Got customers calling about pass prices? There’s a bot for that. Questions about which lifts are running? A chatbot can field that one, too.
Summer activities? Concerts? Lodging? To answer these and potentially thousands of other customer inquiries, ski areas are adding interactive, AI-led chat functionality to their websites that makes it easier to find information and takes pressure off call centers—if not actually replacing live customer service.
“The initial reasoning was to provide continuity with our call center and reservation agents,” says Kate Sullivan, director of marketing at New York’s Windham Mountain, which implemented Satisfi Labs’ AI chat tool four years ago. “We wanted to have a consistent message and experience for customers, and make information easier to find on the website.”
“Seeing the type of questions being asked and what people want also helps us craft better overall marketing communications,” such as guides for first-time visitors, adds Sullivan.
More complex questions are reserved for live agents, but experience has shown that chatbots can answer even obscure queries. Don White, CEO of Satisfi Labs, says chatbots are able to answer 94 percent of all online inquiries.
LEARNING ON THE JOB
What puts the “AI” into tools like Satisfi’s is the ability of the bot to learn from experience. Every query received at every ski area that implements Satisfi is collected and coded, then shared with all clients for potential inclusion into their own database of chatbot responses.
“We take the sum of all guest queries to create this range of intelligent options,” says White, whose company provides AI chat to ski resorts (14 are current customers) alongside sports teams, entertainment venues, and tourist attractions. He estimates that Satisfi’s database currently includes more than 30 million questions. “If we had 40 mountains, it would be even smarter.”
Consumer insights. Inquiries about tickets are the most common ones fielded by ski area chatbots, accounting for 39 percent of the total, according to Satisfi Labs. Requests for venue information represent another 31 percent of customer queries across Satisfi’s ski industry clients, followed by questions about activities (16 percent), venue services (8 percent), and Covid-19 (6 percent).
Drilling down into those numbers offers more insights into the kind of information guests are seeking. One of the most common questions under venue information, for example, is for details on parking and transportation; Bromley Mountain Resort, Vt., gets a lot of queries about childcare—which the resort doesn’t provide.
“We created a new response [in the webchat] for that so we can get those questions answered,” says Bromley marketing director Oliver Mauk.
Information on available spa services tops the list of questions about ski area activities—more popular than questions about snowboarding, golf, and summer programs. In fact, dozens of distinct topics fall under the heading of activity inquiries, including questions about skateboarding, scooters, hiking, and BMX, attesting to the broad range of activities available at ski resorts that customers need information about.
Knowledge bases. “The ski resort industry is about skiing and a billion other things,” says White. “There are two website knowledge bases based on season; some resorts have mirrored databases at the entry point, but they’re entirely different after that.”
For some resorts, there are more than just summer and winter seasons. Snowbird, for example, uses its chatbot to field a variety of questions about its annual Oktoberfest, which attracts 60,000 people to the resort over several weeks each fall.
“Many are non-skiers who are not used to navigating a ski area website at all,” notes Kelsey Johnson, Snowbird’s creative marketing manager.
VARIED USE CASES
Satisfi Labs touts the potential of its AI chat as a revenue enhancement tool. White notes that 60 percent of queries to ski areas are about purchasing something, while the rest occur post-purchase.
“Webchat has been a real value add from an e-commerce perspective,” with ticket questions routed to Windham’s online ticket store, says Sullivan.
“Call centers are about problem resolution, but our KPIs are more about impacting revenue and customer satisfaction,” says White.
Still, the customer service potential remains a key draw for ski resorts. Kolton Smith, digital marketing manager at Snowbird, which implemented Satisfi’s AI chat function about three years ago, is adamant the tool “is not a revenue driver.”
“It is intended to improve guest service and quickly answer specific questions,” says Smith, while Johnson adds that the web chat is “a very guest-friendly way to find answers: a lot of people don’t like to deep-dive into the website.”
Branding. Snowbird also sees the chatbot as an extension of its brand identity. It employs its five avalanche rescue dogs (Gus, Gator, Marty, Mable, and Trailer) as its webchat representatives—“avidogs” as avatars, so to speak.
“That makes it uniquely branded to Snowbird and lets us throw some fun puns into the answers, too,” says Johnson. (For example, the reply to an unanswerable question might be, “I’ll have to paw-nder that.”)
Staffing efficiencies. While Snowbird may not be looking to the chatbot to directly drive ticket sales or lodging reservations, the technology has made a quantifiable difference in the resort’s bottom line: Smith estimates that the chatbot has saved more than 3,000 hours of employee time.
At Mountain Creek, N.J., which has used Satisfi for about four years, the efficiency gains have been similar in nature. “If we have received 500,000 inbound messages from 200,000 unique users, that’s a time savings that allows our team to work on other things,” says Trish Certuche, marketing and sales resort ranger at SNOW Partners, operator of Mountain Creek. “The sheer volume [AI chat] can handle has helped us tremendously in reallocating our resources.”
