Awakening Alpine: Recommendations for Revitalizing the Meadow by Jenna Minnes

18 Jan 2011

The Rider's Voice

From time to time, we will post a Rider’s perspective on the future of their favorite ski area. Michel Beaudry weighed in on Whistler’s current situation. Jenna Mines, a longtime Tahoe local and marketing student at Sierra Nevada College, gives her feedback on Alpine Meadows, Lake Tahoe, California.

When I first moved to Tahoe, I recall a poster of Alpine Meadows hanging on the wall of Tahoe Dave’s, where I worked my first job. The poster read, “Ski in your own backyard” and had a photo-shopped compilation of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco with the peaks and terrain of Alpine Meadows in the backdrop. This both confused and annoyed me. My first thought was, “Good Lord, I hope that the entire city of San Francisco does not end up in my backyard,” which was followed by “…if any resort is to be in the ‘backyard’ of San Fran, wouldn’t it be Boreal or Sugarbowl?” What I didn’t realize then is that the resort was going through brand uncertainty disorder, and has not gone to rehab since.

While resorts around Tahoe strive to connect their brand with a specific market, Alpine Meadows has failed to do so. You ask anyone who skis at Alpine who their market is, most replies will have something pertaining to locals and skiing without all the frills. This is a difficult brand to try and “sell” considering that the more you sell, the less likely this market will support mountains that haven’t turned into resorts.

So how can Alpine increase sales without losing its primary fans?

The first solution is to keep the Ice Bar open at all times. Okay, maybe not, but perhaps Alpine needs to examine these ideas and feelings that their customers associate with the ski area. How might Alpine do this? They could start by asking the customers; asking them why they ski Alpine and what drives them to come back.

Regarding brand, Alpine can take the advice of Jon Wagnon by creating a brand that is”true and relevant” to the existing image, geological attributes and location of the ski area. Jon Wagnon managed to double skier visits at Kirkwood, a resort similar to Alpine, through brand improvement. Both Alpine and Kirkwood are recognized for the remarkable terrain, but Kirkwood focuses on harnessing this by leveraging its sense of arrival, remoteness as well as the “steep and deep” catchphrase that encompasses Kirkwood’s brand. Does Alpine have a catchphrase? Yes, it’s “Unfiltered”. Catchy? No. Memorable? Nope. Confusing and unclear? Definitely.

Another aspect of brand that Alpine may have overlooked is its employee attitudes and customer service. Alpine’s customer service sits between Squaw Valley, which up until now has been known for its lucid rudeness, and Northstar, who have somehow kept a smile on every employees face for the past few decades. Alpine employees, who are neither friendly, trendy, surly, or rude, reflect the steady brand indecision.

Once Alpine has its brand clear, it can start hosting events that attract the market and gain media attention. Again, one can look to Kirkwood for inspiration here. Alpine is not known for its park, therefore it can rule out allocating a huge amount of event resources on freestyle events. But it is known for its plethora of off-piste skiing and riding as well as the mountains’ natural terrain features. Kirkwood has been successful in hosting the North American Freeskiing Championships for ten years. This event not only increases skier visits at the time of the event, but also generates positive (and sometimes free) public relations, and by doing so, increases exposure to the market. Since this event has already been swooped up by a Tahoe resort, Alpine will have to consider an alternative.

In the realm of events, Alpine doesn’t jog the memory for anything, well, memorable. They do have some great local bands play on the deck of the base lodge during the warmer spring days, but this approach doesn’t seem to be attracting new customers. A weekend skier from the Bay Area isn’t going to neglect the experience she could have at Squaw’s village to go see some unshaven dudes in hoodies play Grateful Dead covers.

Alpine has many options to increase public relations and media attention already this season considering the early season snow. Alpine opened November 26th this season, two weeks prior to its original opening date. It’s been the third snowiest November for Alpine Meadows. This is big news! They also bought West Shore café, who has been an on-and-off ghost town for the past decade. But this is news it seems only the employees know about.

Alpine has made some attempts on competitive pricing. One was a few years ago, before the purchase of Alpine by JMA, in which they offered skiers $39 lift tickets. Now that is a great deal, although one would often wonder how they stayed in business during those few years. The issue of the $39 lift ticket is that the guidelines for such were in small print. Hoards of skiers and riders flocked to Alpine during peak season operations, holidays and weekends, expecting to spend a mere $39 on a lift ticket, only to find that this offer was not valid during those days. This pricing, which was initiated in order to increase skier visits, turned out to be bad PR, and has most likely kept skiers away, due to distrust, ever since.

Squaw’s competitive pricing seems to have been overlooked by Alpine. Here sits Squaw, with its massive village, attractive terrain and yes, it’s Olympic history, boasting a season’s pass for $300? The comparable pass at Alpine is more than double this price at $699. Yes, this includes skiing at Homewood as well, but really, Homewood and Alpine combined barely live up to Alpine’s terrain and general experience. All those “broke locals” now don what they have secretly always wanted: a pass at Squaw.

