For many years, resort captains have been slow and steady with investment in technology. The behind-the-scenes stuff — wireless networks, point-of-sale and lodging reservation systems, online ticket sales — typically was overshadowed by flashy projects involving new chairlifts and terrain.
The coronavirus turbo-charged ski resort interest in decidedly unsexy technology, which is now a top priority. After a year of resorts doing everything they could to limit crowding with reservations, early purchasing, touchless retail interactions and mobile apps, the 2020-21 season will mark the moment the U.S. resort industry leaped into the modern world.
“We always had these plans for investment in technology, but COVID accelerated everything,” said Erik Forsell, head of marketing for Alterra Mountain Co., the Denver-based operator of 15 ski destinations. “We took a multiyear process and did it in like five months.”
The embrace of technology spread to every demographic and every industry during the pandemic. Shoppers who maybe were reticent about online purchasing quickly learned the ropes of e-commerce. The ski resort industry rode that wave with innovations that will remain a fixture in the ski experience.
“We see this as the new normal,” said John Lilley, who spent seven years building the buy-early technology that anchors Vail Resorts’ entire business plan. He’s now the chief information officer at Aspen Skiing Co.
Lilley said Vail Resorts “is probably 10 years ahead” of the resort industry in technological investment. So it’s not surprising that perhaps the most impressive technological feat last year came from Vail Resorts. With only a few months’ head start, the company rolled out a custom-built reservation system for all its 34 North American ski areas. By the end of the 2020-21 season, that system had booked many millions of reservations.
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Shortly after Vail Resorts closed all its North American ski areas in mid-March 2020, the company started developing a reservation system for the coming season.
The resort operator had leading technology in place, with a system that integrates newly acquired ski areas into the operator’s custom-built software and operating networks. That integration helps skiers use the same pass at all the company’s 37 ski areas. And it puts resort managers at all those hills on the same platforms, enabling efficiency across the vast Vail Resorts network.
With a team of data engineers capable of creating software, Vail Resorts chose to build its own reservation system. The company already had the web portal — epicpass.com — where skiers have accounts to purchase ski passes. Those engineers saw an opportunity to use the existing site and accounts for reservations.
“We inventoried what we had and it felt achievable,” said Vail Resorts’ Chief Information Officer Tim April, who has spent 20 years with the company building its tech network.
When the company opened the reservation system in mid-November, Vail Resorts’ data engineers and software designers knew the demand would be huge. Too big for their pass-buying website. That’s where they did get some outside help, using a company called Queue It to create a virtual waiting room. In the first days of bookings, that waiting room had tens of thousands of skiers waiting to reserve their days for the season.
April’s team worked in what he called an “IT war room” to build the reservation system that allowed resorts to adjust booking numbers based on available terrain and national, state and local COVID restrictions. The reservation system had to work for skiers who wanted to feel safe from crowding as well as give them access to as much skiing as possible with their already-purchased passes, April said.
It was a rapid few months of urgent innovation with just about every part of the company at the design table.
“This required a ton of coordination, with operations, marketing, data analytics and IT on the software and infrastructure side,” April said. “Getting all those different teams together to work on really rapid innovation, that was pretty great.”
Other resorts followed with custom-built reservation systems, including, for example, booking parking at Powdr Corp.’s Copper Mountain and ski days at Alterra’s Winter Park.
It’s not just the heavyweights who championed tech in 2021. Smaller ski hills, which have been slowly moving toward e-commerce, online ticket sales and rental reservations and mobile apps, bridged the digital divide last season.
“It was either adopt advance sales and touchless transactions, or deal with chaos from the parking lot to the restrooms,” said Rick Kahl, the editor of Ski Area Management magazine. “Many, many smaller areas opted for tech. And despite their worries over the learning curve and poor execution and insufficient training, it all went very well just about everywhere.”
