eye.On one side of the screen is a nuclear family on vacation at some Mexican resort. They make the trip with ease on a direct flight from the U.S. They take a taxi to their beachfront property, then spend several carefree days stepping out their door to lounge in the sun, build sand castles and collect sea shells.On the other side of the screen is that same family trudging up the steps of the Silver Queen Gondola or through the Snowmass Village Mall on a ski trip. The dad and mom struggle to carry their own gear and that of their preteen children. They try to steer kids, cranky from waiting for buses and walking in ski boots, toward the slopes, like a mother duck, ducklings in tow.It’s a nightmare that Kaplan shares with other Skico executives. They call it “the Hassle Factor.”Unfortunately, it’s more reality than scary dream. Destination ski resorts, which rely on guests who stay overnight, are fighting to maintain and increase their market share of the roughly 57 million skier visits per season in the U.S. In addition to competing against one another for a finite number of travelers, they are also fighting the cruise business and beach resorts that threaten to take people out of the sport or decrease the number of times they ski.As more and more baby boomers top the age of 50, the ski industry is fighting an increasingly important battle of trying to retain longtime customers.The only way ski resorts can compete with the beach trips, Kaplan said, is eliminating, or at least easing, the hassles. “Basically it’s about making it worth it for the guests in every way,” he said.

Making a ski trip easier than a cruise or beach trip might be impossible, conceded Skico Senior Vice President of Marketing and Sales David Perry. The umbrella drinks are already made, and daily activities take the kids from the parents’ hands for a few hours.All-inclusive beach resorts tie food, lodging and activities into a convenient package. The cruise business has grown by leaps and bounds because they know people want a break from their daily routines. “It’s all taken care of for them,” Perry said.In contrast, ski trips demand greater preparation and commitment from families and individuals, primarily because of all the special clothing and equipment required. “It’s such a gear-intensive sport,” Perry said.That’s why the Skico places such a great emphasis on customer service: It’s survival.The Skico continues to concentrate this season on making it easier for guests like that nuclear family in Kaplan’s nightmare to prepare for its trip. One way is to line up gear, lift tickets and ski school lessons in advance and take some of the hassle out of the first day on the slopes.

Customers can make advance reservations for skis, snowboards, boots and poles with the Skico, along with lift tickets and lessons. The Skico will have all the gear and tickets waiting at the lodge or other tourist accommodation at check-in.That’s an important service, Kaplan said, because more than 50 percent of destination guests rent their ski gear rather than bring it with them. If they show up at 8 a.m. at a ski shop and try to rent gear for the entire family, it’s usually pandemonium, and it almost guarantees a hectic start to what is supposed to be vacation, Kaplan said.”They don’t want to feel like they’re cattle being herded,” he said.Even when customers aren’t renting ski gear from the Skico, the company is encouraging that type of integration between ski shops and lodges to improve guest service overall for the town.Another service the Skico offers to ease the hassle factor is transporting skis and snowboards for guests. If guests are staying in Aspen but want to ski the next day in Snowmass, they can take their equipment to one of Skico’s Four Mountain Sports shops and have it waiting for them at the other mountain the next morning, for a fee.Perry said national surveys of the ski industry show many guests equate the value of a ski trip to their treatment. For the money they spend, they expect resorts to make their stay as convenient as possible, and they want a high level of service for their investment.If ski resorts deliver on those expectations, Perry said, he believes the industry will compete well with beach vacation and cruises. Trips to winter resorts offer a range of scenery and experiences he thinks easily top those other experiences.”We’ll never be an all-inclusive beach vacation – and we don’t want to be,” Perry said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.

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