Market research is a powerful tool for any business to better understand their customer base and to make important strategic decisions. For many ski areas, collecting information about your visitors is a critical function, but sometimes lacking in rigor.
The considerations when embarking on a market research project are numerous, but none more important than understanding whether the target population is representative of your overall customer base. This distinction is critical in how you can use the results of the research – either for assessing and evaluating decisions that will impact your whole business (using surveys that are representative), or limited to specific profit centers or departments (using surveys that are not representative).
Basic customer satisfaction surveys are useful, but will not provide higher-level information needed to make big-picture decisions. Indeed, customer satisfaction surveys might not even provide an accurate representation of your current customer base. Knowing what your customer survey program can and cannot deliver is essential in designing a research program from the outset and also in utilizing the results effectively.
Customer satisfaction surveys (which provide more tactical level feedback) are a subset of market research (which supplies strategic level information). The distinction between the two is subtle but important. Generally, a survey research program that is intended to specifically gather customer satisfaction feedback will do just that – but will not deliver results representative of your entire customer base, which is necessary to make big-picture decisions. Customer satisfaction surveys typically target a sub-set of your customer base – those customers who have used specific services or facilities at your ski area, such as food& beverage, lodging, learning center, equipment rentals, or other specific profit centers. The consumer feedback is great information for those departments to fine-tune their service and offerings in a reactive way, but these results should be used with caution.
A basic customer satisfaction research program breaks down when it is to used to make broader strategic decisions – such as pricing modifications, new ticket/pass products, capital improvements, customer demographics, or advertising/marketing strategies for different geographic markets. Because customer satisfaction surveys are typically designed to capture feedback from only a sub-set of your total customer base (how many of your customers DON’T stop in the lodge for lunch, but rather eat on the lift or skip lunch?), the results should not be used for important strategic decisions.
One of the most essential questions you need to ask before using customer research results (and even before embarking on the research program in the first place) is WHO responded to the survey, and, by extension, who is NOT represented in the research results. Were the surveys sent to people who stayed in your lodging properties? Were the surveys done with people who took a lesson or rented equipment? Was it sent to season passholders or other ticket holders from your database? What about day ticket purchasers, people who don’t stop for lunch, beginners, or other segments that you might be missing? If you sent the survey via email, how many people did not respond to the survey, and what do you know about them? Unless you are confident that the survey responses are representative of your total customer base, the results are of limited value.
It might be instructive to use some real world examples of how to use market research correctly and how poorly designed customer satisfaction research can lead a ski area down the wrong path. These are actual examples, though the ski area is not named.
RIGHT. A ski area in New England wanted to understand how to continue to grow visitation levels through targeted capital improvements. A comprehensive visitor survey of their current customer base, which included a representative sample of names and emails from all types of visitors, was undertaken. It identified specific on-mountain and base area improvements that would be most influential in encouraging continued, repeat visits to the area. The survey results helped to guide decisions related to such improvements, which led to increased satisfaction, a safer on-mountain layout, and a higher level of repeat visitation. These results were determined by using a representative sample of all area visitors to obtain accurate and viable input.
WRONG. Using the wrong methodology can easily lead you to flawed conclusions. A ski area in Colorado used an online survey to gather opinions and feedback regarding preferences related to food & beverage service, with the intent of using the survey results to help guide the construction of a new on-mountain restaurant & beverage facility. The initial results would have led the ski area in one direction, but when the responses were weighted to known demographic characteristics of the resort’s on-mountain profile (gathered through a more rigorous and disciplined methodology), the results actually changed so much that the plans for the restaurant went back to the drawing board. The eventual facility was much different in size and format than the original, un-weighted online survey results would have suggested. The problem with the research resulted from using an online survey that was distributed to a non-representative sample of ski area customers.
A comprehensive market research program should be designed to capture a complete cross-section of your visitors, and provide key information on a variety of topics. Customer satisfaction can certainly be one of the topics you cover in the comprehensive market research program, but it should also include basic demographic and psychographic characteristics, skier/snowboarder characteristics (ticket type used, frequency of visiting, ability level, etc), geographic information, pricing issues, competitive issues, and other topics about which you need solid information.
In conclusion, be careful if you take shortcuts to gathering customer feedback and realize what your survey research program can and cannot deliver. Be deliberate and avoid being “penny wise and pound foolish” when it comes to conducting visitor research that you will need to make important strategic decisions.
By Nate Fristoe, Director of Operations
Dave Belin, Director of Consulting Services