Hotels on Snow: Challenges & Successes of the Seasonals

By Simon Hudson Endowed Chair in Tourism & Hospitality, University of South Carolina | April 15, 2018

Operating a hotel in a ski resort certainly has its challenges – unpredictable demand due to volatile weather conditions, high-altitude accessibility issues, seasonal peaks and troughs, to name just a few. At Northstar's Ritz-Carlton, Marian Wilson, Director of Sales and Marketing says that the first challenge of being a seasonal mountain operation is getting staff to work there, primarily because of accessibility, and being a destination hotel. "So, we are really focused on training and developing staff in order for us to have a succession plan.

And we put a lot of effort into recruiting the right people." Rudy Sharp, Vice President of Hospitality for Telluride Ski & Golf Resort agrees. "It is challenging in a seasonal resort as I am opening eight or nine different operations every year, and each time it feels like we are starting all over again. Right when we have it all taken care of, we get a whole new team. Even with those employees that return after two months off between seasons, it is constant training in order to maintain a strong service culture."

Labor is also the main challenge in the winter for Stein Eriksen Lodge in Deer Valley, Utah. Guy Morris, VP Sales & Marketing says the hotel needs about 100 extra employees each winter and has to recruit from eight different nations. "It is tough – we recruit many employees from other hotels who have peak seasons that are opposite to ours. But then even if we find employees, housing them becomes an issue. We do have some property here that is still undeveloped, and we are seriously looking at using it to build subsidized housing for employees. Every ski town faces these challenges." Philip Diana, Director of Lodging Operations at nearby Solitude Mountain Resort feels the same way. "We all as resort operators share the same challenges - mainly seasonal staffing. The level of service that we strive to achieve becomes very difficult when we are training new staff each season. This is where retention comes in - we do our absolute best to get great staff to return and also do what we can to keep a few on year round."
 
For Deer Valley, and many other ski resorts, poor snow conditions – or the perception of low snowfalls - have been a big challenge this winter. "We can't control Mother Nature," says Guy Morris. "And the perception was 'Colorado and Utah are not getting their fair share this year.' So, we put a lot of effort in our marketing to convince travelers that there are other reasons to come to a ski town and not ski. We invented a 'Winter Variety Package' in January, which gave guests a $400 resort credit to be used through the concierge for bob-sledding, hot air ballooning, fly-fishing, ice-skating, tubing park – other activities apart from skiing. And this has been successful." Danielle Summers, Marketing Director at the Waldorf Astoria, Park City, agrees that the problem in 2018 was not the actual ski conditions but more the rampant rumors of what the snow conditions were. "This tends to deter skiers and yet those who do come have an amazing time. We have extensive snow-making and the slopes are beautifully groomed."

But for Channin Liedtke, Director of Sales and Marketing at the Lake Louise Inn in Canada, an operational challenge for his hotel is often dealing with too much snow rather than too little. "When it does snow, we have to move a lot of it from our parking lot and pathways," he says. "It is challenging to work on days where we have had a ton of snow because we all want to ski. So, the hotel implemented a policy where employees can work flexible hours and get to the mountain midweek. Midweek skiing is the best because it's generally quieter."

Once hotels on snow have overcome these various challenges, they have to focus on catering to the unique demands of winter sports enthusiasts. As a recent White Paper on skiers stated: "adults who take ski trips, quite simply, are a distinct and special bunch." A recent German study looking into the ingredients that contribute towards the ultimate winter sports experience suggested safety, comfort, hedonism and relaxation were key influences. So, what are hotels on snow in North America doing to wow their winter guests?

At the Waldorf Astoria Park City, chosen as the United States' Best Ski Hotel at the World Ski Awards in 2017, guests have access to high-end, brand new ski and snowboard equipment, and use of its own private Frostwood Gondola a few steps away from the hotel entrance. "We're dedicated to giving guests the ultimate in ski resort luxury, on the slopes and off," says Kerry Hing, General Manager of the hotel. A new 'a la cart' amenity program allows guests to consult with the hotel's personal concierge team to build out their ultimate in-room cart loaded with snacks, refreshments and local touch points, as well as board games, DVDs and a hot chocolate bar for the kids – all delivered directly to the room.

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Sales & Marketing: Selling Experiences

There are innumerable strategies that Hotel Sales and Marketing Directors employ to find, engage and entice guests to their property, and those strategies are constantly evolving. A breakthrough technology, pioneering platform, or even a simple algorithm update can cause new trends to emerge and upend the best laid plans. Sales and marketing departments must remain agile so they can adapt to the ever changing digital landscape. As an example, the popularity of virtual reality is on the rise, as 360 interactive technologies become more mainstream. Chatbots and artificial intelligence are also poised to become the next big things, as they take guest personalization to a whole new level. But one sales and marketing trend that is currently resulting in major benefits for hotels is experiential marketing - the effort to deliver an experience to potential guests. Mainly this is accomplished through the creative use of video and images, and by utilizing what has become known as User Generated Content. By sharing actual personal content (videos and pictures) from satisfied guests who have experienced the delights of a property, prospective guests can more easily imagine themselves having the same experience. Similarly, Hotel Generated Content is equally important. Hotels are more than beds and effective video presentations can tell a compelling story - a story about what makes the hotel appealing and unique. A video walk-through of rooms is essential, as are video tours in different areas of a hotel. The goal is to highlight what makes the property exceptional, but also to show real people having real fun - an experience that prospective guests can have too. The June Hotel Business Review will report on some of these issues and strategies, and examine how some sales and marketing professionals are integrating them into their operations.