Vail Resorts’ Katz: New EpicMix application is “best of both worlds”

EpicMix is Vail Resorts’ newest online mobile application for winter sports, and with ski season just around the corner, I asked Rob Katz, Vail Resorts’ CEO, to weigh in on social media and skiing. Here’s our interview.

Let me pick up where we left off the last time we talked. At the end of our interview, I mentioned that I had several family members who haven’t skied and were not interested. And I asked you how I could persuade them. You recommended showing them one of your resorts, which is, in fact, what I did. And now they’re hooked. So, I guess to follow up on that, how do you keep families interested in a mountain resort experience?

It’s great news to hear you and your family are hooked on skiing. At our five world-class resorts, Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Heavenly, we try to offer a variety of family programming and activities for children of all ages — both on and off the snow — to give families the best possible experience at our resorts. Plus, the nature of doing activities together like skiing, snow tubing, ice skating, and attending unique family events like Kidtopia at Keystone Resort gives parents an opportunity to spend time with their kids to create those lasting family vacation memories.

As an avid skier, I can’t wait for the season to begin. When do you expect to open your resorts this year?

Ski season is right around the corner. Keystone Resort opens first on November 5th followed by Breckenridge Resort on Nov. 12, Vail and Heavenly open Nov. 19th and Beaver Creek opens November 24th.

OK, let’s talk about EpicMix, your newest product. Can you describe what it is?

We are very excited to be able to bring EpicMix, a new online and mobile application to Vail Resorts guests this ski season. EpicMix allows Vail Resorts guests, at any of our resorts to effortlessly utilize technology to digitally capture their ski and ride experience and share it with friends and family.

EpicMix is a digital application that guests can access online, at their computer or via a free mobile application that can be downloaded for the iPhone, Android or other smart phone. EpicMix automatically captures the activity of guests throughout each of its resorts, by leveraging Vail Resorts’ state-of-the-art radio frequency (RF) scanners that are being installed at all of the 89 lifts across our five mountain resorts.

An RF-enabled chip embedded in Vail Resorts season passes and PEAKS lift tickets will automatically track guests’ lift rides, calculating vertical feet skied and days on the mountain, and will recognize special achievements and accomplishments by granting guests commemorative, collectible digital pins. EpicMix will have hundreds of available digital pins for a multitude of unique experiences available at each resort.

Who can use it?

EpicMix is accessible to everyone, not just those already familiar with social media and at the end of the day you can log onto EpicMix to check out what you accomplished during your ski day and you can also install the application on your mobile phone and connect your activities to Facebook and Twitter to share your ski experience with your friends online and alert them to where you are skiing on the mountain.

Skiing and snowboarding have always been about sharing your experiences on the mountain and talking with friends and family the great runs you took or remembering a powder day. EpicMix marries the very real “social” experience of skiing and riding with the fun and sense of sharing created by location-based social media, making it accessible to everyone.

I haven’t tried EpicMix yet — I hope to this season in California — but what’s the response to it been so far?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive from both our guests and in the technology and travel media. We’ve heard from technology media that it’s a revolutionary product and it’s like nothing that’s come before it for participation sports. There’s a lot of positive buzz and people are getting excited to try it at Keystone Resort’s opening day on November 5th.

How do you expect EpicMix to change the way we ski and ride?

EpicMix doesn’t change a thing about the way we ski and ride. The basic functionality of EpicMix does not require Vail Resorts’ guests to do anything but ski and ride as they always have. There is nothing to buy, nothing new to wear and no required check-ins with their mobile devices. In fact, a guest may not even notice the RF readers on the mountain

With all the social networks out there, why was there a need for another one? And why limit it to Vail’s resorts?

EpicMix is a first of its kind mobile application that complements other existing social networks like Facebook and Twitter. EpicMix has the ability to track your physical accomplishments, as found in applications such as Nike+ and the share the fun and community of location-based social media found in applications like Gowalla. Also, as currently EpicMix is only available to guests skiing and riding at Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Heavenly resorts. However, we are open to working with other resorts interested in adding this functionality.

As the father of three up-and-coming skiers, I was particularly interested in the kids section of EpicMix. Can you talk about that a little?

The concept of EpicMix and the collecting of digital pins lends itself well to families and kids exploring the mountain. So, we developed a special website for kids under the age of 14, which will allow them to connect with their parents’ accounts, but will have content designed specifically for them and unique pins only kids can earn. The kids’ site also will have special privacy restrictions. Parents will also be able to use EpicMix to track the lift rides of their kids in real time.

Do you have any plans to adapt EpicMix to summer activities, like mountain biking or hiking?

Right now we’re focused on having EpicMix deliver the best possible experience for our guests this ski season. However, we are already looking at ways to enhance the application for our guests for next ski season with features like tracking ski runs or developing on-mountain treasure hunts for kids. And yes, we’re also looking into ways to bring EpicMix into the summer experience at our resorts as well.

Not to play Devil’s advocate, but shouldn’t we be unplugging while we’re on vacation? Doesn’t this kind of defeat the purpose?

Quite the opposite – EpicMix allows guests to enjoy being outdoors and skiing and riding in exactly the same way they always have, without any new gadgets or things to do. But it gives them the option afterwards to check out their accomplishments and share them with family and friends. EpicMix is the best of both worlds.

As you look down the road five or ten years, what’s the future of social media and vacationing? Where do you see this all headed?

People have always enjoyed sharing stories about their travel adventures with friends and family. With new social media applications, it’s getting easier and easier to do that. I think we will continue to see an even greater integration of technology into the vacation experience, to help people capture their special moments. The travel companies that find ways to do that, without intruding on a guests’ time away, will have great opportunities to build terrific guest loyalty.

I wanted to also get a plug in for your Tahoe Snowcial conference in January, where I’ve been invited to speak. Thanks for the invitation, by the way. You’ll be there and you have a pretty impressive lineup of other speakers. Who should consider going to Snowcial, and what can they expect to get out of it?

We’re looking forward to having you at Snowcial and it will be great to see you. Snowcial is a winter festival of technology and snowsports at Heavenly Resort, Jan. 6-9, 2011. Snowcial brings together some of the leading minds in digital marketing who also happen to be passionate skiers and snowboarders. We are hoping this event will be become similar to the Sundance Film Festival of the ski industry where there’s a mix of technology and wintersports including panel discussions, networking and of course skiing. We encourage anyone who is interested in social media and skiing or riding to attend.

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