When Mike Krenn wants to go skiing, he logs onto Horizon Air's website, then packs his gear. Last year, the San Diego-based Krenn, vice president of business development for TheGolfer.com, and his girlfriend landed at Big White in British Columbia. "We got air, four nights' hotel, lift tickets and breakfast for $900 for the two of us. It was cheaper than going to Tahoe."
Krenn's not alone. Aurora, Colo., resident Tracy Legg, vice president of sales for a group purchasing organization, has used Yahoo to book family trips. She loves the "Cool Deals" on Vail's website. "I plug in a date, and it pulls up all the rooms they have through central reservations," Legg says.
There's been a sea change in the ski business, as an increasing number of skiers research and book their trips entirely online. Skiers and boarders are checking out airfares, condo rentals and snowfall on the Internet. They're confidently using their credit cards to book vacations that may run them several thousand dollars. A few years ago, naysayers doubted that would ever happen. But a recent survey showed that 94 percent of skiers have access to the Internet and that 52 percent have used it to research or book a ski or snowboard vacation.
Skiers who use the Internet tend to be intrepid do-it-yourselfers and serious shoppers. If they can't get what they want at a resort site, they'll do a Web search on Google or through an airline or hotel site. While some ski areas are playing catch-up, others have been quick off the mark to help such skiers. In West Virginia, Snowshoe had the distinction of booking nearly $1 million online last season, more than any other Intrawest resort. In response, it has opened a special ski and snowboard rental shop just to handle online rental reservations.
In Web-savvy California, 20 percent of Heavenly's guests use the Internet to book at least part of their ski vacation-half of them through Heavenly's own online booking system. Of that 20 percent, 59 percent booked airfare, 50 percent lodging and 26 percent car rentals. Mammoth Mountain Resort, Calif., recently cut a deal with email innovator BoldFish, Inc., to target customized emails at its guests. Other major resorts, such as Telluride, Colo., and Stratton, Vt., are accepting online bookings for the first time this season.
Ironically, skiing has been one of the stubborn last bastions for Web-wise travelers. The industry has been unusually impervious to e-commerce because of the variables in a ski vacation, which make point-and-click planning problematic. Websites can provide hotel rooms, transfers and airfares, but have a harder time defining how "luxurious" your luxury condo really is or telling you to avoid Chicago's O'Hare airport in mid-January and to fly through Dallas instead-things a travel agent still does best.
The ski industry has a way to go on the Web, says Brad King, senior manager of activity at WorldRes.com, the leading company providing resorts with the technology to sell online. "Right now, we package rooms, lifts, transfers, car rentals and ski school lessons," says King. "What we'll be able to do soon is integrate bulk or wholesale airfare into that equation, so that when you point and click, you'll get online 'real-time' airfare."
WorldRes.com currently has exclusive deals with Aspen, Vail Resorts and most Booth Creek resorts, as well as Travelocity.com, yet skiing comprises only about 4 percent of its business, which focuses largely on lodging worldwide.
"Last year, we did about 15,000 ski reservations and we're looking to do 30,000 this year," King says. "At Beaver Creek, one online booking was over $14,000, but the average ski booking is $1,000 per reservation."
Still, even without "real-time" airfare, many skiers are booking airfare, either separately or as part of a package. They're doing it through ski tour operators, central reservations offices and airline-owned websites, as well as agencies such as Expedia.com and Travelocity.coom. When Krenn books a ski trip on Horizon, for example, it's not a "real time" purchase. The airline gets back to him in 12 hours. But for skiers with a modicum of patience, that still beats automated phone systems and being put on terminal hold.
Horizon's quotes are good for seven days and don't require the instant purchase that many airline phone fares demand. And Krenn has found Horizon's visuals and descriptions of the hotels and lodges to be fair representations. "They're concise and accurate," he says. "If you're picky, you can always go to the hotel's website, which will tell you more."
What's clear when you talk to skiers is that there's no single best way to book a ski vacation on the Web. It's a brave new world where the tenacious do well.
"I've tried the ski-specific travel vendors on the Web, but have been pretty unimpressed," says Sharon Barclay, VP at a public relations firm in Boston. "However, I've used the American Airlines Vacation website and never had any problems.
It allows me to view the accommodation before I purchase, as well as select options such as transfers, tickets and lessons."
Susan Tull, a single mother in Austin, Texas, with a 15-year-old daughter, has booked several trips to Banff/Lake Louise, Alberta, and to Tahoe, researching online. The media relations executive says she routinely books airfares on the Internet. "When I booked the Hyatt at Tahoe, I did it on its website, which is set up really well. They have 'customer relationship software management,' which means that once I've made my booking, they continue to stay in touch with me."
And Tull's reliance on the Internet runs even deeper. "The Internet's great. I wouldn't have time to do the research and booking unless I had a travel agent, and then the agent would have to hunt me down and return my call. I have a lot more freedom and control. I book a lot of my travel on Expedia, and I use Southwest as well, because it sometimes has double rewards to drive traffic through its website."
Maureen Pelisson-senior manager of corporate communications for ThirdAge.com, an Internet media and direct-marketing network-subscribes to American, United and Travelocity emails for last-minute e-fares, rental car rates and hotels at ski destinations.
Because the San Francisco resident lives so close to Tahoe, the Internet is a great way to find discounts for last-minute weekend trips. "I subscribe to the Squaw Valley and Hyatt/Tahoe email newsletters, which send e-discounts to visitors. I've stayed at the Hyatt for as little as $49 a night by booking online last minute."
Before you hit the Web, note that CBS.MarketWatch.com reported in early August that there are more than 800 sites catering to consumer leisure travel and that travelers face "confusing options." The report quotes Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette research analyst Jake Fuller, who says, "They're all basically tapping into the same databases and selling the same tickets."
That means that the people who reap the benefits of Web-booking are those who know what they want. To blindly go out and search for deals is time consuming. You need to pick a destination or two, and then punch in the dates and other specifics. Not sure where you want to go? Log onto www.skimag.com and let ResortFinderPlus do the work for you. Type in your preferences, and it will tell you which resorts meet your needs, with writeups for each. Then go straight to the source: either resort, airline or tour operator sites. Once you know where you want to go, all you have to do is locate the best deal.
"I usually get in one ski trip a year, and I usually make it a full week," Susan Tull says. "Using the Internet is a lot easier than interacting with a bad customer-service rep."