To hear Ron Schneidermann tell it, in 2005 he and Liftopia co-founder Evan Reece were just a couple of “nobodies working at Hotwire who wanted to ski Tahoe on a week day in March and were looking for a lift ticket deal.” It hadn’t snowed for weeks, Schneidermann said, “and we didn’t want to sit in traffic and then pay 72 bucks for old snow. We thought if we could get a ticket for 50, or even 40 dollars, then we might go.”
But Schneidermann was shocked when he couldn’t find a deal online. “Here we were working on all sorts of yield management strategies for hotel rooms and rental cars at Hotwire, and we couldn’t believe that no one was doing the same thing with lift tickets. It just makes so much more sense for the ski industry.”
Almost immediately, the two began discussing plans for a website that would help resorts price and manage discount lift tickets for off-traffic days. Passing the hat to friends and family, and investing $5,000 of their own money, they expected to launch their new company, Liftopia, by the spring of 2005. For an industry with high fixed costs and an unusually large number of use variables–from weather to weekends to gas prices–Schneidermann thought an online fulfillment program to help maximize yield would be an easy sell. He said, “I figured I would just make a call to Vail, and one to Intrawest, and a couple other folks, and we would be on our way.”
Instead, the company wouldn’t launch until October 2006, and then with just seven resorts on board, including New York’s Wyndham, New Mexico’s Angel Fire, and the first big score, Utah’s Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort. Companies like Vail, Schneidermann said, “Told me to give them a call if we were still around in three years.” Others told him they had tried the same thing in the 1990s, and it didn’t work. “I wanted to say, ‘Really?’” Schneidermann said. “You were selling lift tickets on the Internet in the 1990s?”
The company sold just 900 tickets that first year. But had streamlined their sales process–and pitch–to the point that they had 35 partners by the next season, including Park City Mountain Resort. “It was still our most challenging moment,” Schneidermann said. “That second year we were running out of funds and had about $200 in the bank. But then January came around, and bookings really started picking up.”
As year three started, Liftopia had 70 partners and a new round of funding. For the season just ended, Liftopia had 150 ski area partners, and sold 250,000 tickets, out of what is estimated to be just north of 30 million lift tickets sold for the season on the U.S. market (the Kottke National End of Season Survey estimates that about 54 percent of this past season’s 60.1 million skier visits were the result of paid lift tickets).
Schneidermann said for that for a San Francisco-based day skier like himself, the deal often defines exactly where he spends his ski days. And he said the research he conducts with his resort partners indicates that 45 percent of his customers try a new resort because of a deal that they found on Liftopia. While 19 percent are passholders who ski a different mountain as the result of Liftopia offers.
“We also found that 53 percent of our customers spend more money on the mountain than they would have otherwise,” said Schneidermann. “It’s because of the deal, but it’s also because they bought ticket three weeks in advance, and so it’s like they have a pocket full of Monopoly money.”
Schneidermann said Liftopia’s strongest pitch is that they are helping areas sell reserved seats to fill up the lifts on slow days, without competing with on-mountain sales. Liftopia does not offer ‘day of’ sales, for example. He said for destination areas, “Customers often make a multi-day buys when their eyes are still a little bigger than their legs, and the area gets that fourth or fifth day sale when the person probably would have been doing something else.”
“When I started with them while I was working at Wyndham, they continued to drive new customers to us, and they came from everywhere,’ Cindy Bailey, who is now the director of sales at Bolton Valley, Vt., said of Liftopia. “It just grew and grew, and continued to help out with advance sales. Now if it starts dumping snow, I can put a powder alert out on Liftopia, and right away it will reach more people than I can reach with our e-mail.”
As for where Liftopia can go from here, Schneidermann said he still hasn’t landed Vail as a partner. But when he looks at how online sales now dominate the travel market, he thinks there is plenty of room to grow. “More than 60 percent of the hotel rooms in North America are booked online now, and we think only two percent of the lift tickets are sold there,” said Schneidermann. “So we still we have barely scratched the surface here.”
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