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Ski Corp. touts redesigned Web site

— Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. officials have long thought they had one of the best proprietary reservation systems in the business. But they didn’t have the same confidence in their Web presence.

That has changed thanks to a redesign of http://www.steamboat.com by the Denver firm, SpireMedia, Ski Corp. officials said.

The reservation system allowed prospective customers to begin and end their search for a Steamboat vacation online if they wished. It also provided the option of seamlessly shifting to a live chat with a trained reservationist when it came time to close the sale.

“We’ve spent more than $5 million on CORIS (Customer Oriented Reservation Info System) and it’s a big reason why we were able to take advantage of a bow wave of response,” to post-Sept. 11 marketing campaigns, ski area Vice President of Marketing Andy Wirth said. He was introducing a presentation on Steamboat’s newly redesigned Web page during the e-Commerce Expo and Symposium at the Sheraton.

Wirth is certain that one component of his company’s reservation system, “Automated Quote Response,” or AQR, secured business for Steamboat last winter that it might otherwise have lost.

“I’m convinced that if it hadn’t been for AQR we’d have been like all the other resorts in Colorado that weren’t prepared to take advantage,” of a dramatic upturn in demand for ski vacations late last winter, Wirth said.

AQR allows customers contemplating a winter vacation at Steamboat to build a vacation package, including airfare, lodging, lift tickets, ski rentals and maybe even a trip to the hot springs; then get a price quote before they talk to a reservationist.

There were days in the latter part of the 2001/2002 ski season when Steamboat’s reservation system responded to 500 quote requests in a day. Before last season, and the full implementation of AQR, the reservationists would have been hard-pressed to fulfill 150 requests for quotes, Steamboat’s Online Marketing Manager Marlene Wuest said.

Under AQR, when a customer submits a package for a quote, the CORIS servers prioritize its elements and build a price quote. The quote is automatically posted to its own Web page and an e-mail is sent to the customer alerting them to its location, and providing a reservation number that lets them access it.

Some customers conclude the

transaction online, but most call Steamboat Central Reservations, give their reservation numbers, and tweak the details of the vacation package with a reservationist.

Despite the power of the software that drives the system, it can’t provide all of the sizzle that travelers expect to encounter when they commit to a $5,000 vacation package. “Our front end was a little bit static,” Wirth told his audience.

Steamboat resolved to pay more attention to its “front end” Web presence last spring when it contracted with Denver-based SpireMedia to undertake a thorough redesign of http://www.steamboat.com.

Keith Balthus, account executive for SpireMedia, said modernizing the appearance of Steamboat’s home page was clearly important, but more important was redesigning the site with the needs of the users in mind.

“It’s easy to go in and design a fun Web site,” Balthus said.

“But you have to ask, ‘is the functionality there? Is it meeting the requirements of the audience?'”

Balthus said redesigning steamboat.com began with a discovery process when the Ski Corp.’s business requirements and its target audience were taken into account. At each step along the way, the design team and its clients asked, “What does a consumer want to accomplish?”

The short-term goals for the redesign include giving the ski area’s Web pages a new look that was consistent throughout. That was not the case with the old Web pages.

To no one’s surprise, another goal was to drive and increase sales. The redesign also took into account the long-term goals of someday extending the e-commerce capabilities of the site to include retail transactions. Ski Corp. also seeks to increase the ability of different department heads to manage their own content.

And finally, Ski Corp. wants to work toward site personalization, so that regular users will begin to see Web pages that are unique to them.

There were some very pragmatic consequences of the redesign of steamboat.com. Ski Corp.’s Jim Oxenhandler said he and Wuest realized in January that the “lodging quote forms” prospective vacationers were being asked to fill out were exceedingly cumbersome and fell far short of being user friendly.

Ski Corp.’s own research showed that 50 percent of people who undertook to fill out the form experienced failure. And between 30 and 40 percent of those beginning the form did not finish. Of those, most quit after the first page.

“That was a big red flag to us,” Wuest said.

After a thorough study of other companies’ quote request forms, Ski Corp. streamlined its own form so that customers are no longer confronted with questions about services they aren’t interested in anyway.

Wirth pointed out that refining online sales for vacations is more complex than it is in other industries. Steamboat is selling packages that often range from $3,880 to $10,000 in price.

He said, “This isn’t like buying books at Amazon.com.”


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