Aspen or Vail? Ski area ads differ in their approach |

Aspen or Vail? Ski area ads differ in their approach

ASPEN ” Ski resorts, whether it’s Aspen or elsewhere, are facing their biggest challenge in recent times trying to lure customers to the slopes while the national economy is plunging downhill ” perhaps making advertising more important than ever.

Most ad campaigns were devised well before the depth of the economic crisis became apparent, so marketing staffs couldn’t react to the eroding consumer confidence even if they wanted to. Nevertheless, some of this season’s ad campaigns are probably better positioned than others to capture attention in these times of trouble, according to Margaret C. Campbell, associate professor of marketing at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

During a recession, consumers tend to pull back and place more value on sharing time with friends and family instead of pampering themselves with extravagant purchases of material goods, Campbell said, adding it’s a phenomena called “cocooning.” Friends might spend more time at dinner parties at home rather than going out “clubbing,” for example. “Togetherness is going to work better in this economy,” Campbell said.

So she tends to think ad campaigns which promote that togetherness will strike a cord. The recession won’t prevent wealthy people from spending money and taking ski trips, Campbell said. They will still buy a week at Aspen or Vail. But how they arrive at the decision and what they do when they arrive might be different this year. “Isolated splendor” will be out; time with friends and family will be in, she said.

The ad campaigns used by the ski towns are as varied as the resorts themselves, based on ads that ran in the October and November editions of SKI magazine. Some ski areas stick to the industry standard formula of blue sky, stunning scenery, white powder and beautiful skiers.

“Ski porn, as we somewhat lovingly refer to it in the ski trade,” said Adam Sutner, director of sales and marketing at Vail Mountain. “I wouldn’t demonize it as uncreative.”

Ski porn takes a direct approach with potential consumers, essentially saying, “ski here, we are a fantastic area.”

Other resorts, Aspen and Vail among them, take a less direct approach. They try to inspire customers in a less subtle way. “You don’t have to beat them over the head with (the message),” Sutner said.

Aspen Skiing Co. has stuck to its “Save Snow” ad campaign that portrays the company as a good environmental citizen. Nothing in the ads says “ski here,” at least not overtly. The ad that ran in the November SKI features patroller Tim Lacroix clearing snow off the solar panels that partially power the Aspen Highlands patrol shack. The ad copy urges readers to battle global climate change and directs them to the Skico’s website to learn what actions they can take.

Skico officials didn’t respond to a request for an interview about the ad campaign. Previously, company officials said they believe the environmental ads differentiate Aspen/Snowmass from its 50-odd major competitors. This is the Skico’s third season of featuring the Save Snow ads.

Campbell said the good corporate citizen approach in advertising has proven effective for some companies. It might make potential consumers feel good about the Aspen Skiing Co. and its efforts, she said. It’s less certain if those good feelings translate into business. When it comes time to book a vacation, will the consumer remember Aspen/Snowmass because of those ads? Campbell asked.

Vail Mountain also eschewed the direct route of ski advertising. It unveiled a new ad in SKI this fall that Sutner called the first expression of revisiting the Vail brand. Vail Mountain’s ad in the October SKI commands attention. A simple white insert is pasted onto two blank white pages. Tiny lettering on the white insert’s cover says, “Like Nothing on Earth.”

Larger print inside the insert says, “The rarest and most precious luxury in the world today is,” and a few pages later the answer is, “a blank canvas.” The copy goes on to extol the virtues of escaping the rat race and indulging your senses at a ski area as vast and rewarding as Vail.

Customers of Vail and Aspen are well educated and well traveled, Sutner said. So it’s safe and potentially even more effective to direct sophisticated advertising at them rather than the typical “ski porn.” Vail’s new approach is to convey a more experiential vacation.

“It’s time to lift the Vail brand or image from myopic to a broader and loftier experience,” he said.

Former Aspen Skiing Co. President and CEO Bob Maynard steered the company away from traditional ski porn in the late 1980s and early 1990s with ads that sold the broader on- and off-slope experience of “The Aspens.” The bold campaign sparked a healthy debate in Aspen and plenty of critics emerged.

Sutner said Vail Mountain’s new campaign also has raised eyebrows, within the company and in the community dependent on the company to get its message out.

“It’s difficult to tell a successful organization it has to change in such a bold way,” he said. “A lot of heads were scratched early on.”

But successful marketing, he insisted, gets people thinking. You don’t want people to be neutral about an ad.

“The best advertising is polarizing,” Sutner said. “If one-half are positive you’re ahead of the game.”

CU’s Campbell said Vail’s ad is an example of one that might work well in any given season, but the jury is out on how that message of personal indulgence will fly during a recession.

The Snowmass Village town government’s marketing department is spending $400,000 on a multitude of advertisements in various publications this fall as part of its $700,000 winter marketing campaign, according to Susan Hamley, director of marketing, special events and group sales.

Despite the fracturing of information avenues, ski and snowboard publications, and other adventure magazines remain vital tools to reach niche markets. “I do think it’s effective. I don’t think we can drop it,” Hamley said.

Snowmass uses several different ads, probably all of which fall into the “ski porn” category. An ad in October’s SKI shows two skiers stopping to chat with a big ragged peak in the background. “Where have your skis been?” asks the headline. The copy says if you’ve traveled the world to find epic terrain, you can find it in Snowmass.

Some observers find the image of that particular ad less than inspiring. There is nothing distinctive or even all that inviting about the terrain used. But Campbell said the two skiers chatting could evoke the feeling that people are looking for at this time. She believes it will be effective because it stresses people doing something together.

Hamley said Snowmass ads use a bunch of different images: some showing families; some showing a solitary skier hucking off a rock face in expert terrain. The ads are targeted to the audience. Tough skiing in expert terrain is featured in Powder, for example, while ads in SKI are more family oriented. You don’t want to scare off a mom shopping for a place for a family vacation by showing skiers jumping off rock cliffs, she said.

“The big selling point is the big, big mountain that appeals to everybody,” Hamley said.

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