Sam von Trapp is a self-described "kid from the woods," but turning that connection and fascination with nature into a realistic and profitable business idea never occurred to him. The son of Johannes von Trapp and grandson of Maria von Trapp (the inspiration for Fox's famous 1965 movie The Sound of Music), the now 37-year-old Sam returned to the family's resort and Austrian-style lodge in Stowe, Vermont, in December 2008.
As a child, Sam spent a lot of time in the woods—whether cross-country skiing, clearing mountain bike trails, or just exploring the area surrounding the Trapp Family Lodge—often provided him with amazing experiences with nature throughout his life that he would then tell his family about upon returning home. When he started sharing those experiences with consumers, via email newsletters, a blog, and social networks, the level of interest and engagement for the family business astounded him.
Sam spent several years as a ski instructor and model before returning to take over as the vice president of special projects. Along with sister Kristina, they were taking over many managing responsibilities from their father, who had handled them for 35-plus years.
In April of 2009, Sam recognized that the resort's digital presence was lacking and reached out to Rich Nadworny, a Vermont-based digital marketing strategist and owner at Digalicious, who also happened to be a cross-country skier. Noting that most vacations are now researched and booked online, Nadworny recommended Sam and the resort experiment with online and social media marketing for the lodge, partly because of the low cost of entry but also because while the resort had an older, famous name, it also included many new features and the new leadership.
"It's my belief that every organization and brand has a lot of personal stories to tell," Nadworny says. "The ones who tell them really well are the ones who end up winning online and in social media because people can build a personal connection to them. It all stems from the fact that people don't really want relationships with brands, they want relationships with other people."
Whenever Nadworny would speak with Sam early on, he'd recognize how excited Sam was about the different experiences of nature but also how great of a storyteller he was. Nadworny wanted to turn that enthusiasm for the outdoors into something that customers could experience, both while at the resort and during their research phase. It began with Sam's stories being emailed in a newsletter, which garnered a significant number of responses and correspondence, most impressively from people who had never even visited the resort but were familiar with the von Trapp name from The Sound of Music. So they expanded the resort's digital presence on a blog, Twitter and Facebook. They also created targeted Facebook ads for the lodge and featuring the family name. And the emails and reservations flowed in.
While Sam was not willing to share specific numbers because of multiple other projects the resort launched around the same timeframe, he does say that the social presence gave the lodge a "significant bump in occupancy, most importantly from the types of customers who wanted to be there and then come back. What it really did was give us a two-way dialogue with our customers."
One story of particular interest focused on Sam's late-night run-in with a violent owl. As he was clearing a new mountain biking trail, an owl swooped in and swatted Sam multiple times for getting too close to his nest. When he shared this story on Facebook and the blog, people responded en masse to talk about their own encounters with owls and to comment on Sam's experience.
"Every time I go into the woods, I look forward to having an amazing experience," Sam says. "But recognizing that those experiences were actually marketable for the resort was so exciting for me. The fact that I could snap a picture or email folks to let them know what I'm seeing and recognizing that was the kind of personalization people enjoyed was amazing to me."
From the incoming responses to the stories they were telling, half of the people had been to the resort, but the rest had never experienced it. For those new customers, Nadworny also wanted to increase the chances that they would actually run into a von Trapp. Thus was born the "Meet the Trapp's" package, a history lesson where guests could meet one of the family members and hear their story. There was initial hesitancy from Sam, in doing something he says his father most likely never would have experimented with. But as a newer leader, Johannes basically told him that if he was willing to do the work, the family would support it. And they couldn't have picked a better time, with the original musical production of The Sound of Music celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2009, which included a plethora of media attention.
"My sister and I wanted to not only recognize and cherish that history, but connect with more of our guests today," von Trapp says. "Now I can say that I actually set aside time to reply to people on email and I've developed an ongoing dialogue with many of them. That to me is what we're all about. At first the family was not sure if social media was the best method to reach people, as we feared it would be too cold and impersonal, but it has enabled us to draw more people into our world."
The lodge hired a full-time social media manager in April 2010 to monitor their presence across these different mediums, post updates, photos, events, sweepstakes and more. Sam even adds that his father, while not the most tech-savvy of the family, has taken time to respond individually to guests and to make that personal connection that many of their guests value.
"What really surprised me most about all of this was that the types of people who were consuming this content and in turn visiting the resort were the types of people who would come to our resort and have a positive experience," von Trapp says. "We connected with the right clientele and people knew exactly what they were going to get before they even showed up. That in turn has led to many repeat visitors, which is what every business wants as opposed to people who don't like what you offer."
It's safe to say that Maria and even Johannes never would have envisioned the resort connecting with customers via these networks, but that's the beauty of technology.