Selling ski vacations not a simple equation


elling mountain and ski vacations can be complicated, requiring broad knowledge of a varied product.

That means knowing which resorts are good for families, which are best for singles, which welcome snowboarders (as well as the few that don't) and so on.

It's a product that also can vary by season; there's a different dynamic for mountain vacations in the summer and fall than for winter and spring ski getaways.

Mountain vacations have multiple components. This means the cost can add up quickly once you figure in air, hotel, airport transfers or car rentals, lift tickets, lessons and, increasingly, spa treatments and alternative activities such as snowmobiling and snow tubing.

In the summer and fall, those other components can be mountain biking, hiking and fly-fishing lessons, among others.

That's what makes mountain vacation packages a compelling product for agents to sell. It bundles multiple components, generally in an easy, mix-and-match way.

That means agents can customize a package to fit their client's tastes and budget. It also means agents can provide clients with the cost breaks that accompany the bulk purchasing vacation packagers practice.

It all adds up to profits for agencies while, at the same time, enabling them to show clients the value of their services. They can gain expertise on the ski product from packagers, earn commission on multiple components and make the sale efficiently.

What you get

Most packages contain the basics: air, hotel, lift ticket and airport transfer or car rental. Packages also can include lessons, equipment rental and spa treatments.

Plans sold by airline tour operations, such as those sold by American Airlines Vacations and United Vacations, obviously feature special fares offered only by those carriers.

But other wholesalers, such as Apple Vacations, Aspen Ski Tours, Gogo Worldwide Vacations and Mountain Vacations, have bulk contracts with several major carriers, giving them broad geographic coverage.

However, keep in mind that a ski package does not necessarily entail an air component.

Gogo has a large Northeast ski product line, which includes Killington, Stowe, Sugarbush and Smugglers Notch, Vt.; Lake Placid, N.Y.; and eastern Canadian resorts such as Tremblant in Quebec.

The Northeast is more of a weekend market and, therefore, more of a drive market than western resorts, said Donna Mulligan, director of marketing for Gogo.

Accommodation choices

Vacation packagers also have contracts with a variety of lodging types, from a basic hotel room for the single skier who simply plans to ski as much as possible and spend little time in the room to four-bedroom condominiums for families who want to economize by cooking meals and enjoy quality time in front of the fireplace.

Most resorts offer a variety of services that cater to several types of clients. Resorts such as Steamboat Springs, Keystone and Winter Park, Colo., are examples of family-friendly resorts that also have spas.

Crested Butte and Copper Mountain in Colorado and Lake Tahoe are areas that appeal to what Jim Muller, destination product manager of Mountain Vacations, described as the "sleep and ski" type -- skiers who intend to ski or snowboard all day, eat out and party at night.

These clients want nothing more than a hotel room in which to crash, he said.

Regardless of their target market, all of these resorts are sophisticated marketers that offer services beyond the slopes -- spas, terrain parks for snowboarders (with a few exceptions) and tubing hills.

Prices vary as well, to accommodate not only different budgets but tastes as well.

A family might prefer a condo because the kitchen enables them to economize on meals. Young singles are better off with a low-cost hotel room. Value is so important to this market that Mountain Vacations actually has a sleep-and-ski category.

The extras

Skiing today is so complex that there's more to merely buying a lift ticket. There are multiday ski passes, multi-ski area passes and multi-activity passes.

And, these days, with high-speed lifts giving skiers more down-mountain time than ever, vacationers tire out and, therefore, are interested in lift tickets such as Durango, Colo.'s Total Adventure Ticket.

Skiers who buy a four-day ticket can trade in a day of skiing for alternate activities. These include a massage and a soak at hot springs, a ride on the Durango Silverton railroad, a book of tubing hill vouchers (tubing is a popular ski alternative), a day of Nordic skiing, a sleigh ride and dinner.

The suppliers

American Airlines Vacations is an example of how ski programs have evolved over the years.

Its mountain program was originally called Ski the West. The company then added eastern ski resorts. Then it discovered there was more to mountain vacations than skiing and changed the program's name to Snow and Ski.

This year, it is expanding what had been a somewhat limited, year-round mountain vacation program -- adding Jackson Hole, Wyo.; Keystone; Vail; and Durango -- and said it plans to add even more next year.

Apple Vacations, which sells exclusively through travel agencies, introduced its ski program about five years ago.

It is now the packager's fastest-growing product; its ski sales grew 150% last year, according to Neal Steinken, manager of product development.

It sells all major North American ski areas, 18 in all, including resorts in Colorado, Utah and Canada. Apple will introduce a summer program next year.

Aspen Ski Tours, doing business as, opened its doors in 1972 and sells 25 different resorts in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, California and Canada.

Its packages are bookable over the phone; agencies can use its Web site for information on packages and last-minute, distressed inventory.

