“B_sài” means “competition” in Mandarin Chinese. Candace Sherman knows that, and competition is the reason why.
Sherman is the international sales manager for the Aspen Skiing Co., and she’s charged with convincing Australians and Asians to come to Aspen. In recent months, she’s been spending a part of every workday in front of her computer with a headset on, learning Mandarin Chinese through Rosetta Stone language software.
As wealthy international tourists become an increasingly important part of SkiCo’s customer base, and as ski areas across the globe work to attract them, SkiCo is encouraging its employees to improve customer service by learning the languages of visiting skiers from Russia, China, Mexico, Brazil and other nations.
Since earlier this year, SkiCo has offered a Rosetta Stone license to any employee who wants one, and so far, about 30 people across the company have started learning a second language on the company dime. Participating employees work in everything from ticket sales and rental/retail to marketing, and even some ski patrollers participate, said SkiCo spokesman Jeff Hanle.
“As international business has become more important for us, so has this,” Hanle said.
A pilot version of the program started last year in the company’s ski school, where a growing number of visiting Brazilian tourists have begun enrolling their children in recent years.
“If you’re from Brazil and you’re dropping your kid off at ski school, you feel a lot better if someone there speaks Portuguese,” Hanle said.
This year, the program has expanded sharply, and workers from sales executives to lift operators are spending part of their day cramming in a foreign tongue.
A workforce with good foreign language skills is particularly important when tourists from emerging markets like China are visiting, said Kristi Kavanaugh, SkiCo’s director of worldwide sales. First time tourists will likely return to their home countries and spread the word about their Aspen experience, so it had better be a good one.
“As that market begins to develop, we will look at potentially hiring people with those language skills to begin with, but developing China is in its infancy for us,” said Kavanaugh. For now, she said, “We want to make sure we speak the language of our customers.”
Kavanaugh said six members of her sales force are now taking Rosetta Stone courses: Her Canadian sales representative is learning French; her Latin American sales representative is learning Portuguese; and another staff member is learning Russian to better target eastern European tourists. For now, Sherman is the lone SkiCo employee to brave the learning curve of Mandarin Chinese.
“I took Spanish in College, so this is totally new,” she said. “It’s going well — reading and writing the characters is a long way down the road, but Rosetta Stone teaches you phonetically.”
Sherman spends about 30 minutes a day on her Mandarin drills, and she says doing it during the workday keeps her on track.
“You’re less likely to slack off than you would be doing it alone,” she said. “Everyone is supportive of taking the time to do it.”
SkiCo’s Asian marketing efforts focus primarily on large cities like Hong Kong and Beijing, Sherman said. In those places, Mandarin is the most common Chinese dialect.
Despite the fact that many Asian tourists also speak good English, Sherman said she hopes that learning Chinese will demonstrate respect and commitment to the tour companies and other Asian partners that she works to woo on business trips.
“I think it’s going to be useful to show that we’re committed to welcoming their culture and getting to know their culture better and creating a soft landing in Aspen and Snowmass,” she said.
When it comes to luring new foreign customers to Aspen, Sherman said, there’s more than just language proficiency at play. It’s also critical to know a country’s cultural norms and expectations, in order to present a version of Aspen that a given nationality wants to see.
“We try to create a compelling story that’s interesting to that particular market,” she said. “Some people want skiing and powder and the Highlands Bowl, while some markets like the idea of the American west, and of shopping.”