Several weeks ago, the Liftopia Team returned to HQ in San Francisco after an incredibly productive, fun, and exhausting week at Squaw Valley, where we got a few last turns in before the end of the season and participated in Mountain Travel Symposium, the biggest annual gathering of mountain travel professionals in North America. MTS is a phenomenal event, each year giving us the opportunity to meet face to face with our resort partners, learn about other companies doing innovative things in the world of ski, and let’s face it — have a ton of fun with a great group of people, reminding us how lucky we are to work in this industry.
This year, we collaborated with the folks at MTS to host a killer panel of some of the coolest, most respected tech entrepreneurs around, sharing their insider, no-nonsense perspectives on the biggest trends in digital marketing, e-commerce, social media, mobile technology and a whole lot more. And every single panelist was equally qualified to talk snow sports as they were technology, giving an incredibly unique glimpse into the evolving world of marketing technology through the lens of the ski industry. As ski resorts balance staying true to their traditional roots while innovating and moving forward, Erik Blachford, former CEO of Expedia Inc. captured it best during the panel: “somebody will be Moneyball’s Billy Beane for the ski industry.”
Here’s the line-up:
- Biz Cred: Investor in Twitter and Instagram (recently acquired by Facebook for $1b) among many other disruptive companies, including Liftopia; previously served as Head of Special Initiatives at Google
- Ski Cred: Grew up skiing Holiday Valley in New York; lives just down the road from Squaw Valley in Truckee, California
- Favorite Ski Movie: Chris, who admitted he once embarked on a global mission to collect every B-level ski movie poster he could get his hands on, named G.N.A.R. as his favorite ski flick
- Biz Cred: Joined Backcountry.com in 2000 as the marketing director and third employee, and is now the company’s Chief Marketing Officer
- Ski Cred: Grew up in California and Georgia, but Utah was the family ski destination growing up; subsequently made his right of passage as a professional ski bum at Snowbird
- Favorite Ski Movie: Blizzard of Aahhh’s
- Biz Cred: Prior to co-founding TripIt, Gregg was the co-founder of discount online travel company Hotwire and former president of Expedia’s luxury travel company Classic Vacations, Inc.
- Ski Cred: Skied for the US Ski Team, and his mom skied in the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley
- Favorite Ski Movie: Warren Miller movies were the highlight of his year when they were released each Fall growing up
- Biz Cred: Currently the Chairman and CEO at Butterfield & Robinson, Executive Chairman at Terrapass and Partner at Technology Crossover Ventures; formerly President and CEO of Expedia, Inc. and CEO of IAC Travel (Expedia, Hotels.com, Hotwire and more); serves as a board director at Zillow.com, Glassdoor.com, Terrapass.com, and Butterfield & Robinson
- Ski Cred: Erik skis, teles and snowboards; honed his skills on the slopes at Mont Saint Sauveur in Quebec and his fiancée confessed to him that their first day skiing together at Squaw Valley locked him in as “passing the test”
The lively discussion stretched for two and a half hours but completely flew by. Being in a marketing role in the ski industry, I was personally left in awe. There were plenty of actionable take-aways for the online travel industry and several over-arching themes seriously worth spending some time thinking about. Here are just a few highlights:
Data: Use it or die, but don’t get swamped in it. Take advantage of new opportunities to close the online-offline loop. As an example, Twitter has partnered with Amex to allow brands to offer deals on Twitter, and track redemption through American Express credit card transaction data. One piece of advice from Chris Sacca that you can act on immediately: “When I work with companies, I like to plug our websites into a projector, blow it up as big as it can get on the wall, get every department in the room to defend every single pixel on that page. You’ll find you have 60-70 calls to action on that page. If you clearly define simple goals upfront, you’ll focus on what’s important.”
User-generated content: As Blachford put it, there’s “no better industry in the world that lends itself to rich media than ski”. It’s a sport full of incredibly passionate people with no shortage of stunning visuals. As long as your brand has passionate fans, the same is true for travel, retail and other industries with visually stimulating products. Over time, more and more people are able to produce and publish compelling content. Blogs allowed for this at a massive scale years ago, but not everyone could do so successfully, simply because it’s a pain in the ass to write blog posts. Then we shifted to Tweets and status updates, and most recently, platforms like Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr, doing away with the pressure of “what the hell would I write about?” With photos, you can now take existing content, layer in self-expression and instantly create something unique out of it. Suddenly, every one of your customers is creating some form of content.
Social media: There was debate as to how directly social channels can drive revenue. Some viewed it primarily as an engagement tool, while Sacca pointed to the fact that Virgin America’s 2nd-6th top sales days occured when they posted promo codes on Twitter. Everyone agreed on the importance of actively maintaining a social presence, though. A few tips from the panel: follow your users to the places where they already hang out, and if you’re going to do it, do it right. Don’t half ass it. You must have an authentic voice for your community. Don’t overthink it.
QR codes: The diversity of views on QR codes ranged from “dead on arrival”, “regressive” and “totally useless” on one end of the specturm to “everything has its place, and it’s a hell of a lot easier than writing stuff down.” Did I mention this was a no-BS panel?
Innovation and the future: While marketing technology providers are quick to innovate and drive more and more math-driven results, the panel challenged the audience to match the innovation by embracing new technology and utilizing data effectively to move their industry forward. Simply put, marketing is math. Blachford tied it back to the ski industry, adding that “it’s not inconceivable that in the future you know where everyone is on the mountain to support ski patrol, crowd control and more. Somebody will be Moneyball’s Billy Bean for the ski industry and will soon bring in mathematicians and quants and tap into all the data.”
Competition: Price effectively, communicate the unique value of your product, and when necessary differentiate through how you communicate. Sacca points out that ski resorts are way too quick to commoditize themselves based on what their neighbors are doing, advising them to believe in differentiation and and to do so by combining a dynamic pricing component with a unique identity. Blachford added that there are two ways to approach differentiation – if your product is different, tell it in a straight-forward way. If it is perceived as similar to competitors, how you communicate is where you end up with differentiation.
And there’s plenty more on topics ranging from payment technology like Square and its place on the mountain to important considerations when analyzing daily deal partnerships. Check out the full videos below (you won’t regret it), and let us know what you think. Who knows, the future Billy Beane of the ski industry may be reading this right now.
Digital Marketing in Online Travel: Part 1 of 2
Digital Marketing in Online Travel: Part 2 of 2
Until MTS 2013!