Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Technology woven into the DNA at Vail Resorts - Feb 18

Vail Resorts EpicMix App - Courtesy of Vail Resorts
In the old days of communicating customer service, something so insignificant as a ski lift pass would not really have provided managers with much opportunity. It used to be a scrap of paper, attached to a jacket with a metal or plastic clip, flapping in the wind and getting caught on tree branches and other obstacles, but needing to be visible to lift attendants. However, with modern “smart card” technology, ski resorts all over the world now use lift passes for all manner of conveniences, including automatic access to ski lifts, keeping the pass inside a pocket, and doubling it up as a resort credit card.

An early adopter in the USA was Vail Resorts which has continued to investigate every nuance of smart card technology. “One of our biggest developments for the 2014-15 ski season was the introduction of Express Ticketing,” says Robert Urwiler, Chief Information Officer for Vail Resorts. “Express Ticketing gives our guests the ability to buy tickets on their mobile device right up to the minute that they need them. If they already have ticket media, the product is loaded automatically. If not, we have express lanes set up at ticket windows where guests can quickly pick up their media by simply showing the confirmation bar code on their mobile phone.” Benefits are two-fold. Firstly, it helps optimize ticket window lines by giving people the means to move themselves through the process very quickly. And, secondly, it provides more complete customer information than a resort might get through a traditional ticket window transaction. “In addition to Express Ticketing and other technology feature introductions and improvements across the resorts, we continue to make advancements in the sophistication and use of our CRM and Predictive Analytics capabilities,” Urwiler adds. “The objective of these efforts is to drive more focused and targeted guest interaction across communication channels. We are constantly looking for better ways to engage our past, current, and future customers with targeted and relevant messages delivered at the appropriate time and place.  Ultimately, this helps drive business.”

The radio-frequency enabled Epicmix card is a hands-free season or day pass which can also be linked with a credit card to be used as resort charge for spending while on-mountain. The hard card media can be used year after year, rather than necessitating replacements every season. Furthermore, all hard card media can be linked to the free EpicMix ski app, enabling the user to capture their on-mountain activity and share it with friends and family directly from the app on Facebook and Twitter. EpicMix allows guests to track their vertical feet, days skied, pins earned, Leaderboard status, photos taken by professional on-mountain photographers, race medals earned and even track progress in Ski and Snowboard School. Going a step further, EpicMix introduced two revolutionary brands during the 2014/2015 season – EpicMix Guide and EpicMix Challenges. EpicMix Guide provides customized run itineraries for guests based on location, ability level and desired duration while EpicMix Challenges allows guests to compete against themselves, friends and the community. “We’ve delivered six major releases of EpicMix to our guests including feature sets focused on stats/pins, photo, race, academy, guide, and, recently, challenges,” Urwiler explains. “Challenges allows our guests to set goals for the day, vacation, or season and share the achievement of those goals socially.”

Lindsey Vonn on EpicMix race course - Photo by Jack Affleck, courtesy of Vail Resorts
Epicmixers can share accomplishments individually or chose to share a compilation of their day’s achievements directly to social media from the free EpicMix iOS or Android app. The strategy behind all this has several advantages. “Overall, our business objective for EpicMix is to create an unobtrusive digital companion to our guest’s skiing and riding experience with a focus on recording their on-mountain experiences,” says Urwiler. “This gives our guests the ability to re-live their experiences digitally and to share those experiences socially.  This, in essence, helps to create hundreds of thousands of brand advocates for Vail Resorts on social media while also helping to drive our CRM efforts through a better understanding of guest behavior.”

EpicMix collage by Louise and Simon Hudson
Since the launch of EpicMix in 2010/2011, the innovative idea captured the attention of prominent travel and ski journalists resulting in many articles in magazines and newspapers including the prestigious travel section of the Los Angeles Times, Skiing magazine and Denver’s Huffington Post. Furthermore, the app has secured Vail Resorts coverage in more unusual outlets for a ski company such as Mashable, CNET, Wired, Popular Mechanics, FastCompany, and other tech-focused publications. Stacey Pool, Sr. Director, Digital Experience for Vail Resorts, says that by far the most successful generation of EpicMix has been EpicMix photo, which resonates with every guest, both destination and local. “We’re always watching the different social platforms where our guests seem to be engaging and trying to figure out a way for those guests to share EpicMix content in those platforms,” she adds. Understanding the demographic, target market and appropriate content is crucial to the company’s social media strategy.We want the content to speak to our guest and inspire them to take action, whether that’s engaging with us on these social platforms, sharing our content with others, or clicking through into our sites,” says Pool. The predominant focus in 2015 was on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. “As the different platforms evolve, and there starts to be real-time streaming within some of the new social platforms, we want to adapt our strategy to fill in any possible gaps along the customer journey,” she explains.

EpicMix Photographer at work
With technology use now woven into the DNA of the company, Vail Resorts is recognized world wide as a pioneer in the field of social media marketing, combining indirect marketing with customer service and added value. Ski resorts have traditionally charged for photographic services on the hill and usually don’t provide any action shots. Vail Resorts saw the value in advertising spin-offs of providing photos for free in order to encourage skiers and snowboarders to send out more professional-looking tweets and Facebook photos of themselves. Vail Resorts was also the first ski hill to use its lift pass system as an app. They have created their own resort blogs about EpicMix with information as well as testimonials from consumers. “As a company we are very fortunate to have a tech-savvy CEO who has a real passion for leveraging technology to facilitate a better guest experience while driving our business,” Urwiler concludes. “Our core values include striving to constantly re-imagine all aspects of our business through creative and innovative collaboration. With Rob (Katz) and our entire Executive Team as partners, we will continue to develop advanced CRM and Analytics capabilities, cross-platform digital experiences, and technology-enabled process improvements to ultimately help create an Experience of a Lifetime for every guest that we engage through every stage of the interaction lifecycle.”

And, as Urwiler says, it is not just youthful skiers and riders who are taking advantage of EpicMix in Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone, Breckenridge, Park City, Heavenly, Northstar, Kirkwood, Afton Alps and Mt Brighton. All age groups are enthralled with tracking stats, outdoing previous performances and crowing to their office-bound buddies back home about their skiing experiences. And it is attracting locals as well as tourists. The Epic Pass has also evolved into a very useful and affordable season pass. Offers for locals at Park City, for example, were as low as $579 if bought in advance for the 2015/16 season. The pass would pay for itself in just four days, the advertising said, and give access to nine Vail Resorts. New for the 2014/15 season was the Season Pass Auto Renewal Program, enabling automatic renewal every year while guaranteeing the following season’s lowest price. The program takes a $49 down payment in the spring with the remainder charged in the fall.
Epic Mix pose - Photo by Julia Vandenoever, courtesy of Vail Resorts


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