A ski resort is sort of like a duck moving across a pond. On the surface everything seems placid, but underneath those feet are paddling like crazy. Keeping thousands of demanding guests happy and coming back is the challenge faced by Intrawest Corp., which operates 13 vacation resorts across North America, from Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia to Sandestin on the Florida panhandle.
It's a well-known travel-industry fact that 60 percent of guests in a given year won't return to the same destination. Last summer, Intrawest embarked on a CRM project aimed at developing a more guest-centric approach. Led by Tricia Verrall, its newly appointed director of customer relationship management systems, Intrawest developed a Web-based solution founded on Pivotal eRelationship 2000 software that not only allows guests to book vacations online, but provides company staff across the continent with a single view of the customer.
Verrall and her team went from zero to a robust e-business system in just three months and had resorts booking guests on www.intrawest.net in time for the 2000-01 ski season. Moreover, Intrawest's solution won a 2000 Microsoft Industry Solution Award just a few months after implementation. destinationCRM.com Director of Content Matt Purdue spoke with Verrall about the project.
Matt Purdue: Does your new position reflect just a title change, or is something more going on at Intrawest?
Trivia Verrall: It was a complete reorganization; we recognize that we need to move in this direction. The company certainly has some history collecting and maintaining customer information and trying to move into a one-to-one marketing philosophy, but once we started reviewing relationship management systems we realized that it is really a whole new way of doing business. At the CEO level there was a commitment made to taking a whole new approach. It wasn't seen as something that would happen overnight, and it was recognized that there were system issues, process issues, all of those.
MP: What are the business challenges you are trying to address at Intrawest?
TV: From a business perspective, we have a number of different resorts, and everyone is interacting with customers on that basis. From a systems perspective, we have the ranges of systems you would expect in a resort environment: beverage systems, ticketing systems, property management systems and so on. There was no cohesion. Although we do have a history of customer marketing and attempting to pull together some pictures of our customers...we realized that it was a very silo-esque approach. We wanted a single picture of our customer to allow us to deal with that guest as an individual regardless of where they popped up on the radar.
MP: You didn't have that one-on-one, personal connection.
TV: Exactly. So that was really the business issue that we were trying to address.
MP: Now you need a technology solution to help you with this. Did you consider building it yourself?
TV: Not seriously. We're an organization; we aren't a development shop, per se. We do have programmers in house, but that isn't our reason for being.
MP: So your eventual choice was Pivotal. Who else did you look at?
TV: We looked at a fairly broad range, but in the end we looked most seriously at Siebel, Clarify and Pivotal. We felt they were very different systems.
MP: How did you differentiate the three? What about Siebel's reputation for e-business solutions?
TV: We saw them more as--I don't want to use the word Cadillac--but as the broadest. It wasn't so much that it was e-business oriented, because in fact that was one of the things we ultimately liked about Pivotal. But if we wanted a system that had modules for everything we could possibly imagine, that would be...Siebel. We have a large contact center and Clarify fell more into that space from our perspective.
And Pivotal was from more of a classic sales world. On one hand, like many organizations, we are very sales oriented when it comes down to it, but not in the traditional sense. We don't sell a widget with a sales force that goes out and connects people in our chain. But we actually operate a very broad sales organization from the room reservations operation through to people who sell real estate. That was something that we responded to.
E-business was also important. We'd had some excursions into e-commerce; in fact we were actually on our second e-commerce implementation when we went through this process. We've built some custom [solutions] with one of the big five consultants, and had done an implementation that was pure e-commerce with an ASP. None of them were really a good fit for us.
MP: Who did you use most recently for e-commerce?
TV: We were using a local ASP, ultimately owned by the phone company. They were using Broadvision.
MP: A hosted Broadvision solution.
TV: None of them up to that point had addressed our needs totally. Again we didn't want the contact that we had with our customers to be siloistic. It was important to us to be able to deal with the customer regardless of how they wanted to interact with us, we wanted to be able to let the customer make that choice--and to respond appropriately.
MP: So that was your strategic fit with Pivotal. What about technologically? Were you a Microsoft shop to begin with and then went with Pivotal?
TV: We were not exclusively Microsoft. In fact, we have a fairly large Unix operation. We have Oracle, Informix and in-house databases, but do have a lot of Microsoft databases and we did want to stay in the range of systems we had.
We felt from an architectural perspective it was a good long term strategic fit for us. But if someone had totally unsuitable technology that was not going to be useful in the long term we probably would have knocked them out of the running, but it wasn't a deciding factor for us. However, since we have implemented Pivotal, we have certainly created more movement within our organization toward Microsoft. Probably 75 percent of our ventures are with Microsoft.
MP: So Pivotal provides the CRM front-end to the Intrawest.net Website?
TV: Yes, it's supposed to provide the customer interface. You can certainly go into the individual resort locations and they have Pivotal on the front end. But the idea is that this is supposed to be, from a corporate perspective, a site you could go to if you wanted the big picture. We have customers who want to deal with us and they've been going to stratton for the last 25 years and that's all they care about. And then we have others who had a great time at Whistler and now want to know, What other resorts are there? We're trying to address those.
MP: Tell me how this cross-referencing works so that I would treated as someone special, whether I'm there for two days or two weeks.
TV: As you go through the booking process, we obviously collect different kinds of information, whatever is appropriate. It goes into the Pivotal database--we call it Villager--in a variety of ways. Obviously we recognize people as customers. In addition, it's used for fulfillment purposes. The guy at the rental shop, for example, goes in and gets a list of who's coming and what their requirements are 48 hours before they come.
