How Intrawest Used CRM To Build a Brand

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An odd thing happened to a woman who had bought property in a British Columbia ski resort. No one tried to market her on anything for a full year after her purchase.

That, according to Linda Denis, vice president for customer relationship marketing for Intrawest, was the event that triggered a major change in the way Intrawest, developer of the resort, Whistler Blackcomb, does business.

Denis, a keynote speaker at CRMGuru’s CustomerThink Leadership Summit 2005, said a phone call from the woman was the company’s first indication that it needed to do a better job.

The woman, who had a background in direct marketing, placed a call into Intrawest’s corporate office and said, “I just spent $600,000 on you, and I have not received one piece of marketing.” The real estate people had done their work, but the direct-marketing people had not picked up the ball to try to sell her lift tickets or encourage her to take advantage of other aspects of the resort.

It was clear to leadership at Intrawest, with 80 percent of its business tied to skiing and adventure resorts in Canada and the United States (the company is moving into Europe and Asia), that the business needed to rethink its growth strategy

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as well as do a better job of branding, marketing and bringing in all its various resort, leisure and real estate entities under one umbrella. In other words, it needed a customer relationship management program.

Intrawest brought in Denis, who, with a background in direct response marketing, had led the customer relationship marketing team at Canadian telecommunications company TELUS.


Strengthening the network


Hers was the first centrally positioned department at Intrawest, where the individual resort managers had been acting autonomously.

“Little did I know,” Denis said, “that CRM stood for ‘Can’t Really Move.’ ” Denis was sold on the Intrawest position based on the concept of campaign management. But she soon realized there “was a bigger story to tell.”

The company had about $1.5 billion in annual revenue and operated 133 restaurants; managed and operated 77,000 hotel rooms in North America; and had about 8 million skier visits. But, said Denis in her keynote address, when she started, no one could tell her how many customers Intrawest had, just the number of “skier visits,” based on the sales of lift tickets.

And the different operations were using different systems. People had stuffed brochures into envelopes and “thought that was direct marketing,” Denis said. Before Denis’ arrival, the company wasn’t strong on planning. Its marketing was very tactical and operationally oriented, with operators trying to sell as much as they could in ski season.

So for the first year, Denis and her staff—the only centralized department in the company—concentrated on the basics, “trying to earn our stripes,” trying to convince the owners that they could grow the business.


A dialogue


They started putting teams together and focusing on analytics, with intelligence driving the momentum. They looked at how many leads the company had who never bought anything and how many customers the company was losing every year. It turned out that Intrawest had a declining business case, meaning it was losing more customers—probably because they were “outgrowing” skiing and didn’t recognize any other reason to visit an Intrawest resort—and not growing the customer base.

That, said Denis, was when Intrawest changed from being a direct marketing company to a company that focused on engaging the customers in a dialogue.

“I knew I could do much better than putting a brochure into an envelope,” Denis said, and she was right. Her team delivered $16 million in incremental growth in the first year by just picking “the lowest hanging fruit.”

A successful early initiative was an email sent under the premise of protecting the recipients’ privacy, asking them to confirm the accuracy of their data. Out of 1 million emails sent out, 18.5 percent of the recipients updated their profile. The big surprise, said Denis, was that 250,000 people signed up for other propositions. Denis admitted that the email campaign was a risk, with the possibility of people opting out. But only 9,000 people unsubscribed.

Then Denis’ group focused on some basics. What they lacked in tools, they made up for in their thirst for building value.

For example, feedback from call centers told them that one of the most frequent requests from callers was for directions and information on what activities were available at which places. As a result, they sent out “pre-visit” welcome emails, with links to the web site. The emails were differentiated based on such demographics as whether the visitors planned to arrive with kids.

Then Denis’ team worked on developing a data mart, developing customer metrics and developing performance metrics for its partners, which include ski schools and lodging.

And the company is working on consolidating its call centers across the network, with Unica tapped to improve campaign management. Denis’ group, which began with 30 campaigns, now has 1,500.

One place that the department stumbled a bit, said Denis, was in its failure to get buy-in early on with its resort general managers, who had been used to running their own show.

As a result, the CRM group is working closely with the managers to formulate its CRM plan for the future. Now Denis and her team are looking at more collaborative and operational CRM.

But more importantly, Denis worked on giving the company focus and an identity.

That meant first figuring out what tied all of Intrawest’s various parts together, whether they were introduced to Intrawest as a ski resort, an adventure center or a place to catch some rays at the beach. What type of message did the company want to people who thought of the resort only in terms of a single activity? Why would aging skiers want to keep coming to Intrawest after their knees gave out? What do you do when you stop skiing?

One step was to move the company into the golf arena. But a larger step was to widen and focus the company’s positioning. Now, Denis said, Intrawest is characterizing itself as a travel and leisure provider of choice for aspirational, adventurous people. “Our key area of focus was not, ‘We will build it and they will come.’ ” Instead, it is, “Market it and tell the story.”

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