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Resort industry insiders talk about success at Beaver Creek gathering

Scott N. Miller
Vail Daily
Aspen, CO Colorado
Dominique Taylor/Vail DailyBeaver Creek cookies are handed out to the audience during John Garnsey's presentation at Wednesday's general session of the Mountain Travel Symposium at the Vilar Center in Beaver Creek. Garnsey is co-president of Vail Resorts.
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BEAVER CREEK, Colo. – Forget PowerPoint. If you want to get a crowd’s attention, have several white-jacketed volunteers serve cookies on silver platters.

Vail Resorts Co-President John Garnsey made some new friends at the Mountain Travel Symposium by passing out chocolate-chip cookies to a nearly full-house crowd at the Vilar Performing Arts Center Wednesday morning. But Garnsey used the cookies to make a point about one way the resort company works to build its brand and grow its customer base.

Garnsey was one of four industry experts speaking at a session titled “Where We Are,” a look into some of the business practices among one airline and three resort companies. Garnsey was joined on stage by Dave Hilfman of United Airlines, Steve Rice of CNL Resorts, a real estate investment company that owns several ski resorts, and Aspen Skiing Co. Chief Executive Officer Mike Kaplan.

The resort officials talked about ways their companies are working on building customer loyalty, adding programs and participating in community projects.

Kaplan dedicated his presentation to the ways Aspen is involved in sustainability efforts, from highway cleanups to support for environmentally oriented local ballot issues to a brief boycott of Kimberly-Clark – the company that makes Kleenex – in an ultimately successful effort to get the large company to change its forestry practices.

While the sustainability projects may be worthwhile for their own sake, Kaplan said there’s a business case to be made for those projects, too.

“What we offer is renewal and redemption,” Kaplan said. “We’re offering people a life-changing experience that sticks with them.”

Customer experience is at the core of Vail Resorts’ business, too. Since Garnsey was speaking in Beaver Creek, he used that resort as an example. The resort’s tag line, “Not Exactly Roughing It,” is the source of many of the resort’s efforts, from the “Cocoa and Corduroy” mornings to “cookie time” in the afternoons.

In between, the resort works to provide a level of service that starts at the “welcome gates” at the base.

Those gates used to be security gates, Garnsey said, but now have people who regularly ask guests if they know their way to their destination or need any other assistance. The escalators at Beaver Creek were the first in the industry, Garnsey said, and have since been copied elsewhere.

Roving “ambassadors” wander the resort, looking for anyone who might be having trouble with just about anything, and are authorized to hand out anything from lift tickets to meal vouchers to make a problem right.

Resort guests seem to respond to service and amenities, too.

Rice showed the audience numbers for the ski industry as a whole that indicates the resort business has fared better through the current economic slump than it did in previous downturns. Revenue has held relatively steady, and the trends are positive for both revenue and skier days.

But, Rice said, those numbers are the result of a lot of creative thinking about how to continue to provide great experiences and keep expenses in check.

That creative thinking led to things like keeping on-mountain food prices stable for three seasons at Mountain Sunapee, N.H. That led to more business at the on-mountain restaurants.

Adding a “mountain coaster at Cranmore, N.H., brought 50,000 non-skiing visitors in its first season. And rental revenues are going up at Northstar in California thanks to a new “valet service” that puts renters’ equipment at the base of the lifts, meaning customers don’t have to haul their gear all over the village.

While the resort companies work to build on an already strong base, though, airlines continue to struggle.

“We’re trying to find a way to stay relevant, alive, and make some money in the process,” Hilfman said, launching into a rapid-fire review of the current state of the airline industry. While that industry turned a $4.7 billion profit in 2010, last year was the exception.

“The airline industry, since its beginning, has lost money,” Hilfman said.

Consolidation and mergers are the latest idea to help get the number of seats, planes and passengers into relative equilibrium, Hilfman said, adding that the industry is also looking to the resorts it serves to find ways to make more routes profitable.

“Bear with us,” Hilfman said. “We’ll do all we can to make everybody successful.”

smiller@vaildaily.com


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