Michael Colbourn may be vice president, marketing, sales, and communications, of Stowe Mountain Resort, but he recognizes that customers have a choice between vacationing at Stowe or a beach resort or another ski resort. "Every single person who visits our resort passed over some other option, so we have to be better," Colbourn says. To help accomplish this, the midsize resort aims to distinguish the customer experience across a full scope of activities offered by the multiseason facility.
For example, all groups that visit the resort are personally greeted and ticketed upon arrival. The primary way the resort ensures that its experience meets customers' expectations is through listening. In addition to collecting and acting on feedback through surveys, Colbourn and other members of Stowe's staff, which ramps up to more than 1,300 employees in winter, glean insight by listening to customers on the slopes, in its shops, restaurants, lift lines, golf course, and other venues. "Listening is probably the best skill that any of our employees can have," Colbourn says. "If someone spends $90 on a lift ticket and the weather didn't cooperate and they didn't feel they got their money's worth, we want to talk to them about this."
Gathering customer feedback isn't contained to Stowe's properties. Colbourn and his team have partnered with other businesses in the area where customers shop and dine to share the feedback they hear about each other's businesses. This has led many customers to receive a call from a Stowe guest services rep about an issue they had there that they may have mentioned elsewhere. "We've been doing this for six years and we've had literally hundreds of guests who are blown away because we reached them at home," Colbourn says.
Another way Colbourn and his team work to meet customer expectations is through segmentation. They began working with research partner LRA Worldwide to develop a customer segmentation plan designed to deliver the right experiences to customers with vastly different sets of expectations. For instance, "five-star skiers" have different needs and expectations than "core skiers." Five-star skiers tend to be less-experienced skiers who are interested in the complete ski experience, including dining, shopping, and lodging. Meanwhile, "core skiers" are predominantly focused on the ski experience itself.
Delivering more personalized experiences based on this information has led to significant increases in customer satisfaction, intent to return, and intent to recommend across all customer segments. In 2011 Stowe enjoyed an 8 percent increase in skier visits, which compares favorably to a 0.6 percent increase industry-wide and a 4 percent gain in the northeast U.S., according to statistics from the National Ski Area Association.
In the end, the success of Stowe's facilities and services ultimately depends on the quality of the customer experience, Colbourn says. "I would argue that we have some spectacular facilities here," he says, "but the difference between us and anyone else is how we treat our customers."