Selling Snowmass: Marketing the resort a different way
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
SNOWMASS VILLAGE ” Most town halls are filled with bureaucrats and government employees but in Snowmass Village, there’s a 10-person sales team doing all they can to infuse as much business into the resort as possible.
Having a government-funded marketing, group sales and tourism department is a relatively unusual concept, said director Susan Hamley, who said she can only think of one other town with its own sales department ” Grand Junction.
“We’re pioneers in this,” she said.
The marketing of a town usually is handled by a convention and visitors’ bureau or a chamber of commerce, said Bob Purvis, a member of the town’s marketing board.
As a public entity, the department’s finances are a matter of public record, which provides transparency to the community, Hamley said. And the marketing, group sales, and special events effort is shared by the entire town ” not just the members of a chamber or visitor’s bureau, she added.
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“Every business in Snowmass collects a tax so every business is a stakeholder,” Hamley said.
Two townwide taxes fund the department. The marketing and special events side is funded by a 2.5 percent Snowmass Village sales tax passed in 2002, which generated $4.1 million in 2008. Group sales, which focuses its efforts on booking large groups, is funded by a 2.4 percent lodging tax passed in 2004. It brought in $1.4 million in 2008.
In return for the town’s taxing ability, the department is managed by the town government ” the potential consequences of which became apparent at a recent Snowmass Village Town Council meeting. After county and transportation district tax increases were passed in the November election, bumping the resort’s sales tax to 10.4 percent, council members considered lowering the town’s marketing and special events tax. Eventually, they kept the tax at 2.5 percent, but only after an impassioned plea from Hamley.
Purvis, who saw the creation of the marketing/special events department as a town councilman, speculated that Snowmass’ unique history drove the concept.
“We didn’t start with a clean sheet of paper,” he said. “We started with SVRA [the Snowmass Village Resort Association]. As far as I know, SVRA was also in and of itself a very unique organization.”
SVRA, which handled marketing before 2003 and group sales before 2006, was the original governing body of the resort ” with the ability to levy assessments on businesses operating in the Snowmass Mall. When the town incorporated, SVRA stopped providing services like trash collection, but continued to assess businesses in order to market the resort, manage the conference center, and oversee special events, group sales and central reservations.
Then three things happened: Snowmass Central Reservations, which booked trips for guests, merged with Aspen Central Reservations to become Stay Aspen Snowmass. The Snowmass Conference Center was sold to the owners of the Silvertree Hotel, who began managing it instead of SVRA. And in 2002, Snowmass Village voters decided the public should pay for marketing, effectively eliminating the marketing arm of SVRA and establishing a town marketing department.
By 2005, voters also had decided to move group sales under the purview of the town, and SVRA began the process of dissolving.
Bring up the topic of marketing in the 10-person office and the center table quickly fills with staffers jumping in to explain the town’s different strategies.
Like most resorts, Snowmass Village is trying to position itself to capture as much market share as possible during the recession. As a department funded by sales and lodging taxes, which are expected to decline in the coming months, staffers also are figuring out how to do that with less money.
The department is starting to make tough choices, with an eye toward focusing efforts that will bring visitors to Snowmass. Less-successful special events have been weeded out, and the savings shifted toward preserving marketing efforts to “put heads on beds.”
The department also sacrificed some summer focus in order to strengthen its winter efforts, since two-thirds of its guests come for the snow.
Snowmass Village Group Sales Manager Kristi Kavanaugh-Bradley said she thinks Snowmass’ lower profile might actually help it with certain customers, such as business groups.
“People have a poor perception if a corporation who isn’t doing well goes to a Ritz-Carlton,” she said. “So being a little less high-profile actually positions us better to go in and grab new business.”
The department also has partnered with Stay Aspen-Snowmass and the Aspen Skiing Co., enabling it to “spend a little less and get a lot more,” Hamley said.
Another department focus is appealing to the hip Twenty Something, new media crowd while still marketing to families. It has developed eight websites for different demographics. Snowmassfreeride.com, for example, caters to a younger crowd, while snowmassvillage.com caters to a more traditional crowd, Hamley said.
To reach younger visitors, the department also is delving into new media. People can now sign up to receive a text message whenever the mountain receives at least six inches of snow, social networkers can sign up for an 800-person Facebook group called “skisnowmass,” and youtube.com aficionados can watch Snowmass videos posted on the video-sharing website, as well as several town websites.
The town is still using print marketing, including advertising and direct mail. This year’s offerings include a kids’ growth chart that Hamley said she hopes families will hang on the wall. And for the younger crowd, the department has continued a free snowboarding poster tradition. Last year, it expected to give away 500 posters and had 6,800 requests. This year, it’s had 18,000 requests.
While both Kavanaugh-Bradley and Hamley championed the department’s work, they said measuring success since the departments have moved under the town’s purview is difficult, in part because there are so many ways to evaluate the effectiveness of a marketing campaign.
“The bottom line for marketing is you can’t say because I saw this ad, I bought,” Hamley said.
She noted that occupancy rates in Snowmass Village have gone up slightly each year since the department’s inception in 2003, even with no new lodging or attractions. Sales tax collections also have increased, she noted.
Anecdotally, Kavanaugh-Bradley pointed to the group sales department’s ability to bring in new business while continuing to book its most loyal customers. Recently, for example, the department landed the 500-person 2010 Governor’s Colorado Tourism Conference.
Meanwhile, the town has booked the Aspen Anesthesia conference, back for its 38th year and the American College of Cardiology conference, back for its 40th year.
But technically, group sales have actually gone down since 2006, Kavanaugh-Bradley said. She attributed that to the fact that for 2007 and much of 2008, the department couldn’t book conferences beyond 2009. During those years, tentative plans to demolish and rebuild the conference center interfered with booking, she said. Those plans have been postponed, and she said she hopes an extension to 2011 will stimulate this year’s group sales.
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