Machine dispenses discounted ski passes nationwide Company plans 2 devices in area HOWARD COUNTY BUSINESS

November 11, 1993|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

"Skiers are dreamers," says Bruce Whitney, vice president of operations at SkiAmerica, a ski industry marketing company. That may be so, but skiers also are down to earth when it comes to the bottom line.

And it's that value ethic that is why Mr. Whitney believes his company's newest venture has big potential in the Baltimore-Washington area, a bullish market for the ski industry.

SkiAmerica, based in Pittsfield, Mass., has developed an ATM-like device that allows skiers to purchase in advance discounted ski passes to resorts nationwide.

The company, which test-marketed the device in the Northeast last year, is entering the local market this month with a machine at the Snow-Net ski shop on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City. The company also plans a machine at the Ski Hause ski shop near Annapolis.

The machines have screens similar to those in automatic teller machines, allowing a customer to select from a menu of packages at ski resorts from Vermont to California.

Customers pay for their purchases with a credit card. Debit cards will be accepted sometime in the next year, company executives say. A voucher for the ski tickets prints out after the purchase is confirmed. The customer then presents the voucher at the resort for the actual lift tickets.

"It make sense for skiers to be able to buy their lift passes at a ski shop," says Mickie Strong, owner of Snow-Net, which has been in business since 1975.

She had looked into selling lift passes to local resorts but ditched the idea after learning that the store would have to buy a large block of tickets and handle sales. Mrs. Strong didn't like the idea of committing the shop to buying blocks of ski passes or handling the marketing of the tickets or complaints from dissatisfied customers.

"With the network, SkiAmerica handles everything. They are the pros at selling discount ski passes, so it's good for us and the customer," Mrs. Strong says.

Many resorts in the West have offered discounted lift tickets through local venues, such as major grocery chains, for many years. But Eastern ski resorts have been slow to offer ski passes through outside venues other than tour operators.

The machine stationed at Snow-Net lists resorts in 17 states, the majority of them in the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast and in the West, such as Colorado, Utah and California.

SkiAmerica says it has 110 resorts signed up for the network this ski season. The season traditionally kicks off around Thanksgiving weekend at major resorts in the Northeast and West.

Resort selections now appear limited in some states. For example, the system lists eight resorts in Pennsylvania and only two in Utah and four in Colorado.

But Mr. Whitney notes that resorts have the option of being listed or dropped from the menu virtually at will overnight. They can do that thanks to the satellite technology that links machines, such as the one at Snow-Net, with SkiAmerica's computer data base, which is connected to client resorts. Each night the system is updated with ski resorts and their pass prices.

Later this month, customers also will be able to purchase lodging packages through the network. The system's first package will be a $59 one-day room and lift ticket package at Sugarbush, Vt. The package is based on double occupancy of the room.

The company also is offering ski products with television monitors mounted on the top of ticketing machines and will broadcast continuous commercials on products and resorts.

"The ski shops have been missing out on an important way to generate traffic into their shops," says Barry Hollister, president of SkiAmerica. "We believe this network brings the sale of lift passes into the retial outlet it belongs."

He says he believes that the sports travel network machines will help shops, such as Snow-Net, generate more customer traffic and get customers to come back to the shop more often.

Mrs. Strong says she became intrigued with SkiAmerica's venture after reading about it in an industry newsletter.

After requesting information from the company, she decided to follow through on negotiating to have one of the machines set up at her shop. The company is moving into the Mid-Atlantic market this year and hopes to expand into Mississippi and the West later.

"One of the things I'm really hoping it will do is provide customers with a way to get the detailed information about products," Mrs. Strong says.

She's also hoping it will improve customer awareness about product and brand lines that they may not be familiar with and result in expanded sales.

"During the ski season our sales people are often so busy they don't have the time to explain a product in the depth they would like," she says.

It's the commercial aspect of the network that offers the company profit potential. But it's the discounts available through the network that should intrigue skiers.

For skiers "the advantage in the system is clearly savings," Mr. Whitney says. Average discount on ski passes: 22 percent.

For example, a customer using the machine could purchase an adult lift pass good during any day of the week at the Jack Frost resort in Pennsylvania for $32, a $5 discount off the full fare.

And an adult ski pass at the Solitude resort in Utah sells for $21, a $7 discount off the full fare.

Mrs. Strong says she expects the most interest among customers at her store will be in ski passes at local resorts.

But Mr. Hollister, SkiAmerica's president, says that the company found sales at test sites last year were almost evenly divided among purchases for passes at local, regional and national destinations. About 23 percent of all lift pass sales last year were for resorts in the West, he says.

"The travel market is really changing due to the airline price war," he says. "People are looking to get the very best deal on everything.

"They'll shop the airline ticket on their own and then walk into a ski shop like Snow-Net and buy their lift passes. They want to save money at every turn."

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