ABCs of ski: Vacations enter new terrain

Setting up ski trips are no longer simply a matter of putting together air, lodging, transfers and lift tickets. Now agents also have to know about snowboarding, snowshoeing, heliskiing, spa treatments and children's activities.

And, as Beth Lynge, director of ski products for Mark Travel, points out, they must cope with the fact that ski trips are evolving into winter vacations in which one member of a couple skis while the other ice skates, shops, uses the spa or goes sightseeing.

This means that agents must watch for flexibility in their packages, says Lynge, whose Milwaukee-based wholesale firm runs tours for several airlines and for its own tour operator subsidiary, Mountain Vacations, located in Denver.

For instance, she says, buying a package for four doesn't mean having to buy four lift tickets if one or more travelers is not skiing.

Indeed, because there are so many other things to do, even skiers are likely to spend more time off the slopes than previously. A 1996-1997 study of Colorado skiers conducted by Colorado Ski Country USA shows proportionately more visitors skiing relatively few days - seven days or fewer - per season.

Much of the increasing complexity of selling ski trips is due to changes in the types of people who take them. For instance, the percentage of female skiers has risen from 30% of Colorado skiers in 1990-91 to 39% in 1996-97.

And snowboarders can now be anywhere from 10 to 70 years old, according to Bruce Rosard, president of Moguls Ski & Snowboard Tours in Boulder, Colo. In fact, he says, 30% of snowboarders are at least 30 years old.

Despite all these complications, some suppliers and resorts are trying to keep things simple for the agent. They say that selling ski vacations really should be no more difficult than selling cruises.

"All of our products are available in the CRS," Lynge says. "Ski is perceived to be harder to sell because there are more components, but we have made it fairly easy with a fill-in-the-blanks system. Our electronic bookings are growing substantially each year."

Ski packages are becoming more popular with agents not just because they reduce complexity, but also because they provide full commissions on components ranging from air travel to lift tickets and equipment rental.

This year, says Lynge, her company has introduced what she claims is a first in the industry: A 14-day advance-purchase lift ticket, available with certain multiday passes and fully commissionable to agents. "This is not a yield-managed discount," says Lynge. "[The discount is] available to anyone who books 14 days in advance."

To help navigate all the elements in ski trips, says Lynge, "our two ski call reservations centers are in Denver and Salt Lake City so reservations staff have the mountains in their backyards. We can get them to mountains for fam trips and keep them up to speed on the product."

Simplification has its limits, says Lynge. "Each of the airline programs we run is different depending on the airline itself.

"For instance, Southwest is a value-oriented airline while United focuses on frequent travelers, usually business travelers. They also differ because of the markets in their gateway cities."

One of the most challenging aspects of staying current in the ski market is keeping up with constant changes in ski areas that result from massive investment by the new industry giants.

For instance, Jackson Hole, long a preferred destination for serious, highly skilled skiers, has opened up a new intermediate area of its huge mountain to widen its appeal.

"We are filling the gaps in the market," says Anna Olson, a spokeswoman for the area, "with a new children's program and new lift to that intermediate area. We were not for the faint of heart before but now we can handle a much broader range of skiers."

The on-mountain changes won plaudits from Ski Magazine, which has named Jackson Hole as one of the top eight resorts for mixed skill groups.

Olson adds that agents should not only be familiar with what resorts offer, but also neighboring attractions that might be of interest to clients.

Neighbors of Jackson Hole include the Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, where winter activities include snowshoeing and wildlife viewing.

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