E-Mail Marketing Gives Ski Resort a Lift
High on the east slope of California's Sierra Nevada, Mammoth Mountain is the weekend destination of choice for thousands of avid skiers from snowless Southern California. That is, when there's snow.
Unfortunately for skiers and resort operators alike, it's not always obvious to a skier on a sunny day in, say, Los Angeles, that there's fresh powder on the slopes 300 miles away. And until recently, it was pretty difficult for Mammoth to get the word out to its distant customers in a timely manner.
Now, though, e-mail marketing is allowing Mammoth to create the equivalent of impulse shopping at the check-out stand. Sending last-minute e-mail invitations has contributed to the dramatic increase in the frequency of guest visits to the resort, which have tripled since the resort implemented the e-mail system. "The goal was to get the message to people that there is snow here, and conditions are great," says Andrew Sundsboe, Internet marketing manager at Mammoth.
Mammoth, which operates two ski resorts, four guest lodges, a golf course, horse stables, a lake club and a mountain bike park, has a marketing strategy with an overarching goal to promote seasonal activities to entice guests to return several times each year.
To publicize the resort's attractions, Mammoth's staff has traditionally relied on trade shows, outbound telemarketing and direct mail to encourage outdoor enthusiasts to visit in both winter, when the resort promotes skiing, and during the warmer months when people hike, fish and bike.
The addition of direct mail to the marketing mix seemed like a natural, given the resort's mostly young and technology-savvy audience. But Mammoth's early efforts at e-mail marketing didn't run smoothly or effectively. Mammoth staff members were laboriously writing and sending each message by hand. The resort needed a better method of handling its database.
"They wanted to provide an easy way to communicate with their customers, including snow conditions and event happenings, but they didn't have a good way to push their messages out," says Scott Hetherington, director of marketing communications at BoldFish, which eventually helped Mammoth solve its e-mail puzzle.
Using the widely distributed Eudora e-mail software, and later an e-mail distribution program called Majordomo, Mammoth had assembled two separate e-mail distribution lists--one weekly and one daily--to convey time-sensitive information, such as ski conditions, weather reports and spontaneous event information to help guests finalize getaway decisions. Guests would typically subscribe to one of Mammoth's lists two weeks before their visit and unsubscribe after they return from Mammoth.
The challenges for Mammoth rested on the rotational nature of these distribution lists. With many thousands of subscribers moving on and off these two lists, strong technical skills were required to maintain them. The technical tasks involved were cumbersome and time-consuming for Mammoth's marketing employees, taking them away from core communication activities.
As guests continuously subscribed and unsubscribed, the list administrator read each returned message (subscribes, unsubscribes, bounces) and manually acted upon them to keep the list updated, which cost Mammoth a considerable amount of time and resources. Also, the unsubscribe interface was difficult for users and necessitated even further technical intervention on the part of Mammoth's IT staff. "The problem with Majordomo is it's free, but it's designed for the super geek," Sundsboe says.
In a partial solution using Eudora and Majordomo, Mammoth was able to mass e-mail a single, lengthy message to one server that distributed the e-mail to both weekly and daily list subscribers. While one message for two lists saved Mammoth time, recipients still needed more up-to-date, custom information to draw them to the resort: What were snow conditions today? Would the event take place next week? Sundsboe also says with Majordomo, e-mail responses took an average of two days to return.
Mammoth noticed the need to improve its e-mail marketing system and wanted to capitalize on the prospect to provide updated ski information via e-mail or the Internet efficiently and effectively. "We kept growing more and more and needed something more robust," Sundsboe says.
The answer came in an ASP-based e-mail marketing program called BoldFish. "In 1997 we were looking for more solutions out of the Web," Sundsboe says. "BoldFish allowed us to provide the solutions." According to Sundsboe, BoldFish eliminated utilizing a difficult interface by allowing the Mammoth staff to work directly in its Web site.
The e-mail provider has developed a number of seamless integrated technologies with customer databases that deliver, manage, personalize, and commerce-enable vast numbers of e-mail messages, helping organizations to improve the way they communicate with their customers, subscribers and prospects.
