Mountain Resort Guest Satisfaction High While Frogs Boil?

Are mountain resort guest satisfaction scores distracting managers from significant innovation opportunities and threats?

300 U.S. mountain resorts became boiled frogs in recent decades. Hundreds more are at significant risk.

Are mountain resort guest satisfaction scores lulling resorts into becoming boiled frogs?

Is your focus on resort guest satisfaction lulling you into becoming a boiled frog? Photographer: Brian Gratwicke.

Surviving resorts benefit, at least temporarily. Annual U.S. skier visits, which has been static while the population grew 20%, is concentrated among fewer resorts. There’s a tinge of complacency in press releases touting the industry’s “stability” and resort guest satisfaction.

That’s risky.

Mountain resort guest satisfaction scores rarely predict growth paths. The scores provide diagnostics. They don’t prescribe innovations that sustain competitiveness. They don’t inform responses to external forces that are inexorably eroding the mountain resort guest experience. Fourteen of these forces are described below.

Is your resort at risk of getting cooked? These three questions will help you assess your situation.

Q.1) If guest visits weren’t meeting projections, you’re management team would most likely (choose all that apply)…

  • A)   Reallocate marketing dollars to the most effective tactics
  • B)   Create more promotional events
  • C)   Look for drops in your mountain resort guest satisfaction scores for clues about what’s going on
  • D)   Refresh your understanding of the guest experience
Focusing on resort guest satisfaction to the exclusion of threats gets mountain resorts in hot water.

Are guest satisfaction scores distracting mountain resorts from more useful insights about what to innovate? (Screenshot: “Frogs watching TV” worms, YouTube.)

What about option D, refresh your understanding of the guest experience?  Do you believe option D has more fuzzy outcomes than A, B, or C?  Option D casts a big net to understand all influences on guest behavior.

On the other hand, options A, B and C don’t detect all of the influences. And, they can delay refreshing your understanding of the guest experience by weeks or months.

Q.2) Is a mountain resort guest satisfaction survey the primary means by which you’re detecting influences on guest behavior?

Satisfaction studies are great for tracking specific measures of service quality. These services deliver only part of the total experience that influences guest loyalty.

Guest behavior is influenced by more than what happens at your resort. The whole guest experience includes conscious and unconscious events, expectations and frustrations that happen before, during and after they deal with you. Guests’ experiences are influenced by the contexts of guests’ lives, not just what happens when they arrive at your destination.

Resort guest satisfaction can become a distraction leading to boiled frogs.

Consider how opportunities (or urgent needs) for innovation are propelled by events in guests’ lives, such as changes in,

  • household structures, singlehood, divorce and the rise of single heads of households
  • competitors’ offerings
  • consumers’ increasing access to global vacation options
  • shifts in values from material to experiential
  • how social groups coalesce differently in different cohorts
  • ethnicity and customs
  • adoption of new technologies and apps
  • corporate cultures and work-life balance
  • monetary exchange rates
  • travel costs in time and money
  • generational spending power
  • stock and bond market performance
  • disease outbreaks and control (e.g., Zika virus)
  • payment preferences

We’ve seen all of these influences at play. Some of these influences are inspiring innovations at hotels and resorts as we speak.

Can your guest satisfaction survey detect all of these shifts? If not, that’s not a failure of your survey. Remember, satisfaction surveys only measure aspects of service quality at your resort. That’s because guests will spend only a minute or two providing honest answers.

High guest satisfaction has lured hundreds of resorts into becoming boiled frogs

Mountain resort guest satisfaction surveys have another important limitation: selection bias. The only the guests completing satisfaction surveys are the ones who show up. Satisfaction scores can remain “high” while guest visits decline. You need other ways to learn what’s influencing guest experiences and behavior.

Last question…

Q.3 When would your management team consider researching and revamping the guest experience? Check all that apply.

  • a) After marketing efforts fail to produce desired results
  • b) After guest visits continue declining
  • c) After guest satisfaction finally drops
  • d) After all of the above happens

Did you include C, waiting until your guest satisfaction scores drop? At most resorts, the number of guest visits goes up and down without corresponding changes in guest satisfaction scores. For the reasons above, your guest satisfaction scores may never drop, even as guest visits decline. Resorts are refreshing their guest experiences in other ways.

How often do resorts refresh their guest experiences?

We follow up with companies two to three years after refreshing their guest experience. They suggest that the usable shelf life of  guest experience insight averages five years.

Most report significant improvements. One saw a 27% increase in sales. Benefits include online and traditional marketing efficiencies, higher-demand products, pricing models that boost repeat visits, revenue and referrals, and streamlined operating costs.

What could be the benefits to your business? The numbers below demonstrate a model for figuring this out.

  1. Let’s say your resort has historically generated $15 million in sales annually. Every !% change in sales represents $150,000.
  2. If your sales fall short 5% over the next five years on average, you’re out $3.75 million.
  3. Most guest experience studies costs about $40,000. That’s about 1% of $3.75 million of revenue you could have earned. You’d have better cash flow, less revenue to make up and less pressure from your board.

Is it worth it? Only you can decide. Awareness of the limits of guest satisfaction surveys and some simple math can keep you out of hot  water.

Vacation Behavior’s Guest Experience and Satisfaction Suite provides the most comprehensive approach available for influencing mountain resort guest satisfaction and loyalty. Learn more here.

5 reasons why guest satisfaction won't boost resort or hotel guest visits...and what willIf you like this post, please share it with colleagues. You may also enjoy reading :

Our special report on guest satisfaction. It’s been downloaded more than 300 times. It expands on ideas in this blog post. For a complimentary download, just click on the cover page.

Vacation Behavior provides differentiating perspectives to tourism marketers  differentiating their brands. Here are some related blog posts about influencing more guests to visit your destination.

SUBSCRIBE ME to updates from!






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?

Each month, Vacation Behavior publishes insights, analysis and inspiration for leisure and tourism business leaders. Subscribe below to receive alerts on future posts.  

SUBSCRIBE ME to updates from!

Read other popular posts:

Influencing leisure and tourism customers requires different insight than guest surveys provide.It seems intuitive that if you’re measuring guest satisfaction your guest visits would go up. But, in hundreds of global brands we analyzed, we found the two are not related. Find out why, and how leading companies are dramatically increasing guest visits. Read, 5 Reasons Why Guest Satisfaction Surveys Won’t Increase Your Guest Visits…and What Will.