Vail: How Data, Customer-Centricity Inform Digital Deployments

VailArtYou might not call it an epic fail, but Vail Resorts’ first stab at developing its EpicMix social ski app forced the brand to reconsider its original digital approach.

First launched by the ski resort in the 2010-2011 season, EpicMix tapped RFID-enabled lift passes and gantries to track where and how skiers soared its slopes. Customers could collect digital pins for bona fide bragging rights on social media. Although the resort saw it as an early success, things started to head south.

“What we found out was that skiers were actually spamming people with their pins,” said Nick Gawith, creative director at SapientNitro, which was brought in to help develop the program into a true value-add for customers and is now Vail’s agency of record. “Some people were unfriending [Vail] as a result, so it was a slightly fractured experience.”

Additionally, the roll-out appealed to the wrong audience. The notion of a “connected mountain” resonated with frequent skiers and locals, not the affluent, destination-minded demographic the resort sought to attract.

In reworking the experience for the 2011-2012 season, Sapient helped launch a popular EpicMix photos feature, digital collages cataloguing a skier’s day on the slopes, as well as a leaderboard for skiers to share pin-accomplishments with their family and friends rather than the entire Vail network of locals.

As a result, the 100,000 people who activated EpicMix in the first season rapidly escalated by 40,000 within the first five weeks of the new season. The number of resort guests who used EpicMix grew from 12% in the first season to 36% in its second, Gawith said.

From Data To Better Segmentation

From a profiling and segmentation standpoint, the insights from the EpicMix program “just went through the roof,” according to Gawith.

“Going from looking historically at which hotel they stayed at, how much money did they spend and what did they buy to actually see[ing] whether they’re a skier or a boarder, what ability level they are, what’s their preferred terrain, which mountains do they have left to explore, [meant you could] really target them more effectively and add value to their stay as opposed to just marketing to them,” he said.

“Every resort within the portfolio has an ideal guest internally,” said Yann Benjamin, online marketing manager for Beaver Creek, one of Vail’s seven properties. “We have done a lot of work with CRM and are beginning to work with some third-party companies like Datalogix to personify our entire database, which is several million points of data.”

Not every point of data, however, results in a marketable cluster to whom the resort can send targeted email, display, direct mail or phone-based messages.

“Beaver Creek is definitely looking at the super affluent consumer,” Benjamin explained. “We try to stay away from the local…younger audience to really go after the family and high net worth guest. We’ve done that through more of the conventional targeting layers like household income and zip code, but we’re starting to put together custom segments to identify them within the online universe, as well.”

Snowfall As A KPI

Another data-driven area of interest for the resort was actual snowfall, a “KPI that no other business on Earth has,” Gawith remarked. Prior to the debut of EpicMix, in the 2009-2010 season, snow totals were 50% less than the year prior, which resulted in about a 12% loss in visitors to the resort properties.

Last winter, “internally, we were calling it what would be thought of as the ‘Snow Hangover’ where guests that came three years ago may not have had the most amazing experience with snow quality and we were looking to change that perception,” Benjamin said.

Coinciding with a cross-resort corporate communications strategy of updating guests on snow accumulation, Beaver Creek turned to creative advertising technology company Spongecell to coordinate dynamic creative display changes to coincide with those updates.

Last year’s effort focused on real-time snow totals. Vail properties, through RSS and XML feeds, sent accumulation information to media outlets and distribution partners. One feed synced to Spongecell, which published that information through a dynamic rules engine into display ads; the resulting purchase conversion rate was about 24%.

“We’re working on a new execution which addresses a different consideration point for our consumers,” Benjamin said. “We’re not only trying to display the accumulation of snow after the fact to bolster confidence, but we’re now using Spongecell’s technology to almost create a forecasting unit that brings this preemptive excitement to consumers who are a little more flexible with booking [and gives them] some lead time to capitalize on the snow that will be coming.”

Creating Persona Assets

Spongecell also stepped in from a creative aspect, drawing out the brand persona of the target, as well as the snowfall KPI. Beaver Creek, for instance, beckoned visitors with messaging like “Stay Free In An Intimate Alpine Village” and “Not Exactly Roughing It,” to appeal to some of the personas Vail has built out, including the “Alpine A-Lister” and “Village Sophisticate,” who may be after a different luxury experience than the diehard slope “Shred-Head.”

“With forecasting, it’s all about using data,” said Ben Kartzman, cofounder and CEO of Spongecell. “The more data we can use, the closer real time we can get that data, the more relevant that ad experience will be and the more likely someone is to take action on it.” Spongecell was able to update creative automatically based on 24-hour, 48-hour and 7-day snowfall counts.

Although Spongecell creative is currently limited to display in this particular case, Beaver Creek and its sister properties will be experimenting further with email and mobile following the beta test last season.

“I think next year you’ll see a lot more from us in the off season on refining our mobile platform and investing a little bit more, whether it’s conversion-based workflows or whether it continues to be more of a content consumption tool with continuous video and photo updates,” Benjamin said.

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