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Is our obsession with conversion killing the ski industry?

Danielle Kristmanson
Sep, 2017
8 mins

The outdoor sport industry is experiencing significant growth. According to the 2017 Outdoor Foundation report released last month, the industry attracted 2 million new participants in 2016. Outdoor recreation is now a $887 billion industry with Americans spending $184.5 billion on Outdoor Recreation Products and  $702.3 billion on Trips and Travel according to the Outdoor Industry Association 2017 National Recreation Economy Report.

New outdoor brands emerge every day and existing lifestyle and indoor sport brands are scrambling to develop new lines to tap this growth in the outdoor market. In addition to this, the outdoors is experiencing a renaissance, and national parks everywhere are experiencing visitation levels never seen before.

While the outdoor industry as a whole is experiencing a renaissance, the ski and snowboard industry has seen a decline of 1.7 million participants since 2010.

And then...there’s the ski and snowboard industry. According to the National Ski Areas Association the number of active ski and snowboard participants in the US has been falling since its peak of 10.1 million in 2010.11 to just 8.4 million in 2015.16. The skier visit statistics paint a similar picture – declining by over 7.7 million between 2010 and 2016.

In an industry that has been characterized by corporate consolidation in resort ownership, declining participation levels and pass price wars, we think it’s time for those of us working in the industry to take pause and ask ourselves, “what the hell are we doing wrong?”.

When we’ve asked this question lately, we find most people quickly pointing to an aging population of skiers, increasing costs of participation, accessibility and transportation difficulties to mountain areas, the urbanization of the new participant base, a lack of snow culture in new North American immigrants and the suggestion that Millennials are too obsessed with their phones to get out on skis. While these factors all might be true, what we’re troubled by is the fact that the rest of the outdoor sport industry is thriving in the face of many of these same challenges.

While finger-pointing and blaming-placing like this might make us feel better, it’s naive to think we don’t have some significant role in our current situation. The fact is, in a flat market, where competing products are increasingly similar, the defacto marketing strategy is to focus on stealing market share.  This is exactly the place we find ourselves in as ski industry marketers and operators. We’re competing on price and focusing on conversion promotions. We’ve forgotten that the purchase of a ski vacation is an emotional (and expensive) one, and that it involves a decision journey that includes dreaming, researching, planning and validation phases BEFORE conversion. Amidst all of this forgetting, we race each other to the bottom, and we push those 8.4 million skiers and boarders around from one of our resorts to the other, failing to generate an ounce of stoke that would inspire a new or lapsed participant.

It’s a phenomenon that is unique to our segment of the outdoor industry. When nearly every other segment is telling stories, sharing values and creating stoke we’re still describing our product and promoting lift and lodging packages.

We examined this phenomenon to determine when we got so damned uninspiring, and tracked its practice back to around the time that digital marketing allowed us to measure and track a conversion. That was also the same time we started referring to our customers as “data” and dropping pixels on our web pages. As soon as we discovered that we could track the success of an offer to purchase, we couldn’t stop ourselves from doing anything but. Our traditional approach of serving up inspiration, adventure, excitement and fun took a backseat to passes, cards, lift tickets, hotel rooms and add ons like kids stay and eat for free. We forgot that price points don’t create passion. Offers don’t illicit excitement. We’ve completely disregarded the fact that price points and offers only work when passion and excitement are pre-existing.

Today’s prevailing wisdom says “market what we can measure”. The problem is, prevailing wisdom seems to be failing us and a collective change in philosophies appears overdue. Our suggestion: Continue to promote our products and offers at the bottom of the funnel, but don’t forget you need to feed the funnel too.

Our suggestion: Continue to promote our products and offers at the bottom of the funnel, but don’t forget you need to feed the funnel too.

So how do we embrace this philosophy? We might be biased—Origin focuses, after all, on strategy and storytelling—but in a desperate search for solutions, we’re inclined to fall back on exactly that. After lamenting our situation last winter, Origin proposed a different tact for our long-term client Whistler Blackcomb. We pitched a good, ol’ fashioned ski movie as the cornerstone of the Resort’s marketing strategy for 2017.18. Our clients there agreed with us. The time had come to inspire the core, and let that spread to the masses.

This winter, Whistler Blackcomb will launch the season with a first-of-its-kind marketing tactic—a feature length ski movie filmed entirely in a single ski resort—the type of thing that would draw skiers and riders back to the sport, and more importantly to Whistler Blackcomb. We called it Magnetic, and it pays homage to the traditional mode of creating passion for sport. It subscribes to the idea that sport culture and sport inspiration is driven by high performance spectacles—the creation of sport idols, and aspirational levels of play. It’s what we love to watch. It gets us stoked to go out and play. It makes us sign our kids up for lessons and clubs. Our hope is that it will fill up the  top of our client’s sales funnel like we predict. Wish us luck.