Who does that leave to ski at Alpine?

Now one cannot completely dog the entirety of the resort’s attempts at marketing and growth. To the credit of Alpine, it does face some challenges by renting land from the Forest Service. Attempts at increasing revenues prospects such as the implementation of a village, augmentation of on mountain lodging and real estate or the execution of a summer program are inhibited by the fact that they simply cannot expand. This means that marketing is left to creative, seasonal efforts.

It seems that the growth in technology has recovered the voice of Alpine. The webpage for Alpine is somewhat attractive, with its flash player broadcasting enticing images of the mountain, smiling children and fuzzy avalanche dogs. The placement of the snow report in the upper right hand corner of the screen is perfect. The page could use some simple improvement in organization, user friendliness and clutter clean-up. All in all, it is mostly comparable to other Tahoe resorts. Upon visiting the Alpine Meadows Facebook page, the users will see plenty of updates, conversations and interactions with skiers, along with an abundance of fanfare, all aspects that Kirsten Cattell of Booth Creek emphasized as being vital to PR 2.0. Alpine also uses Twitter, is connected with YouTube and is fairly active in its blog entries, although the author of the blog may want to work on expressing their voice, again, brand uncertainty disorder. Alpine has also done well in logo consistency. Although the green and while mountain-like looking “A & M” is recognizable, it does lack flair and can improve on its message.

One of the most innovative and exciting feats of recent: Alpine was host to the world premier of the movie G.N.A.R. Although this is, again, a little confusing considering that many of the skiers and clips take place at Squaw, and has been inspired by the final chapter of “Squallywood”, this premier was a great event, and attracted many skiers that are consistent with the afflicting brand image of Alpine. Perhaps this could be the event that changes everything?

All this said, I have been a pass holder at Alpine for five years. Not once have I ever been approached for a survey, cold call or on-mountain customer service representative asking me why I return, year after year. Why did I not buy a Squaw pass this year? My answer would be Alpine’s the terrain, proximity to my home, skier-not-resort induced sentiment, the great off-piste terrain and the Ice Bar. Maybe, being from the East Coast, I enjoy the brand debacle, the bare minimum approach of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and mediocre lift access. Talk and rumors of Alpine someday being bought out by Squaw frightens me down to my bones. I don’t know where I would ski if that happened. But maybe I want to be schmoozed, just a little.

Maybe I want the mountain that I have so much passion for to reflect that same passion back in their brand.

Jenna Minnes is a Global Management Student at Sierra Nevada College. Besides her passion for the outdoors and marketing, she is a world class massage therapist serving the North Tahoe and Truckee area.

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11 Responses to “Awakening Alpine: Recommendations for Revitalizing the Meadow by Jenna Minnes”

  1. Peter Long Says:

    Jenna brings up some great points. Alpine has a ton of potential and would be the ultimate community based ski area. Does anyone know if it is for sale?

    Reply

  2. Roger Wiltern Says:

    One thing that should be mentioned is Alpine’s awesome dedication to the Adaptive Ski School. The program is among the best in the country.

    Reply

  3. Allan Warren Says:

    Is Alpine struggling to stay afloat? I ski pretty much at all the Tahoe resorts throughout each winter and when you combine all aspects, terrain, lift lines, pretentiousness, snow pack, I tell everyone that Alpine is overall my favorite resort at Tahoe. In a lot of ways I feel like I love Alpine because it lacks so much of what you’re calling for and on top of it all they host perhaps the best winter disabled sports program in the country.

    If all that’s in danger because their economic model is failing then you definitely bring up some good points. If it’s not, I’m inclined to say, leave it as it is. One thing I would like to see a resort up there do, and which would lend itself to a great and easy branding/marketing campaign, is lead the way in alternative energy, but I think Kirkwood really ought to be the one to do that since they run everything off diesel generators. Maybe that could be Alpine niche though?

    Reply

  4. Sarah Parker Says:

    Allan,

    I think you are on to something. If Alpine installs solar panels and/or wind turbines, along with branding themselves the local’s no-frills mountain, that would be a powerful image.

