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July 2011

Guests on the Go

As mobile devices continue their invasion, smart resorts are taking advantage of the new medium in many ways.

Written by Katie Bailey | 0 comment

If a futurist had told you in 2000 that we would all be watching movies and turning on our cars with cell phones within 10 years, would you have believed them?

Today, it seems like almost anything is possible with a smartphone: all the major cable companies offer mobile on-demand programming, and Nissan has an app that practically lets you drive your car from your desk. What seemed like Jetsons stuff a decade ago is now a daily reality for many. Smartphones continue to gain market share against traditional cell phones. And the mobile technology space continues to expand; Apple’s introduction of the iPad in 2010 has revolutionized computing and continues to redefine the mobile space.

As a mountain-based resort operation, what do these evolutions in the digital sphere mean to you? Do you need your own app? Should you have a mobile site? And what the heck is Gowalla, anyway?

Whether or not you need a “mayor” of your resort (more on that in a bit), mobile is a media space worth your time and attention. It’s no longer the exclusive domain of the young. Now, 30- to 49-year-olds are increasingly using the more sophisticated features of their phones, a study from Pew Research found last summer. The study of over 2000 American adults found that this demo is increasingly taking photos with their mobile phones (83%), recording video (39%) and accessing the web (43%).

Overall, market research company Nielsen found in November 2010 that 28% of U.S. mobile subscribers now have smartphones, up from 21% in the fourth quarter of 2009. The same study found that 41% of new mobile phone acquirers chose smartphones over standard phones, up from 35% the quarter prior. In short: mobile’s big, and getting bigger fast.

Skiers are an ideal target market for mobile and social media initiatives, says Mike Slone, interactive director, Vail Resorts. They tend to be relatively affluent, and thus able to afford the more expensive phones and data plans that go with them, and are social creatures, already entrenched in a culture of story sharing. Plus, they love data: weather forecasts, runs opened, trails groomed.

Mobile marketing opportunities have expanded rapidly in the past two years, creating what can be a bewildering landscape for marketers. Here we break down the most important mobile media trends right now and how resorts are using them to engage guests.

The most obvious access point for a marketer looking to go mobile is to develop a mobile site or branded application. The appeal of this for a mountain resort is clear: skiers and snowboarders like to know what they’re in for when planning a day on the mountain, and may base their decision on weather, grooming or available terrain.

When Mt. Rose in Tahoe decided to enter the mobile web and app landscape in 2010, it was a decision based on pure common sense—study of the resort’s web analytics indicated that more and more of’s visitors were accessing the site from their mobile phones. The resort had a basic mobile site at the time, but last summer decided to reskin it to look good on three of the most popular mobile platforms—iPhone, Android and Blackberry—and to launch an iPhone app to improve the mobile experience even further.

The app hit the Apple App Store on January 8, 2011, and accrued approximately 2,000 downloads by late January, Kayla Anderson, Mt. Rose PR and online manager, tells SAM.

The app features standard information, such as conditions (resort and road), terrain and lifts and prices, but also features unique interactive elements, such as a trail map (that can be flipped to view in landscape), a photo and web-cam image gallery, and e-commerce functionality that allows users to buy lift tickets in three clicks.

The e-commerce functionality was something the resort was very excited about, Anderson says. “It really makes our app unique,” she says. “To be able to have your ticket in three clicks. We really think we’ll see the ROI there. We’re giving people another way to buy lift tickets.”

In developing its app, Mt. Rose confronted a problem that has become, in some respects, the bane of app development: what operating system do you design for? In addition to iOS, Android, and BlackBerry OS, both WebOS (Hewlett Packard) and Windows Phone 7 (Nokia) are entering the scene.

Unfortunately, developing multiple apps is expensive, and the competition between devices is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. In its much-anticipated annual list of technology, media and global market predictions, global research company Deloitte said in January that a “clearly dominant OS seems unlikely to emerge in 2011.” The companies in the market are all making a healthy living right now, it said, and with none of the market leaders willing to abandon the market (and no shareholder pressure to do so), these companies will continue to manufacture and market their own operating systems and hardware for the foreseeable future.

Mt. Rose’s solution was to compromise by developing a single-OS app—iPhone—and reskinning its mobile site so that it looked good on all three operating systems.

The multiple OS conundrum will soon hit the tablet world as well. As with consumer-targeted smartphones (versus the business-oriented Blackberry), Apple emerged as the dominant player by being first on the scene with the iPad. But as the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas revealed this January, it’s a scene that’s going to get a lot more crowded. There were 75 new devices unveiled at the show.

And as for consumer adoption of tablet computers, Deloitte predicts that in 2011, more than half of all computers sold will be devices that are not PCs (aka tablets and smartphones). That means, suffice to say, the appetite for apps is unlikely to abate anytime soon.

One of the most interesting trends in the mobile space is the rise of location-based social media. Services such as Foursquare, Gowalla and Facebook Places allow mobile phone users to “check in” from wherever they are with a GPS-enabled phone and their location gets logged on the site (Foursquare, Gowalla) or added to their status updates (Facebook Places).

