Bringing Digital Innovation to the Mountain
Vail Resorts has been a leader in integrating RFID technology with its business on the ski mountain.
In today’s rapidly changing world, traditional industries have been forced to adapt their business and operating models because of the increasing prevalence of new technologies, including internet, cloud and mobile platforms. Vail Resorts, a public company that owns and operates a portfolio of premier mountain resorts, including Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Park City, and Whistler Blackcomb, has been an example of a company in one of these traditional industries that has undergone a digital transformation to stay competitive.
Bringing RFID Technology to the Mountain
RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) technology has been implemented in many industries, such as in Retail for tracking inventory through a supply chain. In 2008, Vail Resorts announced it would be using RFID-enabled identification technology in ski pass cards and implementing an “easy scan” system at its many lifts, bringing this RFID technology onto the ski mountain.  Vail Resorts partnered with Zebra Technologies to create a system that provided instant identification of ski pass holders through skiers’ coats without the need for skiers to physically pull out and scan printed lift passes. Additionally, the cards featured a Unique ID (UID) serial number that could not be duplicated or altered, which greatly reduced forgery of lift passes.  This technology allowed Vail Resorts to cut down on the number of staff required at the lifts as well as reduced potential lost revenue from forgeries. For guests, this technology brought more convenience and less wait time, leading to a more enjoyable experience on the mountain and creating additional customer value.
EpicMix: Taking RFID to the Next Level
As consumers participated ever increasingly in social media platforms and with growing mobile application technologies, Vail Resorts contemplated ways to better connect with guests to enhance the vacation experience and to capture incremental value from the guests. In 2010, the Company unveiled EpicMix, an online and mobile application that allowed guests “…to effortlessly utilize technology to digitally capture their ski and ride experience and share it with friends and family.”  The digital application was able to leverage the existing RF technologies embedded in hard-card ski passes and installed on lift scanners to capture the activity of guests throughout their time on the mountain, allowing for a much more personalized experience.  The app allows users to track their vertical feet, lift rides and days on the mountain, to check out weather and grooming conditions of specific runs, and it recognizes special accomplishments by awarding commemorative digital pins. Guests can then share their data or stats on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, can create private chats with groups of Facebook friends, and are alerted when Facebook friends enter the resort. 
“EpicMix takes the fun of playing and sharing online and marries it with the very real experience of skiing and riding…EpicMix has the ability to track your physical accomplishments…and then combine it with the community experience of location-based social media…” –Rob Katz, CEO and Chairman of Vail Resorts
Today, EpicMix has grown to include a whole array of interactive components, including EpicMix Photo, EpicMix Time, EpicMix Challenges and EpicMix Academy and EpicMix Racing:
- EpicMix Time – users view and compare real-time lift waits using crowd-sourced Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals, and with recently integrated GPS technology, guests can see and share their location on the trails
- EpicMix Photo – professional photographers stationed throughout the mountain identify and pair guests with their photos based on RFID, which guests can then access and share through their app
- EpicMix Challenges – guests can compete with friends and family
- EpicMix Academy – users track their ski school progress and share their accomplishments
- EpicMix Racing – for the advanced skiers, compare times on racing courses to Olympic gold medalist, Lindsey Vonn 
Not only has EpicMix encouraged more skiing and driven increased lift ticket sales through the collection of pins and tracking and sharing of days skied with friends, but also it has served as Vail Resorts’ own system of free advertising and marketing as users share information with their friends, creating a new, more personalized way to reach consumers. 
Additional Opportunities & Potential Concerns of Digital Technology
Through the implementation of its RF technology, Vail Resorts has been able to collect a significant amount of data on its visitors and aggregate this across its portfolio of mountains, from number of visits and length of time on a particular mountain to patterns with shopping/dining and staying at its retail and lodging components associated with the mountains.  While there are potential areas for expansion to create additional value to both guests and the Company by integrating its business on mountain with retail and lodging, such as providing guests up to date wait times at restaurants or allowing guests to order snow gear or equipment direct from its retail stores, there are many who have voiced concerns over right to privacy and just how much data is being collected and tracked. 