Kahl, who has watched the national ski resort industry for decades and is about to retire, has dozens of stories of small, independent hills that went big on tech in 2020-21. The four-lift Bluewood ski area in Washington state, for example, invested $350,000 in software and online sales and had a record season, with about a third of its lift tickets sold online.
Sunlight Mountain Resort had the busiest season in its history and sold 80% of its daily lift tickets online, compared to an average of about 30% in recent years.
And the Glenwood Springs resort had no lines for lift tickets as a result of better e-commerce technology, said Sunlight spokesman Troy Hawks.
“Technology saved the day in many ways for us,” said Hawks, describing how Sunlight overhauled its online sales system to both drive more skiers toward early sales and give the resort more ability to limit capacity. “This past season technology leapt to the top of the priority list for many operators. I suspect at some ski areas marketing and communications technology have gained a more permanent seat in the future capital planning meetings.”
Kahl heard a resort industry insider call the tech progression “freeze, unfreeze and refreeze.”
“Systems had been frozen in place for many operators, and the pandemic unfroze those systems,” Kahl said. “People had to be flexible, innovative. But before long, systems will ‘refreeze’ again, and be locked in. Given the positive experiences people had with tech and e-commerce, they will surely be part of the resort planning and purchasing process going forward.”
Lilley, with Aspen Skiing, has spent his career cajoling ski industry captains into tech. It hasn’t been easy. Longtime resort leaders can intuitively see the value in a lift improvement, a terrain expansion or a new eatery. A million bucks for an upgrade to a customer relationship management system is a harder sell, he said.
“The pandemic changed that. It forced ski areas to lean into tech more and invest in tech more and it really prioritized speed to market last summer as everyone raced to get all this new tech rolled out before the ski season,” Lilley said.
And the ski resort business has so much friction. Parking, finding the rental shop, waiting to try on boots and skis, waiting for tickets and then finally loading a chair. With new tech, skiers can have a parking spot reserved and their skis and boots waiting for them in their hotel. They also can wave their phones under kiosk scanners to get their pre-ordered, radio-frequency chipped passes.
Last season, Aspen Skiing flipped the percentage of skiers who pre-ordered all their tickets and rental gear with the percentage of skiers who waited in line on the day they arrived at the hill. (The private company does not reveal numbers, but in the past, Lilley said, “way more” Aspen skiers waited to buy tickets and rent gear when they arrived.)
“We now have customers building that relationship with us in advance,” Lilley said. “That’s a huge deal and the pandemic accelerated that.”
Alterra’s overhauled Ikon App allows skiers to order and pay for food at some resort restaurants over their phones from chairlifts. The app also lets skiers hold places in some resort lift lines without actually waiting in line. A new feature for next season gives skiers a way to compare their on-hill numbers — ski days, vertical feet and all that — with a select group of pals, not the whole stable of Ikon passholders.
Vail Resorts is integrating passholder discounts across all its operations, including rentals, retail and dining. Last year the company offered visitors a chance to rent their equipment online or on their mobile phones and then have it delivered to their condos and hotel rooms. The program was very popular, April said, and will become an option across all its resort rental shops.
Both operators are tinkering with mobile-friendly kiosks that allow skiers to use their phones to pick up pre-ordered tickets and passes, eliminating the need to stand in a ticket-window line.
All these new upgrades, designed to keep people safe in a pandemic but also reducing the hassles of a ski day, are here to stay. They have to. Skiers expect it now, April said.
Where sometimes new digital products require a bit of cajoling to get users onboard, the pandemic forced a sweeping adoption curve of technology by homebound, locked-down users.
“Everyone became a digital native almost overnight,” April said. “That was the big unlock and big ‘aha! moment’ for me, this massive adoption of using technology for everything but then the flip side of that is that this now becomes the expectation.”
And now the resort industry must deliver.
“I think this momentum and technological investment will continue now that we’ve seen the benefits,” Forsell said. “We learned on the fly this year and we built all these intuitive systems and they worked. Why wouldn’t they? You see all these things in other parts of our lives so why shouldn’t we do it for skiing?”