The mountain resort industry lags in adopting—or even having reasonable access to—new technologies that dramatically enhance the guest experience and streamline operations. It’s an age-old tale. We compare ourselves to other industries that have embraced advanced technologies to improve operations and service. Then we uncover a host of complications and constraints that keep us a few steps behind.
Joe Hession aims to change that once again.
It’s a formidable task. In the finale of the inaugural SAM Summit Series, adviser Blaise Carrig of Vail Resorts highlighted the problem. “I think our business is still lagging in the processes around ski school, and ski rental, and ticket sales,” he said. “We still have people going to ticket windows—nobody goes to the airport to buy an airplane ticket.”
Fair comparison? Certainly. Especially since quick and easy has become the norm, no matter where you go. Enter Hession.
“The way we book things, the way we buy things, our expectation for the experience when we show up to places has gone through a whole other realm of changes, and the ski industry is far behind,” says Hession, Mountain Creek, N.J., president and CEO. So he is introducing a new software called SnowCloud at his resort, which—if all goes as planned—is going to change everything there.
The Integration Issue
Hession plans to eliminate the resort’s use of existing programs and technology and implement an entirely new, relatively untested program that the resort has built to manage all e- commerce, products, access, database, group sales, reservations, accounting, and more. It’s all being done in the name of redefining the guest experience.
First, consider what this effort entails. A ski area typically runs on specific, yet disparate, systems and processes designed or customized for specific purposes. The company that provides point of sale software is not the same company that provides RFID access gates, but both systems need to talk to one another, or integrate. That’s the issue that started Hession down this road.
Hession is also the founder of SNOW Operating, the company that introduced Terrain Based Learning (TBL) to the ski industry. That experience contributed to the current software project. When working with a new resort partner, the TBL team goes through an “ideal world” exercise, where they map out the perfect guest experience in a world with no constraints. Then, see what of that exercise could be applied in the real world.
s“After doing that exercise more than 100 times at resorts across North America, it became crystal clear that the biggest constraint to allowing the guest experience to be as seamless as possible was technology,” he recalls.
So, he and his SNOW Operating team then started working with resorts on developing a new software for guests to book their ski or snowboard lessons online. It would match the guest with the right instructor, and even match guests with other similar guests in a group lesson.
SNOW Operating partnered with a software developer, and started making headway. “However, we ran into the same hurdle every time,” says Hession. “We’d get to a certain point in the process, and then we’d get on the phone with someone from the resort’s IT department and they’d always throw out the same word—‘integration.’”
Many ski areas operate on a so-called “enterprise system” that ultimately handles a majority of the sales transactions, and produces and/or manages the corresponding products. The complicated nature of ski areas, and the fact that each is different in some way, has limited the number of software providers capable—and willing—to venture into this space.
Mountain Creek used Siriusware, as many resorts have. Siriusware is a closed-source system, so if a resort wants another program to communicate with it—i.e., integrate—Siriusware can typically provide a module to make that happen, as is the case with most of the widely used programs in the ski industry.
But not everything can integrate with these enterprise systems. And even if it can, it may require changes to make it jibe with the system. As a result, some initiatives simply don’t move forward, and progress, in some ways, slows.
In a nutshell, Hession says most of the ski industry’s existing processes and systems all combine to make the guest experience bumpy and inefficient.
For example, he says, when a guest bought a ticket for Mountain Creek through Liftopia, that guest would get a barcode from Liftopia. The guest would then bring the barcode with him or her, and wait in line at the ticket booth to show the barcode to the ticket seller, who then scans the barcode and issues an RFID card, which then works at the lift.
“Because we have three systems and the way they work, we need to make our guests jump through those hoops. Versus, why couldn’t someone just buy on their phone and go right to the lift?” he asks.
With that goal in mind, Hession and his team went all in on developing software that streamlines both operations and the guest experience. At first, they tried to make it work with existing partners, but kept hitting roadblocks. “We had to take the major step of saying, ‘Let’s take it all off the table and build what’s right,’” he says. They decided to replace everything across the entire business.
Everything. That includes tearing down ticket booths, eliminating points of sale, installing new RFID gates, redoing the online store, and more. Not an easy move, for several reasons. “Trust me, I haven’t made a lot of friends in the last few months, because I’m taking what about five companies now do at the resort and doing it with one,” says Hession.
The team mapped out the entire guest experience in order to gain the best understanding of what needed to be improved. They started refining the online purchasing experience by reducing the number of products Mountain Creek offered, streamlining both the front and back ends.
With the number of products pared down and simplified, the process of gathering guest information—and what information to gather—was dialed in. This is an important aspect of what will make SnowCloud effective, Hession says.
The crux of the program is to provide an easy way to attain the products and experiences you pay for. With that in mind, gathering guest information ahead of time streamlines processes traditionally slowed by different systems, paperwork, etc.
What will make this possible is software that houses all guest data under one roof— whether they are buying tickets, taking lessons, or renting equipment—and then transfers that data to wearable UHF/RFID media, similar to the Disney Magic Band. At Mountain Creek, the wearable will be woven bracelets for day tickets, and silicone bracelets for season passes. The woven bracelet can be tightened, but the only way to remove it is to cut it off. That will help reduce fraud. Passholders will have the option of getting a traditional pass on card stock.
On resort, it was determined that the biggest pain point was the ticket booth. “It’s a horrific experience,” says Hession. When someone arrives at the resort on a busy day, the first thing they do is stand in line at the ticket booth, and wait to give someone money, so they can get a product that allows them to access the lift.
