MOTEX: Routes to Recovery – The Consumer Perspective

Last week MOTEX: Routes to Recovery took place on Mountain Trade Network, with over 20 expert speakers contributing and presenting over 10 webinars to examine all aspects of our ‘routes to recovery’ as an industry.

First up was a presentation of the latest consumer research followed by interviews with three leading tour operators, WeSki, Ski Solutions and Snow-Wise.

Way way back in April 2020 as we were all adjusting to a crazy new world in lockdown, looking forward was one of the only ways to keep things on course, as we imagined how the world would be forever changed by the pandemic and we began to consider all of our routes to recovery.

Back then we were clearly firmly in crisis mode, as our thoughts (and news feeds) were dominated by stories of shuttered shops and restaurants, struggling health care systems, pop up hospitals and queues at supermarkets stretching for hours, with even basic items including toilet rolls and flour seemingly out of reach for most.

Crisis would give way to recovery, followed by recession. Back then the debate was more centred on the shape of the recession, V, long tail tick, U and many other possibilities.

The interesting thing looking back is many of us took the recovery as a given, lockdown would ease, businesses would re-open and we would all emerge blinking into the sunshine, to see what changes would stay and how quickly we would revert to past behaviour.

Whilst talk of a second wave existed, there was a very human tendency to believe we were experiencing the worst, and things would get better, things always get better is the message of governments at all times (and let’s be honest of us all when the snow doesn’t come early season or sales or not what we expected). Humans are hard wired for optimism as it’s vital to our survival, but at times like these it can blind us to the realities.

As countries do emerge from lockdown we are starting to see the reality of what we face for the next 6, 12, 18 months and maybe longer. It will not be a linear crisis – recovery – recession scenario, the recession is here, the recovery is underway in many sectors and locations, but other are heading back into crisis. The pattern of crisis and recovery will repeat, during a deepening recession, and this is the complex reality we now find ourselves as we plot our routes to recovery.

Last week saw over 20 speakers gathered for our largest online event to date, MOTEX: Routes to Recovery. Each day we examined a different aspect of recovery, the challenges to overcome and the routes ahead. We celebrated the wins – mountain resorts experiencing their busiest ever summer season – and digested the damage – almost 40% of those who skied last year may not this year, and will ski less in the future.

We discussed and dissected the options available for our routes to recovery, what levers can we still pull to stimulate demand, when should we pull them, what more can we do to provide reassurance and information about what a ski holiday could look like this winter. How do we build back better, to underpin the long term future of our industry?

Our objective was to create a framework of actions and activities that could be used across the industry to reassure our customers, stimulate demand, and build a sustainable mountain industry for the future.

Who are our customers?

We think we know our customers, but how is their behaviour changing and how should we respond?

We know skiers are an ageing market, in the UK market only 15% are under 35, with over 55% aged over 50. This does put many of our customers in the ‘at risk’ category. And their sentiments reflect this, almost 40% of the market currently think it will be not safe or not safe at all to go skiing this winter.

They are also expecting an impact, over 75% believe the pandemic will impact the snowsports industry to a significant extent for the foreseeable future.

Together with the 40% who don’t think it’s going to be safe to ski this winter, a similar percentage suggest they will ski less this season than last.

Are they booking? If not now, when?

21% of UK skiers have booked a ski holiday for 2020/21. But the majority – 54% are still in the ‘dreaming’ phase, with only 36% actively researching and only 7% actively booking. We heard from leading tour operators Ski Solutions, Snow-Wise and WeSki, who all reported a significant drop in demand over the spring and early summer months, with a further drop recently as Coronavirus cases rise in many countries and International travel becomes curtailed once more.

When will they book? Whilst as consumers we are all historically poor at predicting our future behaviour, at the moment over 50% of UK skiers say they will book within a month of departure. Our tour operators agreed, expecting a big late booking market (though not necessarily looking for discounts) with booking patterns completely different from anything we’ve seen before.

