Mountain Resort DMOs Conference: The Big Idea for Growing Summer Tourism

Last week, I attended “The Assembly”, the annual meeting of mountain resort DMOs in Denver, Colorado, USA. The theme this year was about managing peaks and valleys.

Mountain resorts in the U.S. are at peak capacity on most winter weekends. The valleys referred to huge swaths of opportunity during summers to grow occupancy and rates. After soaking in what I heard, I boiled my thoughts down to eight notes to self:

Mountain resort DMOs look to fill summer capacity.

Mountain resort DMOs look to fill summer capacity.


1. Two paths for mountain resort DMOs to fill vacant beds in summer?

Much of the discussion focused on capital-intensive investments in mountain coasters, water parks and other attractions that could draw summer visitors. That’s one potential growth path. How many waterparks can a region support? That’s addressed with a pretty straight forward market assessment.

Carl Robaudo of SMG Consulting offered a second path. He said, “Consumers, especially Millennials, want authenticity. DMOs need to communicate their local cultures. Culture is authentic.”

I thought that path was as good as the first. Maybe better. In our work with clients, it’s always been the less familiar path for them.  But, it’s also been the path to effective marketing, far more influential guest experiences and streamlined operating costs.

So, I followed the authentic culture path with these remaining notes…

2. Are DMOs challenged to describe what their areas’ cultures are?

Those who do it successfully stand a better-than-even chance of taking market share. Here’s why.

Multiple studies show that many tourists, and especially Millennials, are motivated to accumulate experiences –more than homes, cars or other possessions. This is partly because cash-strapped, student-debt-laden Millennials can’t afford to buy much. Many use AirBnB and VRBO to save money. But, they also choose to shack up temporarily with hospitable locals to experience the local vibe in ways they can’t in hotel rooms.

While community layouts and architecture affect the vibe, it’s still mostly about interactions between people. Destination vacationers of all ages are starting to use mobile apps that help them connect with locals and fellow travelers while on the road.

These changes in vacationer preferences and enabling technologies are contributing to the growing importance of destination culture.

3. How do current visitors describe your destination’s unique vibe?

Is it limited to cute boutiques, good restaurants and decorative lights on main street? These are found at many mountain resorts. If that’s all that’s going on, then these could portend death by un-differentiation.

In contrast, for example, Lake Placid is a remote, tiny village steeped in rich Olympic history. Visitors encounter residents who gladly share that history as well as world class athletes who train and compete there. Lake Tahoe, on the other hand, is a massive region encompassing multiple mountain resorts that have spectacular lake views. It’s where the super-outdoorsy rub elbows with casino patrons. Both locations have very different vibes.

What makes your destination unique?

4. Are you promoting a geographical footprint that visitors think is unique?

It’s natural for all of us to promote what’s in our backyard, within the boundaries of our towns and counties.

But, tourists lump vacation locations together according to their own notions. They may be thinking of a neighborhood, a scenic route that crosses county lines or an entire continent. Think, “Lake Placid vs. Lake Tahoe.” East coasters book trips to “Lake Tahoe”, never limiting themselves to Heavenly, Squaw or any specific community there. Regional and resort destinations frequently overlap. But, typically visitors share a common perception of what the “place” is to them.

5. Do you know what the next generation of visitors is actually trying to achieve?

In our research with affluent Gen-X and Millennial vacationers, we’ve identified more than fifty factors that influence their vacation purchases and loyalty. The starting point is understanding today’s consumers’ goals. Their goals are shifting dramatically and in unexpected ways.

Take for instance amateur millennial female athletes. They skew educated, health conscious, independent, assertive, career oriented and mutually supportive. They reject common conventions of acceptable “female behavior” that existed before Title IX.

Understanding shifts among nextgen travelers like millennial women opens up new ways to attract them.

Understanding the goals and temperaments of nextgen travelers like these millennial women opens up new ways to engage with them.

Back then, no one could have predicted that  these women would happily run 5Ks through fields of mud for charity and pay $65 for the privilege. Today, a Dirty Girl Mud Run happens somewhere in the U.S. most weekends between March and September. Average attendance is 7,000 per event.

6. What are nextgen visitors’ paths to purchase?

Decades ago, consumers’ vacation planning typically began and ended with specific destinations in mind. That’s changing.

Word-of-mouth and the Internet have short circuited destination-driven planning. Consumers are learning about more unique vacation experiences through affinity groups, social media and friends. The destinations are more frequently afterthoughts.

Dirty Girl Mud Run participants learn about those event on the paths they tread, which include fitness and involvement with pink ribbon charities.

Another example is the Burning Man festival. Few people Google search, “cultural desert vacation.” Yet, Burning Man sells 70,000 tickets to participants seeking these experiences—“a utopia in the desert, a culture of possibility and a network of dreamers and doers.”

Finding new tourists on their paths to purchase is gaining importance.

Finding new tourists on their paths to purchase is gaining importance. What paths do 70,000 Burning Man participants follow to the middle of a dust storm?

7. How can mountain resort DMOs re-position onto nextgen vacationers’ paths to purchase?

It’s important to keep in mind that nextgen vacationers have aspirational destinations, not just physical destinations, in mind. They want to accomplish or become something during their blocks of free time. Opportunities open up for DMOs that dial in to vacationers’ aspirations and set up shop along their paths to purchase.

One of the challenges to re-positioning was discussed at The Assembly. DMOs need to respond to local constituencies that often have different interests. Developers want to maximize income per square foot. Residents want affordable housing and to preserve the lifestyle that makes mountain living desirable.

Nurturing experiences that resonate authentically with visitors requires a balancing act. Affluent vacationers want access to pristine mountain experiences as well as the diversions of boutiques and eateries. These are not necessarily differentiators, though.

DMOs need to give visitors a compelling reason to come the first time and then return. One good reason for visitors to return is their aspirations are fulfilled more deeply and in ways that few other places can duplicate.

8. Where to start?

DMOs need to engage local constituencies to develop and support initiatives that distinguish their locations, magnetize visitors and drive loyalty. And, the shorter the timelines to do those things, the better.

This is hard where competing agendas and opinions dominate discussion. Any decision taken by DMOs can be regarded as taking one side or the other. This is human nature. Similar politics exist in all organizations.

The answer is a tie-breaking vote—cast by the next generation of visitors, who have cash in their hands and who want to experience the things that make that destination unique. The most effective deliverer of their vote is an impartial third party, backed up by hard data.

But, as I said, these are just notes to self. What do you think?

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