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Mountain resorts must compete with strong service

Naomi Havlen

ASPEN – Mountain resorts face plenty of competition from the reinvigorated cruise industry and warm-weather hot spots, but the way to win customers may be giving people both great service and value.So said some of the “big guns” of the travel industry Wednesday at a panel discussing the state of the industry for the Mountain Travel Symposium at The St. Regis hotel. Executives from United Airlines, Hertz car rental, ResortQuest International, SKI.com and the Aspen Skiing Co. got together to forecast some of the biggest issues facing the tourism industry.International travel is booming, people are taking more vacations in the wintertime, and travelers are researching their trips online before picking up the phone.But when it comes to problems facing the industry, look no further than price wars on the Internet and trying to lure travelers away from competitors.”Mountains have a great deal of competition with warm weather resorts, cruises and casinos,” said Mark Fioravanti, president of ResortQuest International. “To baby boomers, resorts have to offer more than just skiing all day. They have to have high-quality food and beverages, shopping and nightlife. They want what they can get from other forms of leisure travel.”Pamela Wright, vice president of Hertz, said the company’s Prestige line of upscale cars like Hummers and Infinitis has exploded in popularity. “The entire experience starts when they get on a plane or in a car rental. They want a great resort and great shopping,” she said.Hertz’s new vacation center in Denver International Airport illustrates the importance it places on travel to the mountains. The company spends more than $1 million a year in publications like skiing magazines and has seen the international market expanding rapidly.”We have high double-digit growth with the international market in the mountains – and they have more luggage, so they need bigger cars. We’ve been very pleased with it,” Wright said. But businesses must keep pursuing customers worldwide, she said, rather than sit back and watch the business roll in. “It’s great, but it could be greater,” she said.Robert McDowell, director of leisure and specialty sales for United Airlines, noted that United is increasingly ramping up business to leisure travel markets and international markets, but he said the airlines have already fallen into the trap of online price competition.The panelists agreed that while the Internet makes it easier than ever for people to research and book vacations, websites may often lead customers to simply pick the least expensive option.”People have so much time on their hands that they’ll change their reservation for just $15 to $20 per person,” he said.Fioravanti said the travel industry needs to reconnect with consumers, engaging them to make decisions based on the value of what they’re getting, rather than price alone.”We should know their likes and dislikes … and they should buy things because we’re offering something they actually want,” he said.While Harry Peisach, president of SKI.com, depends on the Internet for his entire business, he also said reservations agents are his biggest asset, creating a relationship with customers.”The Internet is a Pandora’s box for all of us,” he said. “It pits everyone against each other. The more prices online a customer looks at, the more power [customer’s have] in dealing with us. We need to be able to promote customer service.”Peisach said this year he’s finding that customers actually prefer to call and speak with a reservations agent who knows the resort well and can answer specific questions.David Perry, vice president of the Skico, moderated the discussion. When it comes to last-minute travel reservations, just 17 percent of travelers plan trips five months in advance, while 31 percent report planning trips a month or less in advance, he said.”It creates angst when you don’t know if that business will come or not,” Fioravanti said. “But we need to figure out who those customers are and how their needs are different so we can adapt our products.”Vail, Colorado


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