By Paul Oster
Q: I understand the town of Mammoth has a new marketing program that should be really great. Do you think it will improve the rentals and rent-ability of my Mammoth condo?
A: Mammoth has a new marketing organization, Mammoth Lakes Tourism, referred to as the Destination Marketing Organization, or DMO. The powers-that-be have assured the community that the efforts and results will be better than in the past and the DMO is certain to “drive” more business our way. And it has a new marketing chief, John Urdi, who will lead this new pseudo public-side effort. Many people have asked me if I have met the newly hired guru/savior, and I haven’t. So once again I speak from a position of ignorance. The only thing I really know is what I’ve read in the paper, especially about how appalled he was about some aspect of Mammoth’s online presence and a pro-active stab at the SEO (search engine optimization for those who don’t know about these things).
I do apologize for my offhand attitude, but you know the old definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. I’ve witnessed the parade of new marketing messiahs (both for the Town and the Ski Area) and their “cutting edge” and “visionary” plans to increase tourism. Each has made an impact, some good and some bad. I still have a framed promotional poster (almost an “antique” now) in my laundry room at home from the days of the newly formed Mammoth Lakes Resort Association (MLRA if you like more acronyms) circa 1986. The corporate sponsor was Country Time Lemonade and it was/is an intriguing piece of art that captured the essence of summer here in Mammoth. I like the aesthetics of the piece, but I also consider it a stark reminder. The Town’s new incorporation and the formation of the MLRA had us on our way to great things. And Mammoth was truly beaten down at that time so it really needed a boost, kind of like the present but probably worse. Well, some of us remember know how that ended up. The Director embezzled a large sum of money and ended up going to jail (if memory serves correctly). It was a nice little small-town scandal, and a six-figure hole in the finances.
All along the way of these marketing iterations there have been attempts to consolidate the rental/reservations businesses that manage the local condominiums for “transient” or nightly rentals, and marry it to comprehensive marketing and centralized booking. That business has always been highly fractionalized in Mammoth: “on-site” programs run by local condo managers, “off-site” programs run by hustling entrepreneurs and businesspersons, and all sorts of combinations. It has always sounded like a good idea to consolidate and create some economic efficiency in the whole system. But none of the advocates ever really assessed the personalities and the competitive souls involved, and the fear, and the greed. For many, a reservation business in Mammoth seemed like a simple path to riches, it required little capital investment (the owners of the units did that), some rental charts (today, some computers), some basic marketing (today, a fancy website), a maid and rented linens, and some toilet paper. We even went through a nasty era where those that actually had real estate brokers licenses to manage the properties (and the monies) got the California Department of Real Estate to crack down on those who didn’t. That’s all been sorted out but today, that’s why so many condo managers and reservation people attempt to sell real estate on the side (again, more paths to riches).
No grand marketing program or central reservations system, even if descended from the heavens, could unify all of these wily characters. I had a saying (based on observation) in the early 90’s; “While Mammoth was beating the crap out of each other, the other resorts beat the crap out of us.” And it was true. Resorts around North America became much more unified in their approach, started packaging (especially with bargain air service), put some focus on service, and cleaned Mammoth’s clock. That dysfunction and depression is part of what made Mammoth such an appealing opportunity for Intrawest in the mid-90’s. And Intrawest even spearheaded their run at unifying the marketing and reservations when they brought Laurie Vance down from Whistler to give it a try. She was almost run out of town. Ironically, today the reservation companies are being beat-up by owners who have moved to (inexpensive) online resources and can discount by eliminating most of the margin taken by the reservation companies. Owners offer themselves flexibility, quick decision-making, and very personal service. Self-renting continues to be increasingly supported by cottage industries both here in Mammoth and elsewhere. It will only grow. And consumers are finding they like it more and more.
Meanwhile, the state of the economy continues to shape what is and will happen more than any new marketing organization. Technology will continue to play a major role. Business survival is all about staying lean and focusing on product and even more so, service. Just look around Mammoth, take a good look at the restaurants and retailers. Those assured of surviving are those offering both great products AND great service. As a business owner myself I know this is a big challenge. Keeping people motivated, pleasant (I’ve given up on happy), and current with an ever-changing market is not easy. Throw in the recreational and social distractions of Mammoth and it becomes even tougher. And today, keeping pace with technology is an ever-changing challenge. But the consumer ultimately benefits. And right now and for years to come, the consumer rules. The visitor, tourists and second-homeowners are benefiting as the marginal operators fall by the wayside. I can’t think of one business sector that this isn’t true in, except for those that have monopolies. And this economy even has the Ski Area in the same position, the other resorts are out for blood as they were in the ‘80s and ‘90s. We are in the new era of under-promising and over-delivery. Stellar marketing is great, but today the consumer wants service and value.
There are some new things coming Mammoth’s way that are bigger marketing coups than any new guru or acronym. Newly announced United Airlines flights from San Francisco Int’l are the continuation of bringing more of the mid-week business we need––first time visitors with discretionary dollars to spend who come during the un-crowded periods. And they can book-end their trip to Mammoth with some quality experiences in San Francisco (or L.A., or Seattle, or Portland). Hopefully, we can meet their meet expectations (and Mother Nature will cooperate). Mammoth has worked so hard and taken great risks to make air service happen. We are just getting a taste of the impact it will have. The other is the recent approval of the Digital 395 project. This $100+ million project will construct a fiber-optic line from Barstow to Carson City in the next two summers. Breathtaking photos and exceptional recreational opportunities can entice potential visitors, second-homeowners, and investors, but being “connected” is quite significant in this day and age. This fiber-optic line will have lasting impact and benefit to Mammoth’s marketing efforts, far beyond the tenure of our new marketing organization and leadership. But I’ll miss watching people throw their iPhones at the wall.
One thing about marketing hoopla that always bothers me: there is something about having too many people in Mammoth. My long-time readers know I questioned “capacity” during the goldilocks era. Skiing on Mammoth Mountain on Wednesdays versus Saturdays alike can be very enlightening. Shopping at VONS at different times is the same thing. The law of diminishing returns is real. We are in the new age of “more is not better” and we better pay attention. “Driving” more visitors to our doorsteps is not the answer, attracting and re-attracting quality visitors should be the mantra. Okay, this record is skipping. But if I wanted more rentals in my condo, that would be my goal.
Paul Oster is Broker/ Owner of RE/MAX of Mammoth. A recent archive of his past Q&A columns and other writings, as well as the ability to make comments, can be found at www.Mammoth-Real-Estate-Blog.com. For legal, accounting, construction and other advice, seek out the appropriate professional.