Vail, the No. 4 company in the InformationWeek 500, has created customer-facing apps that encourage social media posting.
Guests have used Vail Resorts' EpicMix app to make almost 2 million social media posts about their skiing and snowboarding feats, with more than half of the posts last year using free photos from the company. What's just as interesting, though, is how the Web and mobile app forced Vail Resorts IT organization to change. CIO Robert Urwiler and his team now understand an inalienable truth: Customer-facing apps demand a higher level of performance and elegance than the software employees use.
"The stakes are just so much higher when you're dealing directly with consumers--especially in a company where we're selling experience," Urwiler says. Vail Resorts owns seven U.S. ski resorts, plus lodging and real estate businesses.
More than 300,000 guests are active members of EpicMix. They can get stats on how many vertical feet they skied and earn digital pins for feats like riding every chairlift on a mountain in a day. Members can access free images taken by Vail Resorts photographers and easily share photos and data on Facebook.
Because the EpicMix app deals directly with customers, it has pushed Vail's IT team to think more like a commercial software company. That means working closely with the chief marketing officer and her team. Urwiler's using outsourcers much more selectively now, and he's adding people with software vendor experience to his team. And Vail is benchmarking EpicMix against the likes of Facebook and Foursquare in terms of design and ease of use.
It's a sometimes uncomfortable shift in mindset for IT pros. But Urwiler thinks more CIOs and their teams will have to take this journey, as e-commerce, mobile apps, and social media become more important. "There's this emerging competency around customer-facing systems that's just not something that IT is used to doing," Urwiler says. "And there's this emerging partnership with the CMO that's ultra-important."
Vail launched EpicMix for the 2010-2011 skiing and snowboarding season. The first year, people got only the data, pins, and social features. But the app really took off on Facebook last year when Urwiler's team added free photos. Photographers offer to take pictures of skiers and snowboarders at scenic spots atop the mountain, scanning their RFID-enabled tickets so they can access the photos later online. Guests have to pay for a print, but posting a photo to Facebook is free, generating hundreds of thousands of social media mentions.
The system relies on an IT infrastructure Vail's team put in over a number of years. First, it RFID-enabled lift tickets for season ticket holders and loyalty card members. That initiative let staffers check passes with handheld scanners without requiring guests to take their passes out of their pockets--convenient, and also a good way to stop pass cheats. IT equipped the lift areas with Wi-Fi for the scanners.
Ski now, check app later
Later on, IT Wi-Fi-enabled every chairlift line on the mountain and put an RFID reader at each one to record when a guest passes by. The data is sent continuously over the resorts wireless network to Vail's data center, where software calculates vertical feet--if you went up lift A, then lift B, it tallies the feet from the top of A to the bottom of B.
The new infrastructure hasn't been without problems. All of the photos and data taxed the network and data center last year, causing delays in calculating and recording data at peak times. That's a problem if you're a guest gunning for, say, the Epic Conqueror pin for riding every lift in one day and want to check which ones you have left. More important, a feature that lets you show your friends and family where you are on the mountain isn't helpful if it shows you at a lift you left an hour ago.
"If people don't get the pin or the photo doesn't come through, we hear about it," Urwiler says. "As soon as you say it's going to be part of the experience, it has to work, and it has to be of the same caliber as the rest of the services we offer on the mountain."
This off-season, Vail is adding networking bandwidth to handle the bigger loads. It's also adding processing capacity in its leased data center, since Vail's data center must constantly run calculations to see if the latest piece of data qualifies the guest for a new pin. People check the app all day via smartphones (yes, on the chairlift), so the more real time it is, the more fun it is, Urwiler says.