Price matters, but so does quality

Skiers are still looking for value, perhaps more than ever with the economic climate. But quality of accommodation has climbed from outside the top 10 to be a top 3 factor when choosing resort accommodation. Self-catering too is cementing it’s popularity, so quality apartments would seem to be the preferred choice of many for this winter.

The ski fly-drive might have just become a core product

Most skiers will still fly if travelling from destinations like the UK, but once they arrive at the airport we saw a significant number signalling car hire as a preferred transport option to minibus or coach transfers. We’d strongly advocate making the fly-drive an easily accessible choice for this winter.

It’s the independent’s that have booked to date, but more plan to switch to a tour operator

To date over 70% of those 21% booked have booked independently. But over 70% overall plan to use a tour operator this winter citing the financial protection and support if things go wrong, suggesting over 80% of the remaining market will book with the trade rather than independently.

But they want guarantee’s their money will be protected (and that means we all have to work together)

However they will only hand over the money if the operator offers refund guarantee’s and full flexibility in the event of pandemic related cancellations or changes. This can only work if it’s carried through the supply chain with hotels, transport operators and resorts all aligning to offer flexibility and refunds. As one of our tour operators said ‘those suppliers that won’t offer flexibility won’t be getting any bookings from us this winter.

Health, wellness and fitness are all emerging trends

On a positive note, skiers are more active than ever away from the mountains, with a massive 50% reporting they have taken up or increased their participation in road cycling, 30% running and 26% hiking. They are also thinking more about their health and well-being (69% say they have an increased interest), and fitness (41%). Are we as an industry highlighting the health and wellbeing benefits of a mountain holiday as much as we could, or has that message been somewhat lost recently? It could be time for a rethink, cleaner health less happy hours? And could this lead to a summer activity holiday boom? It’s a promising sign.

Key concerns? Coronavirus (of course) but finances and Brexit related issues make up the top 5

Personal finances sit at the top of the list of consumers concerns when they are considering booing their winter sports holiday, coronavirus follows and snow is still a big big factor taking third place. Then for the UK skier at least it’s all about Brexit with tour operator security now in the top 5. Fitness, previously a top 5, drops to tenth, perhaps a reflection of all that extra cycling during lockdown.

What do consumers want, and want to know?

As mentioned previously, top of skiers wish list is full flexibility and refund guarantee’s. In fact it doesn’t really belong on the wish list, for many skiers it’s a non negotiable starting point to any conversation about booking. Accommodation changes, especially cleaning are also clearly indicated as very important. A rising request is for coronavirus cases in resort to be published clearly, perhaps a challenging thought for many tourist offices, but given the data is likely to emerge anyway a transparent approach could well pay dividends. Changes to infrastructure is high on the list too, lifts are a particular concern, ‘bubbles for bubbles’ – only travelling with members of your family or ski group in gondola’s seems to be a fast emerging preference for skiers considering spending 20 minutes in close proximity to strangers – even with face coverings in place. Discounts have dropped to a distant sixth despite finances being tight. And the very last thing consumers want? Do nothing. They are looking for the industry to take meaningful action, so now it’s for us to deliver.

How are they choosing a tour operator?

Given financial concerns, it’s no surprise price still tops the list of factors that skier are considering when choosing a tour operator with 92% of skiers citing it as important. But a refund policy is only 1% behind, and ABTA/ATOL or similar protection only 1% behind again so all of those financial factors are vying for top spot in our customers minds. Support if things change is also top of mind for over 85% of skiers, and overall reputation trumps online reviews by a full 20%. Interestingly bottom of the list was low deposit with only 40% of skiers considering this important, suggesting most are wiling to pay now, as long as they have a flexibility and security guaranteed.

What will trigger a booking?

