Can social media improve customer service? Vail Resorts discovers the answer one run at a time

When it comes to using technology to improve the travel experience, Vail Resorts is known as one of the most progressive resort companies in America. I’ve interviewed CEO Rob Katz several times about Vail’s EpicMix initiative, and RFID-enabled ticket system that integrates with social media. Version 2 of EpicMix goes live next month, and I thought I’d check in with him to see the progress.

Can you describe what EpicMix is, for those of us who don’t ski or use social media?

EpixMix is a way for someone who is skiing or riding our mountains to seamlessly and effortlessly digitally capture their experience. There’s a lot of research that shows the anticipation and the memory of the vacation is more important than the enjoyment of the vacation. EpixMix is a way to capture that memory and share it with friends and family.

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What did EpicMix do for the resorts? I imagine you got some valuable data from it, right?

We, like many destinations, track who you are and where you stay – we have a customer database. But what this added was where you were skiing. There’s some marketing benefit to that. But whether you rode one chair or another isn’t huge CRM information.

But we’ve made a deeper connection. You can go back to our website and look at that information when it’s over, and that allows us to really expand the relationship with the guest and gives us more opportunities to communicate with that guest.

What kind of feedback did you get from your guests after launching the first version of EpicMix?

It was hugely positive. We weren’t sure what the reaction would be. We thought it would have some applicability with some folks who were into social media. But we saw engagement across all age and income demographics.

People would come up to me and say they were upset because some of their vertical feet weren’t counted. It was just further confirmation that this was something that could connect people. It was the proof – the tall take of the big fish. People want that with skiing.

How did EpicMix affect the way you handle customer service?

EpicMix is about deepening the relationship with a customer. It used to be you skied the whole day and then you left. Now you know where you skied, what the weather was like, and your achievements – and it’s all in one place. To us, that is a game changer. But over time, there are some customer service benefits.

Like what?

It’s a massive customer feedback engine. We get to see all the posts, all the photos. We get to see what people are doing and where they’re going. Last year we had 300,000 Facebook posts out of EpicMix.

That data is of more interest to the guest. We wanted to make it as easy and seamless as possible. We’re trying to make it Apple-esque – easy, well designed, no hassle.

So people will want to come back.

Absolutely. They want to get more vertical feet. They’re sharing that data. Those 300,000 Facebook posts amounted to 30 million impressions – they’re becoming evangelists for us.

Now if you could only do something about the coverage on your mountains …

It’s a challenge. Sprint has the iPhone now, and historically, it’s had the best coverage. So we’re hoping that it will improve.

How have you upgraded EpicMix since last year?

The biggest single improvement by far is photo.

We’ve thrown out the photo vacation model. When you go on vacation, people take pictures of you and you can purchase them. What we did was say, ‘Listen, almost every person who comes is going to have a lift ticket with an RFID chip. Why don’t we have someone scan the pass, take a picture and download it into their EpicMix account?’

And then that photo is free. If you want a hi-res photo for printing, you pay $19.95, and you get to keep the file.

Why the emphasis on photo-sharing?

If we can take a photo, and you’re willing to share that photo online, that’s great advertising for us.

Vail Resorts sponsored a social media conference called Snowcial last year, where a lot of folks talked about the future of social media and the ski industry. How did Snowcial help you focus on the future — and what do you think the future holds for social media and skiing?

Snowcial is about demonstrating what you’re doing and getting immediate feedback. There’s no question that we take in a lot from Snowcial. I think the human interaction is critical.

I would expect that we will on an annual basis have significant upgrades to EpicMix. Will it be the iPhone 5 or the iPHone 4s? The first year was the breakthrough. The photo is a breakthrough. There will be incremental features and functionality.

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