We've been very successful with this. We have huge, huge numbers of people showing up at the mountain, but the day before we can have dedicated staff pull the skis, set them up and get them organized so that a person can walk in and say, I'm so-and-so, and we pull out their skis.
Now we've gone one step further. We actually just completed our installation of Intelligence, which is another Pivotal module. So although Villager is used for operational fulfillment and obviously to the advantage of the guest because the more we know in advance the more we can do, Intelligence is there to spot trends. The director of marketing is oohing and ahhing as we're going through this stuff because we can now take it one step further and say we know people are booking this far out, we know that a percentage of people are booking specials. We can now start to really customize some of our offerings for our guests.
We need to complete a full season before we can really get information with a high degree of accuracy. But even now we can see it; even yesterday we could see that there were some trends that we can then respond to. We're not there from the intelligence perspective, but from a general perspective we can respond to the people who obviously want this or that, whatever those trends happen to be, and then we can translate those trends into specials or packages--what the guests want.
MP: You can drill down closer to the individual level?
TV: We can drill down to the individual level, but obviously aggregate data is what shows the trends. Then we can go back to the individuals and say, These people would probably be interested in this.
MP: I'm on the stratton section of your Website right now. I can reserve my lodging, my ski school, my tickets. But I can't do my rentals.
TV: You can't do your rentals online and there's a reason for that. Other resorts do offer online rentals, but we walked through stratton with the rental group and decided that we couldn't offer guests any advantage by providing that information. Stratton doesn't have the physical facilities to pull equipment in advance and get it ready. So if a guest might prepay [online] for rentals--and from our business perspective there's an advantage in that we have their money--from a customer perspective they would show up and they'd be in the line like everybody else. They wouldn't see the same advantages.
So we decided that since we couldn't provide them with an advantage we wouldn't offer any services. Stratton actually wants to offer it so they're trying to work out some of their space issues.
MP: So you are also using Pivotal in the contact center?
TV: On the operational side we have no single contact center; we have resort contact centers. We're moving into some central ones or considering how we're going to look for that.
MP: How many seats of Pivotal then?
MP: And all the employees at the resorts are on Pivotal?
TV: We have not opened it up to every single individual across the company. That's the way we're going to deal with it but there are really people in key locations and key positions, and then there's others that are integrated with it.
MP: What do you mean by people in key positions?
TV: For example, the supervisor in the rental shop uses the system, but the rental techs don't. And obviously a lift on the top of the mountain somewhere doesn't have that either.
MP: They have access for the real estate properties and the lodgings, I would assume.
TV: Actually, real estate hasn't gone live yet. We have Intelligence running, and the next big chunk is to do real estate. They can access it but we have not incorporated that part of it.
MP: So what benefits have you seen from this?
TV: Well, isn't this where they start crying on Barbara Walters' show? Have we seen benefits? Yes. From the back-end point of view, the benefit that I've seen is that people are stampeding to start expanding [the systems]. A sales and marketing group from a resort that I had invited to be part of an early [project] at first expressed no interest. They were going to do their own thing, and that was fine. We don't want to twist peoples' arms before we're ready or they're ready. And now they're knocking on the door saying, Can we get on in the next two weeks?
Our people out there who are using or even hearing about the system are seeing the benefits of having a single way of dealing with and accessing their customers. We're seeing a response that tells us that we haven't really been in a position to measure benefits. Part of it is that we cycle around the seasons, so usually we wait until after Christmas to start looking at how effective things are.
Using Intelligence I see that we're not only increasing bookings, but I'm seeing a trend where the percentage of bookings are getting closer chronologically. Initially a certain percentage of people were booking farther out, but people are starting to use it for last-minute things. As time goes on it looks like people are looking more for the short-term rather than over the longer term, so that's good.
Our response rate has improved. We discovered even though we had never marketed to Whistler people, when we started bringing in some information that we sent out with newsletters and things, we realized that we had a much higher loyalty factor than we thought. And an awful lot of our guests had already gone to online booking and booked trips, even though we actually had not yet gone out to these people and said, Here we are. We're seeing an ability to gauge some of our loyalty factors even though that hadn't been part of our plan.
We're also seeing some of the benefits of our groups working together. One of them will contact [my group] about something and another one will contact us about something similar and we'll send off an e-mail saying, Why don't the two of you talk about that?
MP:Can you give an example?
TV: An example of collaboration would be one instance where a group tried to figure out, from a call-center perspective, how to deal with their customers in a variety of different ways: somebody's on the site and they call in versus people who are calling in traditionally.
They are both looking for some suggestions or some strategies, and yesterday one of them said, We're considering this tool, and another group came to me and said, We're looking at this tool. I e-mailed each of them and said, Why don't you get in touch with each other and you can look at the tools together? And then you can come back to us with strategies that other resorts can use.
MP: Looking back, is there anything significant you would have done differently?
TV: I'm sure the project manager on the IT side would say that he wishes that he'd had different people involved [at the beginning]. We asked each resort to select a representative or two to participate in this project, and they would funnel out to the rest of the resort what's happening. I think that probably a more diverse group, a larger group, would have been better. It wasn't that the people didn't get involved. But I think it would have gotten a better exposure at earlier stages.
And although we're really proud of the fact that we and Pivotal got this implemented in such a short, short period of time, we probably would still have liked to have taken it just a little bit slower. But not that much slower; our strategy is basically get it out there, and then work to refine it.