Ski resorts harness the power of social media

The term 'ski resort' probably evokes images of log cabins, wood-burning fires and rustic décor – perhaps the antithesis of Twitter, iPhones and Wi-Fi – but today, these once-Arcadian enclaves are transforming into the social media hubs. From the rolling hills of Stratton, Vermont to the steep inclines of Vail, Colorado, ski resorts across the country are harnessing the power of social media.

So, just what does a mountain stand to gain from a Tweet or a mobile app? The dream of any business: a larger, more loyal, more satisfied consumer base.

A deeper, more memorable travel experience

So much of a vacation is the memory of it – and photos play an important role in shaping that memory. Over time, the endless lines, the overcooked food, the curmudgeon airline hostesses slowly fade – but the photos are framed, relived and remembered.

With this in mind, Vail Resorts (which owns six of the most popular ski resorts in the country: Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Heavenly and Northstar) launched EpicMix, a social media app that enables visitors to document and share their vacation activities. 

Vail Communications Director Amy Kemp describes EpicMix as “a revolutionary way for skiers and snowboarders to capture their vital information of their ski day or week or season.”

Here's how it works: Professional photographers, scattered across the mountain, document scenic photos of skiers and boarders. These images then automatically go to the visitors' online account accessible via desktop and mobile. So visitors can then easily share these images.There's no need to wait in a long line or deal with a bulky CD-rom.

And here’s the best part: EpicMix is friendly to the less tech savvy; it doesn't even require a smartphone! Instead everything is tracked through their lift ticket. While smartphones and cameras can detract from the purity of the ski and board experience by prompting visitors to stop, dig through their pockets and pose for photos, EpicMix enables visitors consistently flow through their run down the mountain.

EpicMix even integrates with Facebook and Twitter to automate status updates. That way, visitors can easily share stats, photos and accomplishments with friends and family, easily, conveniently – and hands free. In addition to its photo-sharing features, the app has a foursquare-esque capacity to reward customers for exploring new areas of the resort.

In 2010 alone, roughly 100,000 guests created EpicMix accounts.

Indeed, most customers are satisfied with the EpicMix Vail experience. Sean Brownlee, an avid Vail skier says, “I have really enjoyed my experience with Epic Mix, not always perfect lift history but my pass is under my coat, close to my iPhone. My pics were always there [in my account]. Now we can share our photos for free and buy them reasonably.”

Similarly, another skier, Davis Murane agrees it’s a great addition but says EpicMix can cause tourists to opt for better photos instead of better ski conditions. He says, “It’s great except it takes away the spirit because some people now make decisions based on vertical feet not best snow.”

Viral Marketing

At the Cable Communicators 2009 Forum Vail CEO Rob Katz said, "Video sells our product incredibly well – and it’s a huge differentiator for our vacation versus almost any other vacation your going to take."

One of skiers’ favorite things is to watch ski videos -- snarkly dubbed ‘ski porn’ -- because they capture such extreme ski conditions (steep inclines, snow flying around) and advanced tricks – and while out of reach for the majority of skiers, these images still ignite an adrenaline rush in potential visitors to book a visit and test their own potential on these same slopes.

In the past, ski resorts struggled to find a solid video-sharing platform. Magazines and tourist pamphlets were out for obvious reasons – and emails were limiting and ineffective in reaching new customers and a broad target market – but Facebook provides a stable platform and wide customer base to share high quality videos. Thanks to Facebook, in just one post, just one click of the mouse, a video can literally go viral.

Not only does social media amplify the audience – it also provides metrics. Sugarloaf Communications Manager Ethan Austin explains, "With Facebook it’s easy to judge how effective our content is, since we're able to see exactly how many times a piece of content is shared by other people.”

The resort also uses social media as a platform to connect directly with the consumer. Jackson Hole Communications Manager Zahan Billimoria says, “A large part of social media is telling our own story, in our own words. It allows us to communicate with the consumer directly, without any media filters.”

Jackson Hole is currently the number one ski resort in terms of total page views on YouTube – a success which Billimoria says is directly accredited to the resort telling their story through videos on social media.

Maintaining a year round clientele

At Sugar Loaf, social media is a powerful force in generating and maintaining a year-round clientele. Ethan Austin explains, "Social media provides a channel for us to communicate directly to our guests 365 days a year."

Similarly, Vail Communications Director Amy Kemp says, “Social media provides us with a powerful and constant way to connect with our guests year-round…We’ve found that they are eager to connect to our resorts, as well as to each other to fuel their passion for skiing and snowboarding in the winter, as well as mountain biking, hiking and outdoor activities in the summer.”

Steve Krcmar, Mammoth Social Media Director, echoes these remarks. He says, “Come Easter or so, most forget about Mammoth until the following winter – via social media, we’ve showed them just how beautiful and fun it is in the summer and fall.”

Krcmar elaborates, “It sounds cliché but a photo is worth a 1000 words. With email, some guests don’t even see images.” Via social media they can see and actually visualize what they are missing during an off-season when they wouldn’t traditionally visit. Those images and videos function as part of the adrenaline rush to plan a trip.

Indeed, many visitors gravitate toward social media to share their experience – but they also use social media as an activist platform, voicing their complaints on new fees and changes. Devout Mammoth visitor Josh Stern says, "It's always fun to share your experience. But, I was drawn to the page so I could voice my opinion about charging for parking at the Village."

Safety and Weather Updates

Fall 2010 at Stratton, a female skier took a slip on the slopes. She needed ski patrol assistance and live-tweeted the entire experience. In the end, she was fine and unharmed – but Twitter played a critical role in alerting ski patrol of her need for help – and evolved into a humorous, almost-snarky account of her wipe out and recovery.

While Stratton declined to release the name of the Tweeter-in-distress, Stratton Mountain Resort Social Media Director Nazli Kfoury says, "I ended up in a charming dialogue with her. She had nothing to say but kind, funny and encouraging things about Stratton’s ski patrolmen and social media platform.”

Many also turn to social media for weather updates Krcmar says Mammoth visitors turn to social media to request both short-term and long-term weather updates.

The Stratton Foundation's Disaster Relief Fund raised an impressive $422,000 in the wake of Hurricane Irene. Stratton leveraged social media to help raise awareness of the foundation. Strengthening Customer Loyalty

Skiing and snowboarding have always been social sports – so it’s a natural evolution for skiers and snowboarders to connect virtually to capture and share their ski day, accomplishments, feats and highlights with friends and family.

Vail Communications Director Amy Kemp says, “Everything we do centers around providing our guests with ‘an experience of our lifetime.’ EpicMix and all of our social media strategies and tactics are all tied to our mission and our goal to deliver an exceptional experience to every employee and every guest.”

Stratton Communications Coordinator Nazli Kfoury elaborates on how social media breeds stronger customer loyalty. She says, "Social media has strengthened Stratton customer loyalty. For each person who likes, comments on, shares or retweets a post – on their own volition – there is a captive group of their friends, interested and invested in what their friends post, a group we may not have reached without the benefit of social media."

Attracting All Ages

Kfoury explains, “A parks video might attract a younger demographic and an album celebrating our 50th anniversary may speak to an older crowd, yet everyone seems to comment and react to both, regardless of age. Stratton and a passion for skiing are the common denominators.

Ultimately, social media is like a photo album or a post-card. It’s a channel to share a story. And while the platform itself is increasingly interactive, engaging, viral and ever-evolving, the story itself – that of the family vacation – is timeless.