SnowCloud aims to alleviate this pain point, among many others, and the UHF/RFID bracelets are the physical means to do so. The bracelets will essentially serve as a wearable point of sale. They are both readable and writable, so transactions can happen anywhere there’s a staff member with a scan gun. “We can now sell and fulfill a lift product, admissions product, rental product, etc., at any place around the mountain at any time,” says Hession.
For instance, a beginner who just completed her learn-to lesson feels ready to go higher on the mountain than her lower-mountain ticket will allow. If she has a credit card on file, she can approach any staff member with a scan gun—including a liftie—and upgrade her lower-mountain ticket to a full-mountain ticket with a quick scan of the wristband and a few taps of the screen. Before, she’d be turned around and sent to a ticket window to upgrade.
The rental process will be far more efficient for those who purchase in advance. All relevant guest info, including shoe size, height, weight, etc., will be collected at the time of purchase. When the guest arrives, all the info is on his or her guest profile in the cloud; a scan of the bracelet retrieves it instantly. Plus, since the info is stored in the cloud, the guest won’t need to fill it all out again if he or she rents in the future.
Importantly, SnowCloud will not allow a guest to complete a transaction without signing an online waiver specific to the product being purchased. A signed waiver is valid for a year, so the guest won’t need to sign another waiver if he or she buys the same product again in that time frame, making the process for repeat purchases more efficient.
The GUEST Experience
The original idea for the on-resort experience was to have only a small number of points of sale. Guests making their way to the resort village after parking their car would be greeted by staff in yellow coats armed with scan guns, and all transactions and redemptions would happen en route to the lift.
But the team at Mountain Creek discovered there are many reasons why this is not ideal. In testing the software and the process this past summer at the resort’s mountain bike park, this approach was challenged by with flip phones, cash carriers, and other consumer preferences that are still prevalent and must be respected.
Another surprise discovery in the testing process was the persistent habit of many people to do exactly what SnowCloud is designed to reduce—stand in line. “We underestimated how fixated people are with finding a line to stand in as quickly as possible. They just stand in any line they see,” says Hession.
During summer testing, while there were still ticket booths, guests walked right past staffers—including Hession—who politely told them they could just buy what they need on their phone and get their bracelet right there. On their way to line up at the ticket booth, guests also walked by big, conspicuous signs that say, “STOP! Buy your tickets now on mountaincreek.com.”
This revelation of human nature prompted the creation of several horseshoe-shaped sales kiosks, each with eight mounted tablets around the perimeter and space for two staff members in the middle with a centralized cash register. The tablets serve as self-checkout points where guests buy what they need on mountaincreek.com, and get their bracelets from the staff at the kiosk. There will be seven horseshoes in the ticketing area, and six in the rental shop.
In all, the resort went from eight ticket windows with eight agents, to about 50 self-serve tablets in ticketing and about 40 in rentals.
The yellow-jacketed, scan-gun toting greeters will still be the first point of contact, though. As guests arrive, these staff members will have the ability to scan QR codes on guests’ devices, or conduct a transaction right there for those who didn’t pre-purchase. The yellow jackets can encode UHF/RFID bracelets and put them on the guests. Yellow jackets will also be stationed right at the lift.
At the lift, guests pass through RFID gates before their first ride of the day. This will activate their bracelets and snap a photo of the wearer. On all subsequent lift rides, they can use the pass-through RFID gates, and lifties will keep an eye out to match the photo taken that morning with the person passing through the gate—much as the previous gate system operated.
Passholders must go through a similar process, only the photo taken at the gate on that first day serves as their season pass photo for the rest of the season. Why go this route? “Having someone take a picture at the desk when they buy their pass, or even upload a picture from home, doesn’t make any sense,” says Hession. That often produces a picture of somebody looking like a GQ model, but who looks nothing like that when showing up at the resort in helmet, goggles, and jacket.
Hession says that the old system was the source of a significant amount of fraud. Guests would use another person’s season pass by gearing up and making it tough for lifties to match photo with face. The new process won’t be perfect, but it should help reduce fraudulent season pass use, he believes.
The Human Element
It’s not just guests who need to learn the new system, but staff, too.
Most mountain resorts design their operations based on how their programs function. If the enterprise system requires a specific redemption process, that’s what the staff is trained to do. As a result, many employees’ everyday responsibilities revolve around these systems and processes. So what happens when those systems and processes are no longer, and responsibilities change?
“The biggest challenge has been to get buy-in from the people who have worked with the existing programs,” says Hession. “To get them to change has been an emotional rollercoaster. It’s been wild.”
The tasks some staff enjoyed—and gave them a sense of purpose and ownership—are going away, and it’s freaking people out, says Hession. “We’ve gone through all of this because we thought the whole time that it was the right thing to do. But what I’ve done wrong throughout this process is, I underestimated its impact on individuals.”
The move to SnowCloud affects all departments that have anything to do with resort operations. The team at Mountain Creek is ensuring staffers are thoroughly trained on the new processes, and how their responsibilities are changing as a result. Hession reports that after some bumps, the team is now stronger and fully bought in.
Training also extends to guests, too. The landing page of the resort’s website will have a video with a resort marketing person explaining the new process. And staff will be ready to answer any questions guests have on-resort.
If successful, what can a program like SnowCloud do for the industry? Hession plans to see what it does at Mountain Creek, as well as at Big Snow at American Dream, the indoor ski area that SNOW Operating is opening come spring, before considering its larger effect.
Version one will be fully implemented this winter, and version two is already in the works. Hession says v.2 will have more functions, including a management dashboard, and it will work through an app.
“People tell me I’m crazy for doing this,” Hession says. “I tell them you’re crazy for not doing it.”