Additionally, says Certuche, the chatbot provides quick and consistent responses 24/7, in real-time, even outside of operating hours.
For Bromley, the motivation for adopting AI chat was “not having enough staff to respond to everything” customers were calling about, according to Mauk. “We didn’t reduce staffing, but the chat takes the pressure off the ticket office and call center.”
Bromley’s implementation—in place for less than a month before Mauk spoke with SAM—went hand-in-hand with the ski area’s new website. Like all ski resorts that have implemented AI chat, Bromley allows customers to easily divert to a live agent whenever they have a question the bot can’t answer. When handoffs occur, call center staff can access the text of the chat conversation and pick up where the bot left off.
“Webchat can improve the morale of call center staff by offering more interaction with people they can make a difference with,” rather than repetitively answering basic questions, says Satisfi’s White.
COMPILING QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
When it comes to implementation, Satisfi is “pretty simple to use,” says Mauk. Satisfi software can “crawl” a client’s website and suggest questions and possible answers. Questions and answers also can be entered manually via user dashboard. Functionality includes the ability to add buttons to the bot window so customers can quickly click through to information on popular topics like hours of operation and ticket prices.
“The data Satisfi provides to our team is invaluable: It can drill down to levels of reporting you didn’t know you needed,” says Certuche. “We’re able to view the top requested topics, then strategize on how to get that information more readily available for our guest.”
Satisfi isn’t the only game in town when it comes to AI chat. Alterra Mountain Company, for example, chose Inbenta—whose product suite includes an AI chatbot, a knowledge management module for help centers, a ticketing solution that includes live chat, and a semantic search engine. Initially launched for the Ikon Pass website, AI chat has now been implemented at nine of Alterra’s resorts, with the remainder expected to come online before summer 2023.
A new audience. Erin Vorhies, vice president of digital growth at Alterra, says Inbenta was added not to replace the call center but to respond to the needs of a younger clientele. “Millennials—myself included—are sort of allergic to making a phone call,” she says with a laugh.
“The chatbot shines in its ability to scoop up common questions and free up our call center people for more up close and personal interactions,” Vorhies adds.
“In the case of ski resorts, customers tend to receive hundreds of questions regarding weather, snow quality, cost of the ski pass, and more,” says Helena Franco Muns, Inbenta’s marketing director. “Inbenta can automate the answer to most of these requests by connecting to the ski resort systems and also to third-party services like Google Weather in order to provide real-time information. We can also connect to booking platforms in order to provide accommodation availability and simplify hotel booking.”
Muns estimates that Inbenta is now automating 90-95 percent of customer queries coming into the Alterra websites where it has been deployed.
Structured responses. Unlike some smaller resorts, Alterra “already has big binders full of structured responses” to many customer questions, says Vorhies. Still, year-to-year changes, particularly with the Ikon Pass, require regular monitoring of the chatbot to ensure that information remains up to date.
The Alterra digital team “jumps into the tool for about 20 minutes each week to look for questions that are not getting good answers,” Vorhies says.
Chatbot functionality can be scaled at whatever pace clients want. Bromley, for example, launched with a set of just 10 FAQs that the chatbot could answer directly. Even with that limited functionality, however, about 50-60 questions are being answered by the bot each day, says Mauk.
On the other hand, Snowbird’s chatbot can now provide answers to hundreds of questions: Over three years, the chatbot has responded to 43,000 unique guests and answered 92,520 messages, according to Smith.
At Alterra, “We started with the five most common questions,” says Vorhies. After more than two years of use, “We’ve built out to thousands now.”
SAMMY guest editor says…
When you browse hundreds of resort websites each winter like I do, you can’t help but be impressed at resorts’ commitment to creating and maintaining the hundreds of pages of content inside each. You could visit with one of thousands of questions and the answer is almost surely there—if you can find it. That “if” has always been the crux. The demand for an answer that didn’t involve a phone call was there, the answers were there, but no amount of creativity in a site’s navigation seemed to build an effective bridge between the two. Nor did search or even chatbots.
Chatbots aren’t new to the ski industry, but the early platforms only solved part of the problem because the bots were average at best. To combat this, resort marketers, like those at SkiBig3, didn’t worry much about the bot side and instead focused on the live chat side. But that was too much volume when offered to all site visitors, so they had to only show the widget to more qualified guests like those who made it to the booking engine. Vail Resorts went custom with its SMS bot Emma, but it never had the breadth to really solve the problem.
Bob’s piece is extremely timely and spot on. Today, bots are miles ahead of where they were even 2-3 years ago. And platforms like Satisfi and Inbenta are riding a wave of AI innovation and accessibility that is finally enabling them to build that automated bridge between questions and answers without a big team behind the scenes. The demand is there, the answers are there, and now the tech is there. Keep an eye on this—the small group of resorts using bots today isn’t going to be small for long.
— Gregg Blanchard,
2022 SAMMY Leadership