Urs Zurbriggen

Chief Operating officer & Deputy chief executive officer
Saastal Bergbahnen AG, Saas-Fee

Session: Innovative Ski Pass PRograms

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The ski pricing regime in Switzerland has been rigid for a number of years, with room for improvement. Saastal-Bergbahnen AG and Mountain Marketing AG sought out to change the run-of-the-mill way ski passes have been sold through their unique crowdfunding WinterCARD season pass.

Urs Zurbriggen, COO and Deputy CEO of the Saastal Bergbahnen AG in Saas-Fee, discusses the innovative crowd funding ski passes from Saas-Fee and the success that has arisen from its creation and implementation.


What is the WinterCARD and how does it work?

The WinterCARD is a Season Pass valid in Saas-Fee/Saastal offering 150km of slopes from November until mid/end of April. The WinterCARD is unique because of its innovative pricing. It is funded through an approach called crowdfunding, meaning that if a certain number of people register within a certain period of time (only before the winter season starts), the WinterCARD becomes valid and is highly discounted versus the regular season pass (80% discount). The price is as low as a three-day ski pass, hence making the product appealing to all buyers.


Where did the concept for the WinterCARD come from?

The concept for the WinterCard was developed by our management, Saastal-Bergbahnen AG (the cable car company that operates all lifts in Saas-Fee), along with an external business partner, Mountain Marketing AG. The goal was to change consumer behavior by generating more skier days and improve costumer loyalty. The pass is only available as pre-season offer.


Why do you believe crowd funding for a season pass is effective?

The ski pricing regime in Switzerland has been rather rigid in previous years. Crowdfunding was a simple but innovative approach to test whether a high volume of people were willing to buy a highly discounted season pass. From a business perspective, the crowdfunding approach is very interesting, as it limits the business risk you take. You set the revenue target through the given number of sales required for the product to become valid. However, the approach would not have been successful without a very strong and well-planned marketing campaign.

How did the number of passes sold annually in previous years compare to the number of WinterCARD passes sold in its first year?

Prior to the WinterCARD, the season pass was not really an interesting product and we sold less than 2,000 season passes per winter. Now we sell more than 75,000 WinterCARDs in comparison.


Who took advantage of the pass? Where were they from? What age groups did they represent? Were they new or repeat customers?

The majority of passes were directly sold to end-costumers (B2C). The respective marketing campaign was focused on Switzerland, and that is where we sold more than 80% of the WinterCARDs. Another 10% were sold in Germany. Interestingly enough, WinterCARD was purchased in more than 70 countries globally. Next to our core markets (central and western Switzerland), we also gained new customers, particularly from the Greater Zürich Area.

In terms of age groups, we sold passes to all ages, with the age group 35-50 and 50-65 being the most significant groups.

We also sold passes to business partners (B2B). Many local hotel and apartment owners, as well as ski schools bought a stock of passes which they re-sold to their customers.

Did Saas-Fee see any residual benefits as a result of implementing the Winter Card?

I can say that the WinterCARD strongly stimulated the value chain in the destination. Even though we are not vertically integrated like many US ski resorts, the WinterCARD brought many more customers to our destination. Given they spend way less money on skiing, they have more purchasing power for lodging, food, beverages and other products. 

What are the challenges you’ve faced since implementing this program?

The biggest challenge was the entire preparation of the program. Since we did not want to leak the idea, we had to work in a very small and trustworthy team for more than 6 months. The three biggest challenges we faced were:

1.     Preparing a detailed national marketing campaign that was likely the biggest campaign a Swiss Ski Resort has ever done

2.     Setting up a new IT and Accounting System for the Crowdfunding Sale

3.     Preparing the logistics in the destination and on the mountain for a significant increase in the number of skiers
Once the program was in place, it ran smoothly and complaints decreased significantly.

Do you know of other resorts planning on implementing similar programs? What advice would you give them?

Going into this winter, 2017-2018, we have seen a number of similar programs. This has not come as a surprise since we expected the industry to react in this way.

My advice to other resorts implementing similar programs is to really think it through from all angles. For example, the crowdfunding approach works for Saas-Fee because it is far from all major cities. It would not work for a ski resort close to Zürich, as they would be overwhelmed by people on sunny weekends with perfect snow conditions. In Saas-Fee we are limited by the number of hotel beds available.


Does Saas-Fee have anything new planned for the 2017-18 season?

Yes, we do. We are introducing a second, upgraded WinterCard product to the market. While the WinterCARD is a “simple” ski pass, the upgrade, the so-called WinterCARD Gold, will offer significant benefits for customers during the entire holiday trip. Some added features of the WinterCard Gold are free transportation from your home to your hotel in Saas-Fee on public transport, and a 50% discount on ski rentals, lodging and ski tickets from partner ski areas. Overall, the WinterCARD Gold includes more than 15 benefits that are either included or highly discounted with an overall benefit of more than CHF 1,000 per-week of holidays.


WANT TO HEAR MORE FROM Urs zurbriggen?

He'll be speaking indepth about Saas-Fee at his session at EMTS, Innovative Ski Pass Programs. Learn more about Urs's session and his background, as well as others taking the stage at EMTS 9-11 January in Crans-Montana, Switzerland.