Seasonal SEO and Online Marketing for Ski Resorts

I’ve recently returned from a ski trip to Canada and prior to my departure I spent time researching my options online. Deciding which ski resort to visit was largely based on promotions and deals available, accommodation packages, snow conditions, terrain and accessibility. And a lot of this came down to what was returned in the search results.

It got me thinking, ski resorts have it tough. Not only do they operate in a hugely competitive global industry, but they’re seasonal, operating for skiing and snowboarding for just 4 to 6 months of each year.

For ski resorts, the peak winter months are obviously vital. The weeks leading up to opening day are just as important, as these are the weeks where they must aggressively promote and secure a large chunk of their business. But at the end of each ski season, ski resorts typically experience an extended period of down time and most will close until early autumn.

For some resorts however, this down time signals the push to promote their summer activities. Resorts such as Whistler in North America position themselves as ‘all season’ mountain resorts, catering to both winter and summer mountain pursuits. In winter it’s all about the skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, snow-shoeing and dog-sledding, while in summer, the focus turns to mountain biking, hiking, 4WD tours and golf.

So how does this seasonality impact on online marketing efforts and in particular SEO?

Whether they’re all-season or just winter focused, ski resorts have a fairly difficult task in promoting themselves effectively online. Resorts have an endless number of important announcements and updates to communicate, and these change dramatically from season to season. The following are 6 online strategies and tactics ideally suited to the seasonal and competitive nature of the ski resort industry:

  • Branding & Positioning

Due to the immense competition among ski resorts, branding is vital. There are numerous ski resorts world wide ranging in size, terrain, facilities and prominence.

Resorts that can identify a point of difference and position themselves against the bigger players will stand out and garner awareness over those that don’t. Fernie in Canada is known for its ‘Legendary Powder’, SilverStar for its ‘Family Friendly Resort’ facilities and Mt Ruapehu has taken advantage of being ‘New Zealand’s largest skiing area’. Such catch phrases help to maintain a strong brand while also serving to achieve better search engine rankings for highly targeted key phrases.

  • Search Engine Optimisation

Search engine optimisation (SEO) prepares a website to rank in search results for targeted and relevant keywords, and this takes time and effort.

For a number of ski resorts, these keyword phrases change depending on the time of the year. I’ve found that a handful of resorts feature two homepages on their websites, one for their winter sports and one for summer. Depending on the time of the year, the relevant homepage will display and the keywords communicating content to the search engines change accordingly. A few resorts feature a splash page, offering little or no content except the option to choose which season to visit. These are not good tactics for long term SEO.

Benefits of SEO can take months, it is ineffective to communicate little or conflicting information to the search engines. Optimising a resort website for both summer and winter activities should require developing separate pages or websites to cater to the contrasting seasons, as Whistler has done.

Keywords play a fundamental role in any search optimisation effort, therefore seasonal keyword research is vital. Season specific pages should feature permanent body copy which does not change its keyword focus. Title tags, header tags and meta tags should all contain targeted and relevant keywords to effectively communicate the theme to the search engines.

It is surprising to see a number of the big name ski resorts not implementing fundamental SEO best practice – Vail, Aspen, Copper Mountain and Breckenridge Resorts in Colorado lack the use of keyword rich title tags and h1 tags, and have little or no body copy on their homepages. All rank very poorly for key search phrases ‘colorado ski resorts’ and ‘skiing colorado’, despite being the big players in this region.

Link building is a vital component of any SEO effort, as search engines view a link from one page to another as a kind of endorsement. Keyword rich anchor text helps to theme a page in the eyes of a search engine. Ski Resorts should ensure winter and summer specific inbound links point to the appropriate pages, and not to a page with little or conflicting content.

  • Pay Per Click Advertising

Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising is ideally suited to the seasonality of ski resorts. Its flexibility enables them to quickly respond to any changes within the season, whether from sudden increased snowfall, last minute specials or late availabilities. PPC campaigns can be changed in response to winter or summer operations, or switched on or off at will.

Again, seasonal keyword research is vital. Online searches pre ski season will be different to those conducted mid season. Once summer activities kick in, the keyword targets will be different again.

  • Email Marketing

Email campaigns enable ski resorts to create a long term dialog with a customer base while encouraging loyalty and customer relationships.

Emails are ideal for communicating during the down time when customers aren’t frequenting the websites. An email campaign in the weeks before opening day can generate excitement for the impending season while encouraging advanced season pass sales.

Email marketing is also useful in communicating seasonal changes and updates in response to scheduled opening days, early bird specials, changes in snow fall/conditions, mid to late season deals, accommodation availability, promotions, upcoming events and last minute deals if bookings are down.

  • Videos, Widgets and more

When email marketing no longer garners consumer attention or site traffic stabilises or drops off altogether, videos, podcasts, widgets, RSS feeds and mashups are an ideal alternative to other forms of online marketing.

Due to declining email open rates, Vail Resorts developed a ‘SnowMate’ desktop application that supplies special offers, entertainment and information to its users daily. Features such as a weather feed, snow conditions update, resort video clips and travel offers were successful in attracting users and creating a positive brand experience for the resorts.

Videos can effectively promote a ski destination as well as provide entertainment showcasing skiers/snowboarders performing tricks. A number of ski resorts have developed videos for their websites and uploaded them to video sharing sites.

Podcasts, like videos, are marketing tactics which can be matched with the lifestyle of the desired target audience. Killington Resort in the U.S developed regular podcasts aimed at young urban professionals using a ‘snow reporter’ sharing the same demographics.

  • Social Media and Online PR

Developing blogs, online articles and press releases provide a ski resort with brand exposure as well as the opportunity to use seasonal keywords to communicate different season offerings. They also provide a means of generating quality inbound links.

Participating in social media and networking sites are ideal in reaching target demographics while offering dynamic and interactive content. Deer Valley in Utah created short video podcasts for YouTube to reach generation Xer’s and Y’s to market the 2007 FIS World Cup. The podcasts were then linked to blogs, MySpace pages, and web sites where their target audience hang out. Canada’s Silver Star has developed a Facebook Group to better connect with customers while Sugar Bowl in the U.S has created a MySpace profile.

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