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Steamboat gets free plug on TV

Sprint PCS commercial worth advertising millions

— Who ever heard of jetting off to Palm Springs, Calif., for a ski vacation? And how did Steamboat Springs manage to score millions of dollars of free network television exposure by tagging along on a national commercial for a giant wireless phone company?

“That didn’t happen by accident,” Steamboat Vice President of Marketing Andy Wirth said. “We have a longstanding relationship with Sprint.”

If sly grins could be transported over telephone lines, Wirth almost certainly had such an expression on his face when he made the remark.

The commercial in question is for Sprint PC digital wireless phones. It showed up in front of 30 million television viewers during the seventh game of the World Series, and ran again on Monday Night Football last week, when the Oakland Raiders thumped the Denver Broncos.

The commercial is built around a family that asked its travel agent to book a vacation in Steamboat Springs, but was mistakenly sent to Palm Springs. It’s full of humorous images like the family’s children, decked out in snow gear, playfully making “snow angels” in a sand trap on a Palm Springs golf course.

The big mistake the family made, as the commercial relates, was to place the call to its travel agent on an old-fashioned analog cell phone, instead of on a Sprint PC digital phone. The angle Sprint is working is that instead of a “crisp clear digital signal” their conversation took place on a less than clear cell phone connection.

Whether one agrees with Sprint’s sales pitch or not, the point is well made.

“We told our travel agent to send us to Steamboat springs, but we ended up in Palm Springs!” the family laments.

The commercial is one in a series Sprint is running. It features a special agent for the digital phone company, dressed like a Secret Service agent. Talking like Jack Webb of “Dragnet” fame, he is sent out into the world to proselytize about the advantages of digital phone service.

Although it is just rolling out its digital phone service in Steamboat this fall and winter, Sprint has sponsored international freestyle ski competitions here for several winters. That alone doesn’t explain how Steamboat got a free mention in a national commercial.

Wirth said the explanation is embodied by a high-ranking Sprint executive named Brett Fuller. Fuller has been smitten with Steamboat Springs.

“He thinks Steamboat is one of the great places in the western United States,” Wirth said.

Sprint works with several creative agencies on its television campaign. When one of them pitched the idea of a family being mistakenly sent to the wrong vacation destination, Fuller all but insisted that Steamboat Springs be featured in the television commercial, Wirth said.

Steamboat and Sprint will work together this winter to help spread the word about Sprint’s availability in Steamboat in a promotion tied into the ski area’s pre-school, Kid’s Vacation Club. Parents who enroll their children in KVC this winter will be handed a Sprint phone to use throughout the day. That way, they can be reassured that they will be reachable should a health question arise.

Similarly, the parents can call in during the day to talk to their little skier.

So, how valuable is the Sprint commercial to Steamboat, and how much did it cost the ski area to be involved?

Sprint didn’t ask Steamboat for any compensation, Wirth said. And he’s been told the media buy behind that single commercial will be between $16 million and $18 million.


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