Depending on whom you talk with, Evan Reece is either a pioneer in a relatively undiscovered market or a man on a springboard - ready to dive into a pool full of crocodiles.

Reece, a clear-eyed San Francisco resident with a passion for skiing and a background in technology, has used his savings and called on friends to help launch an online lift ticket discount site he has dubbed: Liftopia. His plan? Build an online marketplace offering lift ticket deals at top mountain resorts across the United States.

The mountains would supply him with unsold inventory, which he would market to a discount-hungry clientele on a moment's notice. By aligning the price points of tickets with customer's value expectations, resorts could actively impact the demand for their product, and in the long term increase visitation and overall profitability.

Reece said his site would allow resorts to change prices and inventory up and down without restriction. Resorts could thus proactively adjust prices to target forecasted need dates, while also being able to discount prices when there is adverse weather and snow conditions.

"Our end goal is to pair customers who want to ski or ride more often with resorts that want people on the hill more often." "I looked at it and said: 'how can we help the industry?' And of course I looked around and saw how many people want to ski but don't want to pay or can't afford to pay top dollar," he said. "That's where we come in. We're increasing skier visits through strategic online distribution."

Reece, who began skiing at a small hill north of Boston at age 8, moved to San Francisco in 2001 to take a job with an online travel company. His time, he found, was split between focusing on revenue management guidance for the hotel side of the travel business and immersing himself in the newfound joys of Sierra snowfall.

"My primary responsibilities were account management, market management, and helping properties in various markets best utilize the channel," he said. "I ended up shifting these responsibilities into the ski markets about a year and half ago." And that, he said, is when the idea for Liftopia hit home.

With funding from friends and family he has brought his site through the development stage and is ready to go "live" as soon as he has sufficient inventory available to sell. "It's an opt-in, no-contract environment for the resorts, with buyers paying in advance," he said. "I'll sell what they give me to sell." Reece says he has "at least one" major mountain committed to the project and is in negotiations with others. He would like to have the inventory of five major mountains behind him but acknowledges early commitment to an unproven model by a dollar-conscious industry will be a tough sell.

Industry insiders agreed, warning of difficult days ahead but holding out hope for the budding ski entrepreneur. They pointed out that others already in the marketplace (e.g. Tahoe City-based Snowbomb or Sliding on the Cheap) have made inroads, with Snowbomb founder Jim McAlpine reporting an opt-in member database of 100,000 users and more than $1 million in net sales for this season alone.

"The horse is out of the barn in regards to the consumer mentality of wanting a deal.... I call it the 'NBR' syndrome (Never Buy Retail)," said Julie Maurer, vice president of Marketing, Public Relations and Sales for Booth Creek Resort Holdings. "I view (discounters) as additional channels of communication distribution with their own communities that help to get the word out on our value oriented products."

Maurer said the lift ticket discount model is designed around times where resort operators need business or some form of pre-commitment from consumers. "We have seen response from these channels so I would say they are a good thing," she said.

But Jack Sibbach, director of Sales, Marketing, and Public Relations at Sun Valley, Idaho, said the discount model would serve a restricted resort market, at best. "The place for the discounted ticket is at the small local hills, not the destination resorts," Sibbach said. Indeed, a spokesman for one of those destination resorts, who asked not be named in this story, pointed out that most of the larger mountains have sufficient means to market their ticket inventories, and would not need to rely on an online broker. "It would not be our purpose to drive volume by just discounting our product," he said. "Our intention would be to drive yield up, not to discount."

Still, Reece believes there's a place in the ski world for him and for a ticket discounter like Liftopia, and he's put his bankroll where his convictions are. "I've been on the road a lot these past months," he said recently. "Utah, the Sierra, Colorado, back to New England. I'm talking with anyone who will listen because I believe in what we're doing and I believe in what we're trying to sell."

With any luck, Liftopia plans a "soft launch" within the next month. "This will be our first major test of the concept," he said. "We've built it, now we need to see if they will come."

- by J.D. O'Connor