    Reply

  5. Dave Westall Says:

    Jenna, I think your article is off base on a few items:
    1) The Ice bar is open just about every day during the winter with the exception of storm days and when the Sherwood lift is closed. Most weekends the Ice Bar features live music or DJ’s performing on the Band Wagon which is a conveted snow cat that acts as a mobile stage for events.
    2) Evry year Alpine Meadows sends out a survey to their entire database approximately 20,000 people asking for feedback and ways to improve the mountain. They also conduct smaller sample surveys at the mountain from time to time to se what customes think, linke or dislike.
    3) Alpine Meadows is hosting a plethora of fun, brand driven events in 2011 including but not limited to the Daron Rahlves Beaver Bowl Banzai ($10K purse), Take the Lake Tripple Jump Line Freestyle event ($15K purse), Red Bull Schlittentag (furniture races), Telemark and Freeride Festival, Jr. Tahoe Freeride Series, Snowbomb Big Air, and other world class events.
    4) Your pass pricing info is way off. You are comparing Squaws early purchase price of a Bronze level pass to a less restrictive Alpine pass at mid season pricing. This year Alpine offered their restricted passs for $339 (early season rate) while Squaw charged $359 for a similar pass at the early season rate. You need to check your facts before you throw out statements like this.
    5) I think if you looked into what Alpine Meadows is doing with regards to marketing, PR, and Events you would see that significant possitive cahnges have been made over the last 3 years creating a more vibrant ski area that is more closely linked to their target market.
    6) You failed to mention in your article the world class Disabled Sports program that has been a cornerstone of the community for many years.

    Although your article is thought provoking I think you missed out on all the positive aspects of Alpine Meadows that keep skiers like me coming back year after year.

    –Dave Westall

    Reply

  6. Jenna Minnes Says:

    Dave-
    I appreciate you taking the time to clarify some of the facts I overlooked. This article was written for a Ski Business Resort Marketing course at SNC in November, prior to much of the changes and events Alpine signed up for this season. I do hope that you observed the fact that I have been both a pass holder and an employee of Alpine Meadows. It is, in fact, the only resort in Tahoe where I have owned a pass consecutive years.

    I regret overlooking the Adaptive Ski Program at Alpine, which is one of the best in the Nation. In my defense, this article was written from my personal experience on the mountain, which is why the program was not mentioned.

    Alpine has been and will be my choice in ski areas in Tahoe due to many of the reasons I explained in the article, including “dudes in hoodies playing Grateful Dead covers”, great terrain and lack of frills. And as far as the Ice Bar goes, I love it. It is one of the most identity creating characteristics of Alpine. So why can’t it be open in July?

    There are many aspects of growth that I have discussed in the article as well. I give great compliments to Alpine’s marketing and PR in its feats in social media, the website layout, logo consistency and strong web presence.

    I cannot press enough that I am loyal to Alpine. My intention in writing this was to gain awareness of some points I feel, as a loyal customer, may need some improvement. I hope that Alpine will strengthen its brand management so that I can someday watch my kids make turns down High T.

    -Jenna

    Reply

  7. Chris Says:

    As someone with a Bachelor’s Degree in Ski Resort Management, 10 years in ski resort sales and marketing along with being a Tahoe local for 8 years I feel Jenna is 100% on point. (oh yeah and during college a lift op at Alpine) First and foremost the lack of branding has a significant effect not only on the bottom line but the guest experience. Bringing in a promoter to host some events and having an Adaptive program doesn’t constitute a brand; its actually a contradiction that weakens the brand. A brand combines the 5 senses and at a resort is reflected, yes in the logo, but also in the colors of the buildings and decor, quality and selection of food, smell of the public areas, uniforms and the way the staff communicates with and makes you feel.

    So let me reflect on my last visit. Colors: industrial/park service. Food: Poorly cooked 1980’s ski resort over priced burgers, Uniforms: forgettable (If they were even in uniforms) Smell: Ski boots and Staff: tested my ability to not leap over the counter…

    So the brand? Kinda like the Horizon Casino in SLT, “see how little we can get away with”.

    Sad part is, as Jenna points out, its a great hill. And the ability to change the experience does not take millions of dollars but instead management needs to create ongoing customer service programs, put together a branding plan, get creative in the kitchen, get a ScentAir unit so it doesn’t smell like old socks… I could go on but they just need to be thoughtful, that’s it just thoughtful.

    What Mom Nature gave us on the hill aside, its the worst guest service experience on the Lake, hands down, no argument. If the place had Northstar’s terrain it’d be closed.

    I want to say this article was very thoughtful and well put together. I think Alpine aught to give Jenna a call with an offer letter in hand.

    Reply

  8. Joe Mama Says:

    Always easy to be an Armchair Quarterback. Typical east coaster “Tahoe Local”.

    Reply

  9. notyopapa Says:

    hey, joe i’m sure everyone appreciates your thoughtful and insightful response. I think Jenna brouhgt up some good points and seemed to speak truthfully and helpfully, perhaps there is some room for growth in the areas she mentioned. Alpine may not be “broke”, but maybe it’s time for a tune up.

    Reply

  10. Kathy Says:

    Interesting article, Jenna! I think Alpine should be grateful that you took the time to write such a complete critique. The marketing director worth his weight in salt there would and should want to take a good look at your points and address and correct them asap. Mr. Joe Mama, Jenna’s loyalty and love of the area would beat most “locals”. And she is trying to help Alpine, not hurt it.

    Reply

  11. Shanie Matthews Says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Kathy.

    Reply

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