Vail Resorts Carves Up the Customer Experience

Customer Experience
Customer Experience
The mountain resort company is leveraging data to personalize the customer experience at its resorts and beyond.

Going on vacation is a treat that most people spend time planning and eagerly anticipating. This means that once they arrive at their destination-whether near or far-they expect to have the best possible experience that not only meets their expectations, but possibly exceeds them.

But the customer experience starts before strapping on the seatbelt, whether on a plane or vehicle, and arguably even before booking the trip. Only by exceeding expectations and creating a personalized experience can organizations ensure they transform one-time customers into return guests who are also advocates for the brand.

An important step for organizations to be able to deliver this personalized experience is to understand their customers, and this is a process that Vail Resorts takes very much to heart. According to Darren Jacoby, the company's director of CRM, Vail Resorts knew who was vacationing at the company's seven ski resorts, but wanted to expand its knowledge to understand why visitors were choosing to spend their vacations at these properties. Last year the organization embarked on an in-depth exercise that segmented customers based on their attitudes, creating five distinct personas: Alpine Alistair, Village Sophisticate, Shred Heads, Fresh Tracks Family, and Cruise Alongs. "We start with these personas and understand who the customer is," Jacoby explains.

But the work didn't stop there, and Vail Resorts is doing a lot of work to pinpoint messaging opportunities. Jacoby says the plan is to move away from product messaging and instead pursue more one-to-one experience-based personalized messages, making sure that promotional content is tied to what's driving a particular customer to do business with Vail Resorts. Someone vacationing with his family, for example, will receive promotions and offers about family related events, while a luxury skier will be targeted with offers for activities that he is more likely to enjoy, for example a spa promotion.

Getting data on the mountainside

In a bid to both get more data about their visitors and also improve the customer experience, Vail Resorts has digitized its lift passes and enabled skiers with radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology. The exercise-which started with season passes and has now been extended to all tickets-means that skiers no longer have to brave the cold while taking off their gloves and opening their jackets to fish out their tickets. Instead, Jacoby explains, new technology allows Vail Resorts to scan tickets through customers' jackets.

The company decided to utilize the data it was gathering about its customers to enrich the on-mountain experience and in 2010 launched the EpicMix app that allows skiers to track their accomplishments in real time. Jacoby notes that the app tracks the number of times a skier has gone down the trails, even taking note of the distance skied. The next step was to socialize the experience, allowing skiers to earn pins for any activities on the mountain, which they could then share on their social channels. "We gave people the chance to share the information with all their friends and created brand ambassadors," Jacoby said during the SAS Premier Business Leadership Series 2012. This strategy is giving Vail Resorts a good indication of what its customers are passionate about and also gives the organization visibility with skiers' social contacts.

Noticing that skiers were eager to share information over social media, Vail Resorts decided to give them an added service and immortalize their time on the slopes with photographs. Jacoby says some 140 photographers have been dispatched to Vail Resorts' mountains, snapping pictures of skiers. After scanning the RFID-enabled passes, the photographers upload a free low resolution version of the image on the skier's account, allowing him to share photographs from the mountain with his family and friends over social media by using the EpicMix app.

Because it gathers information about customers' moves on the mountain, EpicMix is giving Vail Resorts a huge amount of information about skiers' preferences, including how long they spend on the mountainside and what times they enjoy skiing. This gives Vail Resorts a better understanding of its customers, allowing the organization to tailor their experience, for example by sending them personalized communications that take into consideration their preferred skiing times or mentioning the trails they tend to venture on. Jacoby notes that the company is using the data to better understand customers and even keep them up to date with weather news that is likely to impact the conditions of the slopes and can affect both an upcoming trip or plans for one. "Since we know where they are, we can try to do things that are more relevant to them," he says.

Year-round communication

While skiing is a seasonal hobby, Vail Resorts wants to keep in touch with its customers all year round, making sure that the information is relevant to the time of the year. In winter, Jacoby explains, Vail Resorts uses email to keep customers informed about what's going on in the different resorts, while in summer it sends information about off-season activities. "We try to communicate with them about what's going on, what the conditions are," he says. Further, the company is trying to pinpoint when particular customers are most likely to book their upcoming trips so that it can communicate with them during those windows when they're likely to be making a travel decision.

With multiple resorts, the company has made it a point to track customers across different locations, allowing business leaders to better understand loyalty across the different resorts. Jacoby says the organization makes sure to send information about customers' preferred resorts, including upcoming events and even resort-specific offers. "Instead of sending the same message to our subscribers, we're sending different versions," he notes.

Data is also allowing Vail Resorts to deliver a holistic experience throughout the customers' stay. For example, if someone is coming to a resort from out of state, Vail Resorts can communicate with that person about hotel and transportation options, allowing the company to keep him updated and offer services from the moment he gets off the plane until he leaves.

Jacoby says customer information is also allowing Vail Resorts to reconfigure its loyalty program, moving from a product-centered program to one that revolves around delivering a great experience to customers. He notes that the vision is to use the unique characteristics of the resorts to provide an experience that the customer would not get anywhere else, for example an early morning run. "We want to make [customers] feel special and individual," he notes.