Who doesn’t? Hey, if there’s any way that I can cut my costs, I’m there.
That’s one of the reasons I love Liftopia. Well, that and we both started our websites around the same time. Which gives me a strange sort of fellowship with these guys. In the world of the internet, we kind of grew up together.
What is Liftopia? Simply put, it’s a site that allows skiers and boarders to buy lift tickets, clinics, and rentals in advance on line at a reduced rate. Resorts offer date specific items at the Liftopia site, which you can buy in advance for as much as 90% off on-mountain rates.
Recently I had the pleasure of speaking about Liftopia co-founder, chief operating officer, and all around nice guy Ron Schneidermann.
SD: Good to finally meet you, Ron. Liftopia is such a great concept. Can you give us some background about what you are and how you got started?
RS: Sure! Evan Reece [Liftopia co-founder] and I worked together at Hotwire, an online travel site. One day in March, ’05, we were IM-ing about whether or not to go up to Tahoe for the weekend – you may remember it wasn’t the greatest snow year — but we weren’t sure we wanted to spend $72 and end up sitting in traffic. So we were thinking, well, maybe if it was $50 it’d be worth it. Maybe we should opt out and go mountain biking instead. Then we started wondering: why are lift tickets the exact same price, regardless of the snow? Why can’t we buy lift tickets on line instead of going to REI every time? Why isn’t there an Expedia equivalent for lift tickets? The more we talked about it, the more we thought it made a lot of sense.
Our initial reaction was that someone must have done this before. It’s 2005, and everything’s been done already. We started poking around the internet and didn’t see anything that compared, so after chewing on it for a few weeks we decided to start a company. In May,’05, we pooled all our money together, which at the time was $5,000 each. We got our hands on as much data as we could to figure out what the landscape was – what’s been done, what hadn’t been done – and we raised money from our friends and family. Then we worked on the site. It took us a little bit of time to get a buy-in from the ski areas. That was the hard part.
SD: What was your first mountain partner?
RS: You know, we keep going back and forth; it was either Windham in New York or A-Basin in Colorado. We can’t figure out which one it was, though it’s definitely one of the two.
SD: How many mountains do you work with now?
RS: When we went live in the ‘06/’07 season, we had a whopping 7 resort partners and sold all of 900 tickets total. We tend to measure our growth by the quantity and quality of our resort partners because that really opens up different marketing channels for us — how many different customer segments we can tap into and geographies and things like that. During our first winter we had 7 resort partners; our second, about 30 partners; our third about 70; our fourth about 100; and our fifth, 130. Last season we had 180, and now we’re at 250.
There are roughly 470 ski areas in the US, and in Canada 130 or something like that. We’ll never have all of them, because there are so many small areas that are just rope tows on a little hill. As for other countries, we’re in Canada and we have a few partners in France and Chile. We’re very focused on continuing to grow and getting more breadth and depth in terms of our partners. But at least in North America it’s gotten easier for us to talk about who doesn’t work with Liftopia than who does work with Liftopia.
SD: So you started with just the website and things progressed since then. Can you tell me about some of the ways you’ve changed and what that means for skiers and riders?
RS: When we first started, the initial concept was to create a marketplace for resorts to get rid of distressed inventory. So in New England or the Midwest, if it was going to rain this weekend, we could put some deals up and get people to come out who otherwise wouldn’t come. Then we realized that everyday should be sold in advance and on line. It shouldn’t just be the crummy days, but the good days, too. It’s important for resorts to get folks away from deciding what to do based on the short term snow forecast. There are many reasons for people to go or not go out on any given day. The obvious ones are snow and weather, but then there are things like sore muscles, hangovers, and so on. It’s really easy to just wake up one morning and decide that you just don’t want to go skiing today. But if you booked on line in advance, paid three weeks before, and you got a great deal, it’s a lot easier to get yourself out, even if it’s just for a few hours. And once you’re out, it’s always a good time. So we moved away from just the distressed inventory. Then we started adding other products like rentals, room packages, credit for on mountain dining. And and we created our iPhone or iOS app, and we now have a site for Android and Windows phones.
The biggest change was last year when we launched the Cloud store. When we’d go to resorts, the biggest question we’d get was why aren’t we just doing this ourselves on our own website? Our answer was you should, but as we got to know the industry better, we found that many resorts didn’t have the tools to make it happen. So we thought let’s take what we have for Liftopia and roll it out so that resorts can plug it into their own sites. This way, they’ll have an e-commerce feed that’s really user friendly, best in class, but more importantly, they’ll have an inventory management system and analytics.
SD: So users won’t have to go to the Liftopia website necessarily; they can go to the resort website for the same thing.
RS: Exactly. The resorts can also offer unique deals for their own customers, however they want to manage it. The Cloud went live last year. We had about a dozen test partners. This year we’re going to have between 30 and 50 using it here in the US.
SD: Liftopia recently introduced The Mountain Collective. [a pre-paid pass that provides users with 2 free days and 50% off lift tickets at Jackson Hole, Aspen/Snowmass, Alta, Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows.] This is an amazing deal. Can you tell me how it came about?
RS: These are all independent, progressive resorts. They were tossing around the idea that even though they were all competitors, they didn’t overlap all that much. So they thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could partner together and create something that would be collectively better than the sum of its parts?’ They came to us with this idea and asked us to tell them what we could do. So we put together a proposal and a marketing plan. We created TheMountainCollective.com and a mobile version of the site. And we [Liftopia and the resorts] all launched it at the same time in August. It’s great for the resorts, but it’s even better for the consumer. And that’s why it was such a great thing to be a part of.
SD: I know it’s created a lot of buzz. How’s response been so far?
RS: It’s been amazing. We’ve sold passes in 16 different countries and seen traffic from 105 different countries so far.
SD: Do you have anything more like that down the pike? What about in the east?
RS: I would love to see an east coast version of this, but we need to see which resorts would recognize the opportunity and want to collaborate together.
SD: Anything else exciting coming from Liftopia?
RS: For us, it’s the basic blocking and tackling – getting more resorts and unique inventory on board, getting more product live. When we first began, it was all about the single day pass, and last year, about 15% of our bookings were bundled – lift tickets plus ski rentals, lift tickets plus lessons, food and beverage vouchers, and so on. That was up from 10% the year before. This year we hope to move to 20-25%. So that’s going to be a huge area of value for the consumer. I think we’ll see that continue to grow.
We’re clearly in a state of transition. The industry is going from outdated, brick & mortar distribution channels that don’t afford the ski areas any control, to on-line distribution with real time control of pricing and quantities — which means they can offer real killer deals, and not have to worry about it spiraling out of control.
SD: So since you started Liftopia, have you had time to ski?
RS: You know, I have two kids now – an 8 week old and a 3 year old. I hope to get the 3-year old out this year. But it’s not like when we first started, when we didn’t have kids and we’d take meetings on the chair lift with our ski area partners.
SD: You’re in San Francisco. Where do you ski, over in Tahoe?
RS: Yeah, I grew up skiing at Kirkwood and Sierra and Squaw, and I tend to go to Squaw and Alpine. And if I’m lucky I’ll ski in Colorado or someplace like that during a conference.
You can — and should — check Liftopia out yourself. It’s an easy way to save a lot of money skiing. And what could be wrong with that.