The company sells both winter and summer programs; the Aspen Music Festival (June 19 to Aug. 17) makes up a large part of its summer business.

Gogo offers a summer mountain program, which is included in its U.S. brochure.

Company officials said the destinations that are popular in the summer include Aspen, Breckenridge, Telluride and Vail, Colo.; Jackson Hole; Park City, Utah; Killington; and Lake Placid, Lake George and Bolton Landing, N.Y.

Many of these eastern summer mountain plans include features such as an Olympic tour in Lake Placid and a lake cruise in Lake George.

MLT Vacations offers an extensive ski program, in conjunction with Northwest Airlines WorldVacations, that features resorts including Big Sky, Mont.; Lake Tahoe; and the Banff/Lake Louise/Jasper region of Alberta in Canada.

Mountain Vacations sells a broad lineup of resorts for summer and winter. It has a comprehensive geographic spread because it has contracts with five major airlines for its air component.

The firm's product illustrates how selling ski packages enables agencies to give clients money-saving value-adds.

For example, Mountain sells plans that include tubing or ski lessons and lists the value of those extras -- $10 for tubing, $62 for a lesson -- that agents can show their clients. Its brochure also stresses nonski activities, such as shopping and snowmobiling in winter and fly fishing in summer.

United Vacations' ski program includes more than 26 North American resorts in Colorado, Utah, Montana, Wyoming, California, Nevada and Canada.

New this year are two destinations: Taos, N.M., and Mammoth, Calif. Its summer program includes Aspen, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Durango, Keystone, Steamboat and Vail, Jackson Hole, Salt Lake City and Park City, Banff/Lake Louise; Whistler/Blackcomb and Tremblant.

Mountain operators step up with agent support

By Kate Rice

ost mountain and ski vacation packagers offer travel agencies a variety of support types, including co-op advertising, fliers, brochures, in-agency training and product-education seminars.

Several tour operators participate in the Ski Experts fall trade show and agent-training program run by Michael J. Pierson Associates in Irvine, Calif., including American Airlines Vacations, Mountain Vacations and United Vacations.

The following is a sampling of some operators and their agency-support measures:

• American Airlines Vacations conducts seminars on its own packages.

The operator sends out weekly e-mails to travel agencies, which can re-send the e-mails to clients or post them on their own Web sites.

Like many vacation packagers, American Airlines Vacations considers its snow and ski brochure a useful tool.

It has revamped the brochure a bit, emphasizing information such as the number of lifts and trails at a resort along with a destination's top selling point.

• Apple Vacations has a dedicated ski desk to counsel agents.

Last year, it began individual training with travel agencies and said it found that to be successful.

Apple also has a briefing document about skiing that enables agents to find selling points about particular resorts as well as the basic nuts and bolts of the company's ski program.

The firm helps out with marketing as well, with fliers, its brochure and, this year, e-mails.

• Gogo Worldwide Vacations brings 500 to 700 agents to its annual learning conference. The event includes sessions dedicated to skiing that also cover the summer mountain vacation product.

The operator's agent-only Web site has fliers agents can e-mail to their clients.

Gogo's sales reps went through a training program this summer in Colorado to help them educate agents about the packager's ski product.

Some of Gogo's reservations agents also are participating in the program. Agencies also can conduct in-house training with Gogo, an approach the company said it has found highly effective.

• Mountain Vacations conducts its own training seminars as well as participating in the Ski Experts shows.

These seminars will be held in Chicago, St. Louis, Atlanta, Dallas and Houston throughout the fall.

The company also operates about five fam trips each year, filled on a first-come, first-served basis, aimed at agency managers and ski specialists.

• United Vacations distributes a detailed guide to agents with resort information as well as information about booking its packages through various distribution systems.

Market home to wide range of clients

im Muller, destination product manager of Mountain Vacations, has a broad definition of the ski-market demographic -- clients are between the ages of 28 and 55 and have annual incomes of about $100,000.

That's one way to look at the mountain vacation customer, but there are others.

Travelers who vacation in the mountains, be it summer or winter, are outdoor enthusiasts, according to Allison Kirchen, senior product manager of United Vacations. These vacationers are attractive because they are repeat clients.

"We do have a lot of families that take a week in Vail [Colo.] every year," she said. "There is that core group that wants the traditional week in the mountains experience."

A new and rapidly growing market for mountain vacations is the spa-ski market.

This market's growth is so rapid it's almost "out of control," Muller said.

Some ski resorts have $20 million spas with waterfalls greeting clients as they walk in the door, the latest in aromatherapy, exotic mud wraps and so on.

Skiing and spas are a natural fit, said Donna Mulligan, director of marketing for Gogo Worldwide Vacations.

"When you ski, you're using muscles you don't use any other time of the year," she said.

Gogo introduced a spa-and-ski program last year. The benefit for the agent: Spa treatments are part of the package price and fully commissionable. -- K.R.

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