Case study: A marketing strategy when you have nothing to sell

The dismal outlook at Lake Tahoe

A guest post by {grow} community member Tiffany Brown

The Reno/Tahoe area is currently experiencing one of the driest winters on record — a mere 1.5 inches of snow thus far in the 2011-2012 skiing season. The typical November to April average is 170 inches of snow per month so this has been a crisis for the area’s 18 ski resorts. This presents the marketer’s nightmare scenario: Having no product to sell.

Skiing is central to the Reno-Tahoe economy. Last year, 7.6 million visitors enjoyed a near-record snowfall, contributing $700 million in direct visitor spending. This made me wonder … how have the ski resorts been handling this “marketing catastrophe?”

According to the Reno Gazette Journal, ski business over the holidays was down about 50 percent but resorts are remaining optimistic … despite the fact that competing ski resorts in other states are offering vulturous promotions like free skiing at their resorts with the purchase of a Tahoe area ski resort lift ticket.

Here is an examination of how the ski resorts are waging their battles in light of this marketing crisis.

Northstar Ski Resort, Truckee , CA and Heavenly Ski Resort, South Lake Tahoe, CA

On January 9, Bill Rock, COO of Northstar California and Pete Sonntag, the GM of Heavenly Mountain Resort, issued a joint statement to their season passholders entitled “The Power of Snowmaking” which was posted to their Facebook page.  They write: “It’s no secret that natural snow has been hard to come by this year and we know that has been a disappointment for many of you.” By beginning with a disarming and honest statement, they lure readers in to hear more about the details of their snowmaking efforts and finish with a cheerful “see you on the slopes.”

The two resorts also produced a video together entitled “Letter to the Guests of Tahoe:”

With just 30 percent of Heavenly open, the resort is relying on discounted lift tickets to draw crowds. They have a lively Facebook and Twitter presence emhpasizing “no other mountain compares to the inspiring scenic beauty, varied terrain and rockin’ nightlife.”

Their Facebook page is currently running a “Heavenly Angels” contest, which serves as a nice distraction from the weather scenario and promises a free trip to Heavenly. The resort also hosts a blog complete with up-to-date articles, videos, photos and more to keep visitors current on all the latest happenings at Heavenly.

Squaw Valley Ski Resort, Olympic Valley, CA and Alpine Meadows, Tahoe City, CA

Andy Wirth, President and CEO of Squaw Valley addressed season passholders in the form of a newsletter to dispel any rumors and/or myths about the resort closing down. Throughout the newsletter, Wirth gives his honest perspective on the situation, as well as a thorough overview of weather pattern history and forecasts. He ends on an optimistic note, stating: “We anticipate, based on current forecasts, the high pressure ridge to the west will break down in mid to late January, which in turn will open up the corridor for significant snowstorms coming into Lake Tahoe.”

Mount Rose Ski Resort, Reno, NV

In addition to pushing deals and information about ski conditions via their web site, through email blasts, and social media, Mt. Rose is focusing on word of mouth, testimonials, photos, and videos.  According to Kayla Anderson, PR/Web Manager at Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe, “All of the people who come here are impressed with our grooming, snowmaking, and general conditions, so we’re just really trying to get that word out.”

Similar to some of the other ski resort Facebook pages, Mt. Rose’s page is filled with information regarding current conditions, photos, videos, discount packages, and more. In lieu of snow, the resort is offering a few great deals include $10 lift tickets for teens and kids valid any day through January 20th. They post online daily specials here to entice people to come by and visit any day of the week.

The take-aways

When faced with a crisis, it’s important to remember the four Rs of “react, research, respond, and remorse.”

These resorts are standing tall in the face of a perilous situation. They are listening intently to what their customers are saying.  They are keeping the lines of communication and open and creating an honest dialogue. And they are pushing though this crisis while remaining optimistic and hopeful.

What would your marketing reaction be if your company was in crisis? What advice would you give our resorts?

Tiffany Brown is a marketing professional in the commercial real estate industry who has worked for global corporations such as CBRE, Trammell Crow Company, and Warner Bros. Studios. She is an active board member for the Reno-Tahoe American Marketing Association.  You can find her blog at or on Twitter @tiffabrown

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  • It just proves how marketing any product that relies heavily on the weather can be tough. I think the key in situations like this is to be honest and positive, but not to rely on superlatives.  People know it isn’t snowing and you should tell it like it is.  I worked in the ski industry and we deployed some strategies to get people to the mountain in low snow years.  We offered “trials” where you could ski until 10am and get your money back if you weren’t satisfied.  Bring-a-friend and other promotions can also help, but nothing like snow.  And then, when it starts to snow, double down and turn over every stone to get business back.  And say “thank you” when they do come back.

  • Great advice Rich. Thanks for bringing your voice of experience to the {grow} community today!

  • Carolyn Stearns Storyteller

    The video was a powerful added tool in the well done post on the dry ski season. All that moisture they missed fell here in CT. we had record rainfall and on our farm that equals record mud – today that froze solid at 3 degrees , weather calls all the shots!

  • Video is so powerful and underutilized by so many businesses. Great point Carolyn. Thanks! 

  • SO glad my farm is in Georgia.  THAT would be awful, and there is nothing worse than frozen mud.

  • Good article, I really like how you did the post and then added the question at the end.  4R’s are great to.  I think I would really be talking up the nightlife and scenery.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with statements that video is a very powerful tool to prove current conditions.  Perhaps taking that a step further and making regular video testimonials by skiers and snowboarders.

    If you really wanted to amp up skier’s perception and awareness of your slope conditions, a resort could guarantee certain conditions – “always X inches or more of snow”.

  • Hello! Thank you for your comment. I actually took a trip up to Northstar Ski Resort on Saturday and the Village (shopping area) was just packed with people who were shopping, dining, ice skating, and enjoying the scenery in general. There were also plenty of people snowboarding and skiing on the man-made snow, but with a daytime temperature of 51 degrees, overall it felt like summer. Here’s an article from the Northern Nevada Business Journal about how area recreation firms are emphasizing other alternatives:

  •  Rich – That definitely does sound like some straightforward, practical advice … and I think many of the resorts are probably following this strategy quite closely. Here’s to hoping for some snow!

  • Carolyn, I thought the video did a great job of communicating the ski resort’s point of view while at the same time illustrating the fact that there is still plenty of snow on the ground to ski on (for the people who may not believe it until they see it for themselves). Thanks for your comment!

  • This is something that has been talked about a lot here in Bozeman, Montana.  I just put up a post on my blog ( about methods a local resort is using to get to skiers.  Interesting times!  Great post, Tiffany.  

  • Great article on keeping (transparent) mktg communications going in down times. An increase marketing is often advantageous when everyone else is cutting budgets or reducing exposure.

    No hard sell needed for dumping snow…no snow means they got a whole heck of a lot to sell – the Tahoe/mtn experience.

    In addition to 4 R’s….7 P’s kinda jibes for Tahoe marketing departments….Proper Previous Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance!

    Great job highlighting some effective communicators in the area!

  • …I can guarantee you a good look at a T-Bone…but I’d rather take the butchers word for it.

    …or they could just facilitate real time sharing of on-slope conditions using (incentivized) social media comms.

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