The system BoldFish implemented for Mammoth has a high-volume sending capability and reliability. The e-mail company wants its system to help Mammoth and other companies grow online revenues, build brand awareness, cut operating costs and increase customer satisfaction and loyalty. Mammoth began using the BoldFish product to manage both lists, which enabled the resort to segment its lists and message content, personalize each message and give recipients content that was directly applicable to their interests, thereby increasing customer retention.
"We give the opportunity to manage yourself. You don't have to give data to a third party. With our software you don't have to do that. It's direct integration," Hetherington explains. Aside from adding personalization and completing a mail merge, Hetherington says the message template sends the messages much faster than what Mammoth was used to.
"It previously took a day and a half. Now it takes them an hour or two," Hetherington says. Personalizing the e-mails involves a five-step process, according to Hetherington. The first is to create a message template then choose a segment. Then the marketing person reviews the header to make sure the reply address is correct, and she sends a test message to herself. Finally, that person schedules the delivery.
"Now people don't realize they're on a huge list. They think the writer is writing to them individually. It doesn't come across like a huge spam mail that they delete every day," Sundsboe says.
BoldFish automatically handles bounced e-mails, as well. The software solution detects both "soft" bounces (auto replies) and "hard" bounces (invalid address). Even a novice computer user can administer the list and post the e-mail message to the server, which Sundsboe says, saves tremendous time and relieves the burden for Mammoth's staff. "The person who writes and sends e-mail is not a programmer. She's a writer," Sundsboe says. "Now she can put something in the BoldFish e-mail interface, hit 'send,' and it's away."
With logic built into the BoldFish technology, the system automatically deletes hard bounces the first time, resends soft bounces, and reroutes replies to Mammoth's original message. In addition, BoldFish allows guests to unsubscribe just as easily as they subscribe by sending e-mails to a Mammoth ID with the word "Unsubscribe" in the subject. This ease of use has created an enormous improvement in user satisfaction that has resulted in a two-fold increase in Mammoth's subscription list.
"We were annoying customers with massive e-mails," Sundsboe says. "They were saying, 'I asked you to remove me and you didn't.' And now at the end of the season when we say goodbye, everyone writes back and says thanks."
BoldFish also provides the latest lists on the backend. When a visitor subscribes, Mammoth can automatically update the database. "It keeps the database in one single place," Hetherington says. "The issues of importing and exporting a mail system between the customer and the database is eliminated."
Sundsboe says since the company signed on with BoldFish, other companies have tried to lure the resort into buying their solutions. They tease with free six-month offers, or free service, but Sundsboe says he will never leave BoldFish. "They're geniuses. On our side, we're all idiots. We're skiers, not computer programmers. These guys are definitely cool," Sundsboe remarks. "We're just a small drop in the bucket, but they service us as wonderfully as they take care of their big clients, too." The only process he said he may have done differently was to implement the personalization functionality much sooner.
BoldFish has helped Mammoth to segment lists and personalize e-mail with successful repeat business results. By keeping in continual contact, the resort is solidifying its relationships by taking guests to a conversational, personal level online, and making them feel like part of the resort's culture before arrival.
"Through our use of permission-based marketing, guests are telling us that their information feels completely tailored to them--and we're learning more about their demographics and interests in the process, which is driving our market plan," Sundsboe remarks.
Jennifer Renner, Mammoth's creative services manager, says BoldFish has increased skier visits as a result. "Mammoth has seen an increase in skier days, which is directly related to the overall campaign-style approach that is taken to marketing," says Mammoth. "Our BoldFish
e-mail program is an integral part of this on an annual basis and will continue to play a major role." And Renner says although BoldFish has not directly increased Mammoth's annual revenue, the e-mail system has added the benefit of real-time information to subscribers, boosting their usage and frequency.
Hetherington says he knew Mammoth's guest visits would rise. "We had no doubt they would increase visits from customers," Hetherington admits. "It did surprise me how much it increased. I don't believe they were expecting such a dramatic response."