Aside from flexibility and refund guarantees which as mentioned are a starting point for most before considering booking, availability constraints are a factor for many, as the most desirable accommodation becomes ever more in demand. Discounts may shift some into action, but probably less than in a ‘normal’ season unless they are significant. A significant issue is for groups of friends wanting to travel together, nothing get’s confirmed until the whole group are ready, and often that’s simply not going to happen anytime soon. And a vaccine? Only just over 50% of skiers report that a vaccine would make a difference with them committing to book, so there’s seemingly no magic bullet that will switch demand back on, it’s a multitude of factors building confidence and comfort that will convert lookers to bookers in the forthcoming weeks and months.

How should we be communicating? Which channels are best?

Firstly consider that more than half the market are still in the dreaming phase, so heavy hitting ‘book now’ messages are unlikely to resonate with them, especially when there is still uncertainty about what their winter holiday experience will look like this season. Targeted messages around specific accommodation could be worthwhile, given this is a trigger for many wanting to secure their first choice of where to stay (and their second choice may well be to stay at home). Messaging around the health and wellness benefits of a mountain holidays is safe ground for all, and build engagement in a topic that’s in the mind of many of our consumers. And how to reach them? Resort and tour operator websites take top spots (as they have for the previous surveys since May) so make sure information is on your website first before sharing it elsewhere. Social is only regarded as a source of winter sports information and inspiration by around 15% of our market, so ensure you are not over reliant on these channels to the detriment of others. Traditional media still has a role to play especially magazines which appeal to almost 25%, and email newsletters with almost 30%. The key message, use several channels, the more the better, to reach all your consumers and reinforce your messaging.

So, how are we doing right now as an industry?

Those consumers visiting the mountains in summer seem to be very much still enjoying the somewhat different experience of a mountain holiday with restrictions which is positive to see and resorts are adapting quickly to still provide a wonder holiday – even in the midst of a pandemic. Winter of course brings a whole new set of challenges, colder weather, more people indoors, more people overall for most resorts and the difficulties of providing safety and security in a mountain environment – with social distancing. Overall, consumers are scoring us as a 5 out of 10 in terms of how well we are communicating as an industry. Consumers want information about how their winter holiday will look, with the research revealing concerns not just about safety but also about the wider experience, will bars and mountain restaurants be open, will lifts be limited, above all will it be any ‘fun’? These are the questions we have to answer, and communicate, as quickly as possible to develop consumer confidence in our products.

Conclusions

The majority of skiers are not expecting a ‘normal’ season this winter, but they do want some clarity on how this new normal will look before they commit to book, and even then, they want the flexibility guaranteed to guard against future changes. This is our starting point. Communicating how the experience may look and the measures in place is vital, and even if we don’t have the answers just yet more, more transparency in what is being considered and why is key to building confidence. Many mountain resorts have had a very successful summer, and we need to be sharing that positive consumer experience as widely as possible, whilst acknowledging the additional challenges winter brings, to show what we can do to still deliver an amazing experience.

Collaboration amongst all suppliers in the chain needs to be robust to allow travel operators and distributors to provide the flexibility and guarantees consumers demand, and this risk should be spread fairly amongst all stakeholders. Agility and flexibility are key, what we know for certain is that nothing is certain this season, and being responsive to those changes and listening to consumer concerns and demands is our only possible route to a recovery.

Infrastructure changes to lift systems should be considered and decisions made as early as possible to help shape the winter offering and reduce uncertainty as much as possible. All operators, resorts and every organisation working in the mountain economy should prepare for multiple scenarios, including their being no winter season at all which sadly remains a possibility. However if travel can happen, and resorts can open, we do have levers to pull and changes we can make, and the summer has shown the possibilities (and how consumers may well respond positively). Our industry is robust, resilient and resourceful, and whilst this may well be the greatest challenge we gave faced to date it’s not time to close the slopes just yet…

Check back for more blogs coming soon from MOTEX: Routes to Recovery #Feeding the Market, #Sustainability, #Lessons Learnt & #Working Together

View the webinar and slide deck from MOTEX: Routes to Recovery – The Consumer Perspective, James Gambrill CEO Mountain Trade Network