How Vail Resorts uses data-driven marketing to boost loyalty in the ski business
In 2011 Kirsten Lynch took a risk: She quit her job in Chicago as chief marketing officer of PepsiCo’s Quaker Foods and Snacks division to move to Boulder, Colorado.
“I always had a passion for being out in Colorado and close to the mountains,” says Lynch, whose husband also quit his job to join her. “It was a really scary decision at the time, but one of the most amazing decisions that we’ve made,” she says.
That is because a few months later she found a job as CMO for Vail Resorts, where she continues to blend her passion for skiing with her marketing know-how. The move allowed her to “really merge who I am with what I do,” she says. “I think so many people go their whole lives yearning for that.”
At Vail, a publicly traded company overseeing 37 mountain resorts across three countries, Lynch has made data-driven marketing a priority, including using sophisticated techniques to track the ski habits of visitors so the information can be used for personalized advertising.
“We are really fortunate. We have a lot of first-party data that tells us a lot about our guest,” she says in the latest edition of Ad Age’s Marketer’s Brief podcast, on which she details several of the data-driven techniques the resort company uses. “Our guests really understand that we are using the data in a way that is useful to them or helpful to them versus just bombarding them with generic messages or even going into areas that would feel like invasions of privacy.”
The global warming threat
Vail—whose resorts include its namesake Vail resort in Colorado, along with Breckenridge, Keystone, as well as Park City in Utah and Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia—has 47 percent market share of the $3.3 billion ski and snowboard resort industry, according to market research company IBISWorld.
The industry has enjoyed 3.6 percent annual revenue growth from 2014 to 2019, helped by favorable economic conditions, including low unemployment, which has boosted discretionary spending on vacations, according to IBISWorld. Vail reported that in the fiscal year ending July 31, mountain resort revenue jumped nearly 14 percent to $2 billion as skier visits increased nearly 22 percent, driven in part by resort acquisitions.
But threats loom on the horizon, including climate change, which is already taking a toll on the ski season. IBISWorld cites research by the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters stating that the snow season in the western U.S. has declined by 34 days since the early 1980s. “The overall decline in snowfall has dampened profitability given the fact that industry operators have to incur significant costs in using snowmaking equipment,” IBISWorld states.
Asked about the effect of climate change, Lynch on the podcast says: “We really focus on our season pass business and getting an advanced commitment for the season, which really protects our business against weather variability and gives an incredible value to our guests who are willing to commit in advance.”
After luring guests to its resorts, Vail uses data to fuel personalized marketing meant to increase loyalty. It embeds radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology in lift tickets and season passes so that it can track the skiing habits of guests. “We know where you skied, when you skied, how often you skied,” Lynch says.
The data is fed into a predictive modeling system that “we can then use to tag every single person in our database to say what is the likelihood of this person to return to Vail versus Whistler Blackcomb versus Breckenridge, so we engage with them in a way that is relevant to them,” Lynch says. The company will “then tee up experiences to you through all our marketing channels that are relevant to you to draw you back in. Our ultimate goal is loyalty.”
Vail also uses technology to improve the on-mountain experiences of guests. That includes a includes a new texting chatbot, dubbed “Emma,” billed as the “world’s first digital mountain assistant” who answers questions about everything from snow grooming and lift line wait times to recommendations on rentals, lessons and dining options.
Emma was tested with a beta version last year. But this season “we will really put here out there in full force,” Lynch says.