 PRNewswire: New Zebra RFID Card Printers Help Vail Resorts Improve Skier and Snowboarder Experience: http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/new-zebra-rfid-card-printers-help-vail-resorts-improve-skier-and-snowboarder-experience-65153012.html
 ESPN: RFID Use Raises On-Slope Privacy Concerns: http://www.espn.com/action/news/story?id=5810585
 Vail Resorts Press Release: Vail Resorts Announces EpicMix™ a New Online and Mobile Application, Allowing Skiers and Riders a Seamless and Effortless Way to Digitally Capture and Share Their Mountain Experience: http://news.vailresorts.com/corporate/vailresorts/vail-resorts-announces-epicmix-new-online-and-mobile-application-allowing-skiers-and-riders-seamless-and-effortless-way-to-digitally-capture-and-share-their-mountain-experience.htm
 EpicMix: How It Works: https://www.epicmix.com/How-It-Works.aspx#epicmix
 The Washington Post: Tracking How Much, Often You Ski: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/tracking-how-much-often-you-ski/2011/01/28/ABCLF9G_story.html
 Barron’s: Vail Resorts’ CEO: Transforming the Business of Skiing: http://www.barrons.com/articles/vail-resorts-ceo-transforming-the-business-of-skiing-1416023916
Student comments on Bringing Digital Innovation to the Mountain
Thanks for the interesting post!! Although I have seen the use of RFID technology in lift passes for a long time, I have never seen the operators actually use the data. I think it is a great way to reduce the waiting times at lifts and reduce the number of people on slopes (under the assumption that they spread out more looking at the app). It can potentially also decrease the number of accidents, when the slopes are less crowded.
Another application could be to use the app for off slope skiing with avalanche warning systems and GPS tracking, if someone gets lost.
Interesting article. I have used apps to track my progress down the mountain before and I can attest that seeing my runs, how fast I was going, and seeing every run I have taken added to the experience. Plus having the ability to track the entire groups movements helped with coordinating where everyone is for planning purposes. Having used a similar technology on a group scale the data generated on a larger scale could have significant impact on improving ski resort operations.
Thank you Caroline for an interesting article – I’m an avid skier so very excited to see the new experiences RFID technology will provide to skiers. I’m wondering whether the company can make these experiences not one-time experiences, but ongoing ones? For example, creating photo albums and records of skiing in every trip, and customers can collect the memories and records over time? These efforts might help the company to retain the customers for a long term. I’m also curious how this technology can potentially be applied to other industries as well. For example, amusement park like Disney Land can also apply the technology and change the experiences for the customers?
Cool article Caroline. As an active skier, I am very curious about how technology will impact the experience. Reading you article about RFID technology that Vail is using, I am struck by the endless possibilities that RFID technology and passive GPS data from smart-phones can bring to the skiing experience.
Particularly interesting from my perspective would be efforts by Vail and other mountains to communicate aggregate usage data to skiers on the mountain as a way to influence behavior during runs and minimize many of the pain points of skiing today. For instance, could Vail provide up to the minute wait times at each of its lifts to incentive skiers to make their way towards underutilized lifts to minimize wait times. Could they display current remaining capacity at restaurants on the mountain to allow skiers to optimize meal decisions. Finally, could they track the amount of skiiers on the mountain and offer dynamically priced “rest of day” lift tickets to (local) skiers on days when the mountain is being underutilized. Seems like all of this information could go a long way towards reducing bottlenecks on the mountain!
Nice article, Caroline! In addition to the behavioural influences and safety benefits highlighted in some of the comments above, I sense an opportunity to increase the resorts ability to drive safety through their analysis of the data collected. Skiers whose progress down a particular run is too fast may receive a warning or have their access to lifts curtailed following repeated offences. This would reduce collision risk materially, something I have witnessed all too often in Europe.
Thanks Caroline for the interesting post – I did not know EpicMix existed but can’t wait to use it on my next trip to a Vail resort. I would be interested to learn if this technology could mitigate some of the impacts of loss of cell service on the mountain. Perhaps at each lift there could be a station available where skiers could search for their friends on the mountain by name or phone number, and see the results from RF technology on a screen? In my experience this can be a big issue on the slopes, especially if skiers of different levers are skiing together.
I am a big fan of the EPIC pass and have been going to Utah and Colorado for a few years. I have witnessed the friction-less experience of this Technology!
Furthermore, I was fairly unaware of the application and the interesting features you mentioned in your article. I can’t help but to wonder if Vail Resorts should emphasize the friction-less experience more by highlighting the kind of Technology they use at resorts.