Feedback from list recipients on timely issues is also a major value-added element of the BoldFish deployment. Recently, Mammoth began tracking the numbers of snowboarders on the lists, cross referencing the number of times these same guests appear as skiers and modifying promotional combination programs to attract them to return. "With BoldFish, list management, delivery and response management couldn't be easier for us or our guests, and the proof is in the tremendous increase in our subscription rates, which is what drives our guest visits," Sundsboe claims.
The informal market research loop also has been the basis for successful promotions, as portrayed by Mammoth's 2000-2001 Season Pass Campaign. Mammoth surveyed list recipients to uncover the best price for a 2000-2001 season pass. The opinions were so credible that Mammoth sold 2,000 passes inside the first four hours, with a current total of more than 25,000 season passes sold--a record for Mammoth Mountain. "Without BoldFish, there's no doubt in my mind that we would not have reached this level of success," said Sundsboe.
Maurene Grey, senior research analyst at The Gartner Group, says most enterprises are discovering what Mammoth already has: that this new marketing medium can be more effective than the old one. As a result, most companies are already dropping direct mail campaigns or are augmenting them with e-mail campaigns.
"It makes sense. You're able to touch a customer in a huge way...in a targeted, customized, personalized way," Grey says. "I suspect (the ski industry) is doing what everyone else is doing--they're finding a more creative way to turn prospects into customers."
Mammoth also has many other creative marketing goals on the horizon to complement its e-mail campaign. It recently relaunched a redesigned Web site that includes more interactive features. Looking ahead, Mammoth plans to implement BoldFish to "follow a guest around." By building an account and having the guest log in, the resort is poised to pursue a "MyMammoth" idea, with customized information for each guest. Mammoth also plans to gain permission from list recipients to distribute brochures and information via U.S. mail, keeping top-of-the-mind awareness pieces entering the resort guest's home from all doorways.
Rob Linde, director of marketing for the National Skiers Association, says other resorts are starting to take Mammoth's lead. Many resorts in Aspen, Colo. now have reallocated their dollars that are typically spent on brochures, into e-mail marketing products. And in California, Dodge Ridge and Squaw ski resorts have deployed new e-mail systems that run targeted marketing campaigns. The days when skiers and snowboarders learn about snow conditions and events at their favorite resorts through direct mail are disappearing, Linde says.
Mary Jo Tarolla, director of Internet development and communications for the SnowSports Industries America, a nonprofit trade association of snow sport manufacturers, suppliers and distributors, urges her members to embrace the Internet and e-mail to attract new customers. "I think the demographic profile of people who ski and snowboard fits perfectly with users of e-mail. It makes perfect sense," Tarolla says. That profile typically equals a young to middle age crowd that is computer savvy.
Stephanie Neff, deputy director of the California Skis Industry Association, also says the demographic profiles match because many people who worked with the Web at its infancy in Silicon Valley, love to ski, as well. Linde says a total of 52.2 million alpine skiers, snowboarders, cross country skiers and snow shoers hit the nation's slopes in 1999, up from 52.1 million in 1998. E-mail marketing is the most effective way to capture this growing industry, while retaining long-time skiers. "Snow is one of the greatest motivators to get people to ski. Taking a proactive approach to lead them to find out...that's something they can embrace."
Linde calls Mammoth a leader in this new category of targeted and personalized e-mail marketing, which he admits is still lagging within the ski industry.
Since deploying BoldFish, Mammoth received an award last year at the NSA's National Sales and Marketing Awards for effectively administering its e-mail marketing campaigns through the BoldFish e-mail system. The resort won for the "use of the Internet and new technology" category within the sub category "500,000 and above skiing visits." Linde says the resort's campaign attracted the attention of the NSA because of its ability to collect hundreds of e-mail addresses from college students and then effectively target market to them.
"It's a relationship builder--to get e-mails from your favorite resort that keeps them up-to-date on the snow count," Linde suggests. "I think that [e-mail marketing] is shifting and changing," Linde says. "I think resorts need to take the initiative to do it, and allocate the resources to get it done. Mammoth has done that."