Liftopia appears to be blazing its own trail, and smart ski resort operators are following along.
Bay Area native Ron Schneidermann, co-founder and chief marketing officer of ski-ticket startup Liftopia, has been hitting the slopes with a vengeance ever since his dad took him schussing at the ripe old age of 7.
“Soda Springs was where I first fell in love with skiing,” says Schneidermann, now 35 and still a regular on the slopes at Tahoe. “I was quickly zooming right past my dad and it was like my first real taste of independence. I never forgot it.”
We spoke with Schneidermann recently about how he turned that initial rush he felt at Soda Springs into a career and a startup that helps others experience that same thrill, but often at a sizable discount. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: So how does a ski bum turn his passion into a profitable business venture?
A: After majoring in communications at UCLA, and then some internships with some TV shows and ad agencies in LA, I quickly realized that this was not the life for me. I didn’t want to spend my life with all these phony people, but I was totally at a loss about what to do with my life.
Q: And you landed where?
A: After returning to the Bay Area, I got a job doing business development with Hotwire, the online travel company. It was one of the hottest Internet companies at the time and it was such a hotbed of talent, with colleagues going on to places like Zillow and Glassdoor. Hotwire was selling airline tickets and rental cars and my job was to find out what other services could we offer and make incremental revenue for the people advertising on our sites, anything from trip insurance to swimming with dolphins.
Q: So how did you parlay this experience into the ski business?
A: I was getting antsy at Hotwire and wanted to do something on my own, because I realized I don’t do well working for others. My colleague, Evan Reece, and I were talking about selling a hotel-room-plus-lift-ticket package for Hotwire after a Colorado resort asked us to look into it. We couldn’t do it for Hotwire, so we decided to do it ourselves.
We were talking to fellow skiers about how frustrating it is to make that four-hour drive to Tahoe and then spend $80 and maybe even more for equipment and other services. A lot of people felt the value just wasn’t there to sit in traffic for hours and pay that much for questionable snow conditions.
Q: So it was another epiphany?
A: Here we were doing revenue management and advance purchasing for rental cars and hotels and we suddenly realized that this sport we love so much could benefit from the same types of pricing mechanisms. There are so many factors like weather conditions impacting these resorts that they have no control over, we figured we could help them with that.
A: The industry badly needs a way to sell its products, like lift tickets and lessons, online and in advance in a way that lets them set prices based on what the marketplace is telling them. For example, the hotel industry knows its occupancy rates and can tell in advance which weeks will be busy, which days of the week might be slow, and can price advance bookings appropriately. The ski industry already has a lot of the data impacting its business, like snow and weather patterns and the price of flights to resorts around the country. But we’ve been able to couple that data with our tools and do dynamic pricing.
Q: How does it work?
A: The hotel industry uses something called revenue management to figure out price points for rooms in the future that are in line with what consumers are willing to pay, and we help the resorts do the same thing to sell rooms but also give skiers and snowboarders deep discounts. We tell our users, “You book your advance-purchase date-specific lift tickets, and while there’s no refunds, you get a killer deal, saving up to 80 percent off the walk-up rate.” And the resort gets to lock up a customer weeks or months in advance, even if there’s no snow, which helps them forecast their business and staff appropriately.
In the past, the way a resort would know how busy they are is to look at the parking lot. We say that by moving to online ticketing, you can essentially see what that parking lot looks like weeks in advance, or even next season.
Q: And you’ve been successful?
A: Skiers love it because it’s simple to use and there’s no fee or membership required — we get a commission from each sale — and the resorts love it because Liftopia gives them flexibility to run their business more efficiently. We’re in our seventh season now, so we have a ton of data to work with and we continue to grow. We’ve had 5 million customers use our service just this season alone, which is great, because we’ve had 15 million total since we started. We started with three employees that first year and had seven resorts, and we hope to be up to 50 employees by the end of this year and we’re working with 220 resorts all across the country.
(c)2013 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Distributed by MCT Information Services
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Photo Credit: Tina Maze of Slovenia clears a gate during the season's last giant slalom race at the women's Alpine Skiing World Cup finals in Lenzerheide March 17, 2013. Liftopia wasn't there, but wants to bring modern technology to ski resort management. Denis Balibouse / Reuters