In the case of both Foursquare and Gowalla, a user can earn “badges” or prizes for visiting a place a certain number of times or by visiting locations in a certain sequence (non-profit marketing organization Tourisme Montréal, for example, just released five itineraries on Gowalla for visitors to follow). On Foursquare, the visitor with the most check-ins at any given time is the “mayor” of that location.

In December, Facebook entered the mobile space with its Deals service. Any business with a “claimed” (a.k.a. registered) location on Facebook can attach a coupon to their listing and users who arrive and check-in can access the deals, which range from discounts, to loyalty-based rewards and charitable donations. The North Face and REI were two of the launch partners, each offering donations to charity in exchange for check-ins.

In the resort category, the biggest utilizer of mobile is Vail Resorts, who built an entire interactive marketing program around the idea and this season launched one of the most comprehensive programs of its kind.

The program, EpicMix, is a combination of several types of mobile and social media trends, Vail’s Mike Slone explains. Inspired by the growth in popularity of performance-based applications—like the Nike/Apple partnership for iPod, “Nike Plus”—and the growing consumer adoption of location-based social media behavior (e.g. “checking in” when you arrive somewhere), the program is a hybrid of both, with a healthy dose of interactivity and social media thrown in.

All Vail Resorts tickets and passes are RF-enabled, and have been since 2007. In developing Epic Mix, the resort decided to install RF scanning gates at every lift, enabling them to see where skiers were going. EpicMix takes that data and transforms it into a social media enterprise.

Everyone who buys a Vail Resorts lift ticket can go online and activate an EpixMix account. Logged within that account is data such as vertical feet skied, days on the mountain and how many points they’ve earned that season. Points are earned by collecting badges, and badges are earned as the user goes through their Vail experience, doing anything from skiing a run a certain number of times to riding on a certain day.

The user can download an EpicMix app, and track their progress throughout the day —and see what badges they have earned—and can also chat with friends on the mountain via an in-app chat functionality. They can also opt to share their EpicMix achievements via social media.

To address privacy concerns, EpicMix is set up so that users can choose the level of information they share, or not to share it at all, by choosing to have their stats private, public, or “public social.” At this point, more than 50 percent of users have opted for public or public social, Slone says.

There are three people dedicated to supporting EpicMix and the resort’s social media presence at Vail, Slone says, but with the social media effect generated by the program, the team’s efforts are magnified 100-fold—instead of three people tweeting about Vail from their mobile phones per day, there are thousands.

The advantage of Vail’s program is that it is passive—all users must pass through the RF-scanning gates, and therefore participate without effort. Location-based marketing programs activated through Foursquare or Gowalla require people to actively seek organizations out and then interact with them.

At present, active users represent a small segment of the American population: in November 2010, Pew Research found that only 4% of online adults use location-based social media; the figure rises to 8% when you narrow it down to 18-to-29-year-olds. Still, overall, only 1% of internet users are going to these sites on any given day, the report states.

Just scan and go
QR codes have been slowing making their way into mainstream marketing in the last two years. QR codes are two-dimensional barcodes that can be scanned by mobile phones using a brand-specific app. The user takes a photo of the barcode, which activates a response on the phone—most often, the user is taken to a mobile web site to view content or video.

Whistler Blackcomb (WB) is testing the technology at the resort this winter to confront an interesting conundrum in its mobile strategy, Karla Grenon, interactive marketing manager, Whistler Blackcomb, explains.

“One of our big challenges [with mobile] is our long URL,, which is tough to type when you’re up on the mountain in cold conditions. So we really wanted to make sure that the guests can [scan] that QR code and go right to the information that they require.”

The QR codes have been included in a selection WB’s print ads and marketing materials, and stickers bearing the codes have been posted to the trail map boards around the resort. The codes carry the user through to WB’s mobile social media hub, The Movement, which includes trail info, weather, events, webcams, lift status and grooming info.

QR code click-throughs are being tracked by the resort, and will be revisited at the end of the season to see how the program fared in engaging guests.

“It’s slowly picking up,” Grenon says of QR code engagement. “From the fall when we first started it we had low interaction, but we’re seeing it increase. It’s something we are going to carry on with.”

At present, there are significant challenges for marketers looking to integrate QR code technology into their media strategy. It’s not widespread, consumers are still largely unaware of how they work, and the scanning software is not standardized, meaning a user has to download a brand-specific reader for each code. However, Grenon feels the day is not far off when the software becomes standardized, increasing its likelihood of widespread consumer adoption.

Although the mobile space is still highly fragmented, it is important to consider.

Almost all Americans now (85%, Pew Research) own a cell phone, and as those consumers’ contracts with their carriers expire, the rate of smartphone adoption will increase as consumers turn in their old phones for new ones.

Mobile sites are a simple stepping stone into this field and represent a convenience for resort goers as well as an additional online marketing stream. Best of all, they are platform agnostic, so if Android surges in the next year and you’re sporting a Blackberry app, then you won’t be missing out.