You may already know this, but I am a die-hard snowboarder.
I've spent my fair share of time racing down the hills of ski resorts across Canada, but after a weekend at Big White Ski Resort a couple of years ago, I realized that this company was providing something very special to its guests that I had never seen before. And because of that experience, families are becoming the resorts biggest promoters.
I was astounded by how much Big White had developed a reputation for being the easiest place for families to enjoy their vacations. Up against some pretty hefty competition, Big White was even named by Britain's Sunday Times as one of the top five family ski resorts in the world. And through a highly interactive website and a number of social media networks, Big White is driving incredible word of mouth through videos and comments customers are posting for weeks and months after leaving the resort.
Located in Kelowna, B.C., Big White opened in 1963 with just two T-bars, but in the early '70s expansion started to really take off. Today, it boasts more than 2,500 acres of skiable terrain, 16 lifts, 118 market runs and a reputation for having some of the best powder in Canada – they call it "Okanagan champagne powder." Senior vice-president Michael J. Ballingall has been with Big White since 1985. Though I'm sure he has watched the marketing and communications strategy change and evolve over time, when asked about how Big White attracts families from the far reaches of Ontario, he doesn't talk about tactics – he talks about services.
"Time is the ultimate commodity for people in the Ontario market," Mr. Ballingall says. "They say, 'this is the time I have off, can you customize a trip for me?' … Because we own and operate everything, the answer is yes.
"The lift company, the ski school, the cafeterias, the accommodation, the shuttle buses that pick you up at the airport, the reservation systems … we do it all," he explains. "That is incredibly unique in Canada, but we do it because it makes sense."
Booking your entire trip can be done through Big White, and thanks to a partnership with WestJet, Mr. Ballingall boasts that a family can depart from Toronto's Pearson International Airport and be at a Big White condominium within six hours. The resort has also made everything walkable and skiable from each of those condos – even going so far as to guarantee access to easier "green" hills off of every lift, so families don't have to separate for the day if they have different levels of experience (or guts).
This accessibility, paired with the nightly entertainment – everything from fireworks to carnival nights to talent shows – has created a loyal community of Big White guests for the resort to draw upon when generating brand awareness and word-of-mouth marketing.
By virtue of the authentic family experience Big White has provided, its online followers are incredibly loyal: 48,000 people have voluntarily subscribed to the snowGHOST eNews Letter, and the e-mail blast has an amazing 78-per-cent open rate.
"They are passionate about it," says Mr. Ballingall matter-of-factly. "It is their resort."
Big White also has interactive tours and a web cam on its site, it hosts YouTube competitions, it holds Twitter ticket specials, and its managers engage directly with customers on Facebook daily. All of the team's social networking efforts are rooted in celebrating the resort experience and giving customers forums to drive awareness.
"People like to share their family experiences, so when they do that with social networking it helps us build the profile of what our product is," Mr. Ballingall says. "Friends talk to friends, who share stories with daycares and schools … and when that mother has a special moment when her son wins a race, makes his first turn, or they just have a fun run together … that photograph is sent to the grandparents, sisters and friends … it goes viral.
"There is a strong word-of-mouth, but it is the guest service aspect of our business that is key to our success. This world is all about truth in communications, and we let the consumer tell our story."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Mia Wedgbury is president of the Canadian region for Fleishman-Hillard Canada and its sister company, High Road Communications. She has more than two decades of experience in creating and growing award-winning communications agencies. Her experience spans many sectors, including financial, technology, consumer and lifestyle. She works in partnership with her clients to build brands, mitigate risk and shape communications strategies.