Original Post

The Boston Globe: Online ski deals now just a click away

December 02, 2011

If Evan Reece has his way in the not-too-distant future, arriving at a ski resort with cash or plastic to buy a lift ticket will be as practical as going to each ticket counter at Logan Airport to comparison shop for last-minute flight deals.

Although some New England resorts have offered bare-bones online sales for the last decade, it is Liftopia.com - Reece's advance-purchase, multi-mountain, bargain-centric site for lift tickets - that has established the standard for Internet sales in the snow sports industry.

The telltale sign that the San Francisco-based private company is onto something big is that competitors - like startups GetSkiTickets.com and LiftTickets.com - are nipping at Liftopia's heels.

"Definitely, competition makes you strive to be more effective," said Reece, 33, who grew up in Topsfield and learned to ski at Bradford before attending Colby College. "Obviously, consumers want deals. Resorts want to give them, but without losing their shirts. The entire industry is trending toward advance purchasing, and part of the reason for this change is that we've created a model that is not just beneficial for consumers, but for resorts."

The lure for skiers is that they can browse an entire season's worth of Liftopia lift ticket offerings at 150 mountains for both last-minute deals (appealing to day trippers) and long-range bargains (helpful to vacationers locked into specific time slots). Buyers pay via credit card or Paypal and get a printed receipt to swap at the mountain for the lift ticket(s). In exchange for significant savings, customers must give up their right to back out of the deal. Purchases on Liftopia cannot be exchanged, refunded, or transferred.

Resorts appreciate Liftopia because the system allows real-time access to set pricing. So depending on Mother Nature, a mountain might post immediate price reductions on a thin-cover Saturday to boost volume when business would ordinarily suffer, or it could react to a midweek snowstorm by incentivizing skiers to play hooky from work.

Liftopia launched in 2006 featuring deals from only seven mountains, and Reece said the company has doubled or tripled its gross sales every season. Last year there were 3 million unique searches for lift tickets on Liftopia, and several top partners booked greater than $1 million through the site. Value-added purchases - tickets that include extras like rentals, lessons, food credits, or VIP lift-line access - represented 10 percent of all transactions.

Reece said Liftopia benefits from the overall trend of people being more comfortable with making leisure-related bookings online, where they can scout for the best prices. "The effective equivalent is the travel analogy. People no longer book the majority of their flights at airports," he said. "Booking a hotel room online is not really a foreign environment for the consumer."

Reece, who handled skiing-related products at the online travel booking company Hotwire before co-founding Liftopia, said the one aspect his company underestimated was how difficult it would be to cut through the clutter to prove to resorts that his concept had potential.

"We definitely did not have an appreciation for how resorts get hit up day after day by tons of people wanting to sell their deals," Reece said.

Ragged Mountain was one of the first New England resorts to partner with Liftopia. At a mid-sized operation like Ragged, marketing manager Stacy Lopes said she is "bombarded" with pitches from deal brokers, and her staff simply doesn't have the time to wade through every offer to figure out which companies are legitimate. She said last year, Liftopia accounted for 5.5 percent of Ragged's lift ticket sales.

"Last year we definitely kicked up our usage with Liftopia," Lopes said. "We are able to go in and manage our own inventory. That's why Liftopia is a great tool for us. They bring us guests we might not otherwise get, and it's our job to convert them to regular customers. Right now, we aren't looking for another specific lift ticket partner."

This year, Bretton Woods will be one of the first New England resorts to roll out a new Liftopia platform that allows mountains to sell dynamic-priced tickets directly on their own websites. Partially because the ski area shares operational ties with the Omni Mount Washington Resort, Bretton Woods takes a different approach when it comes to being open to pitches from emerging eTicket vendors.

"We're obviously looking at any outlets to sell our products, whether they be rooms or ski tickets," said Craig Clemmer, director of marketing at Bretton Woods.

But the new sites have their work cut out for them if they are to compete directly with Liftopia. A random sampling yesterday of a half-dozen New England resorts listed on GetSkiTickets all returned the same "These lift ticket deals are currently not available" message. The home page of LiftTickets listed only four New England mountains on its "Hot Lift Ticket Deals" sidebar, and clicking through to the calendars for Killington, Pico, Smugglers' Notch, and Lost Valley yielded more "Sold Out" notices than actual price listings.

Still, even Reece acknowledged that the pickings on Liftopia looked similarly slim when it launched five years ago. "We don't hold it against anyone trying to copy us," he said. "But we don't think they understand what it is they're trying to copy."

Even as Liftopia continues to do business by providing print-out vouchers to present at ticket windows, Reece said the future of eTicketing is in smart phone technologies that bypass the need for paper. Although he won't divulge details just yet - Reece knows his competitors are thinking along similar lines - he said Liftopia will soon announce just such an application. New Englanders can imagine cruising north on highways, checking out snow reports as they travel, and downloading discounted eTickets on the fly.

"We still think New England is the best all-around market for this model," said Reece. "You can be a pretty adventurous skier, because there are so many resorts to try out there."