Utah’s Park City Mountain Resort was acquired in 2014 by Vail Resorts. 

Downhill digeratiThe next generation of ski apps


By Danny KingMarch 21, 2017

Log onto the website for Vail Resorts' EpicMix ski-tracking app to scan the list of the ski resort operator's most frequent customers, and the numbers are mind-boggling. There, atop the "Leaderboard" section, sits "Robert S." His beatific smile and ski-goggle tan belies someone who, as of the end of last month, had gone skiing 88 days in this season alone and had skied more than 21 million vertical feet during the 650 days he's spent on Vail's mountains since 2010. That's the equivalent of skiing from the top of Mount Everest to sea level every day for two years.

It's not exactly getting away from it all to breathe the fresh mountain air and enjoy the scenery at a leisurely pace. But it adds a level of entertainment, if not an element of friendly competition, to the sport.

"It's quantifying something that's intangible in a tangible way and allowing you to brag about it," said Ralf Garrison, founder of DestiMetrics, which tracks winter-lodging trends. "It's probably a little less like stopping to smell the roses and more like kamikazeing your butt down the hill."

Software developers and ski resorts alike are creating a broader range of smartphone apps as a way to engage a younger generation of skiers and snowboarders, while both personalizing the experience and merchandise products to a largely moneyed group of winter-sports enthusiasts.

Freestyle skier Jesper Tjader is among the hard-core skiers and snowboarders who use cameras made by companies such as GoPro to post footage on ski apps.
Freestyle skier Jesper Tjader is among the hard-core skiers and snowboarders who use cameras made by companies such as GoPro to post footage on ski apps.

Such apps were initially created in the past largely to communicate snow conditions to prospective visitors, with on-site cameras eliminating the ability of resorts to fudge ski-depth conditions. The apps eventually added maps that could be used in lieu of the classic fold-up paper maps.

With smartphones equipped with more geolocational features and more mountains using RFID technology for lift passes, apps have evolved so that their functionality has expanded to everything from providing a forum for ski selfies to locating friends and family on other parts of the mountain to letting colleagues and strangers alike compete against each other in arenas such as chairlifts taken or vertical feet skied.

For recreational skiers, that can mean using the apps to brag to friends about fantastic snow conditions or skiing abilities. For the more hard-core, it means uploading and editing usually shaky but often entertaining footage from cameras, like a GoPro, mounted on a ski helmet.

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Front and center, as it is with many contemporary ski trends, is Vail Resorts, which continues to expand its North American presence via its acquisition of Utah's Park City in 2014, its $1 billion purchase of British Columbia's Whistler Blackcomb last year and the agreement it reached last month to buy Vermont's Stowe Mountain Resort. The world's largest ski-resort operator, Vail debuted its EpicMix app for the 2010-11 ski season at five resorts, primarily as an image-sharing app. Since then, the app, which is now available at 10 resorts, has added features such as awarding "racing" medals given to friends and family members competing against each other for skiing distance and offering skiers challenges for accomplishments like skiing 10,000 vertical feet or riding every chairlift on the mountain in a single day. 

In late 2015, EpicMix added a feature called EpicMix Time, in which real-time chairlift wait times were calculated at Vail's four Colorado resorts through crowdsourced data (the suppliers of the data are kept anonymous) and published to give EpicMix users the opportunity to avoid longer lift lines.

The feature was added at its Park City resort as well as its Lake Tahoe, Calif.-area resorts this season. That meant EpicMix users arriving at Vail's namesake resort on a recent Saturday morning could see that the Eagle Bahn Gondola had a 10-minute wait, while lifts out of Vail Village were taking two to three minutes to access.

"'Epic' is a ubiquitous word at Vail Resorts, and a lot of that has to do with EpicMix," said Trevor Crist, the 46-year-old CEO of resort-reservation systems operator Inntopia, who said he has tried both EpicMix and the Trace Snow app (which isn't affiliated with any resort) but doesn't regularly use them on the mountain. "They were years ahead of what everyone else was doing. A lot of the apps that are coming out are trying to accomplish the same goals as EpicMix."

Powdr Corp.’s Copper Mountain resort in Colorado introduced its Sherpa “virtual mountain guide” app for the 2013-14 season. The app has user-generated ski run recommendations and provides data on skiing speed and vertical distance traveled.
Powdr Corp.’s Copper Mountain resort in Colorado introduced its Sherpa “virtual mountain guide” app for the 2013-14 season. The app has user-generated ski run recommendations and provides data on skiing speed and vertical distance traveled.

Meanwhile, Powdr Corp.'s Copper Mountain resort in Colorado introduced its Sherpa app for the 2013-14 season. A "virtual mountain guide," it includes features ranging from trail recommendations to tracking average ski speed to providing "audible markers" and location-related tips to headphone-wearing smartphone users on the mountain.

Additionally, Aspen Skiing Co., which operates Colorado's Aspen, Snowmass, Buttermilk and Aspen Highlands Mountains, debuted its self-developed Aspen Snowmass app this season after years of using an outsourced app. Like EpicMix, the new app enables skiers to track on-mountain activities while providing mapping and real-time trail statuses as well as listing local events and activities.

Other apps continue to make an impact even without the advantage of being tied to a particular resort operator. Last year, Wired magazine highlighted Trace Snow for its ability to track everything from skiing distance to calories burned on the mountain to the "air time" a skier or snowboarder spent airborne. Wired also highlighted Snocru for both its ski-tracking ability and its proficiency at keeping friends and family digitally linked on the mountain.

The Trace Snow app tracks items such as skiing distance, calories burned on the mountain and time spent in the air. It is not affiliated with any ski resort operator.
The Trace Snow app tracks items such as skiing distance, calories burned on the mountain and time spent in the air. It is not affiliated with any ski resort operator.

On the merchandising front, Liftopia has long been synonymous with lift-ticket discounts, which are vital for those who can't spring for a season pass or are unwilling to spend the $150 or so it can cost for a single-day lift ticket at some mountains. 

"The ultimate goal is to give the guest an experience that's more to their liking and something they like to talk about," said Garrison. "The selfie generation is really driving an awful lot about how people are using apps on the mountain."

Tracking how many winter sports apps there are, how many people use them and how fast their usage is growing is difficult. Apple's App Store doesn't break out how many of its more than 2 million apps on the company's platform target winter sports enthusiasts, while Stacey Pool, Vail Resorts' vice president of corporate marketing, declined to provide statistics on EpicMix downloads or growth in its usage.

The Aspen Skiing Co. debuted its Aspen Snowmass app for the 2016-17 season. The app, right, enables skiers to track activities on the mountain, map routes and find real-time trail statuses. It can also provide a list of local activities and events.
The Aspen Skiing Co. debuted its Aspen Snowmass app for the 2016-17 season. The app, right, enables skiers to track activities on the mountain, map routes and find real-time trail statuses. It can also provide a list of local activities and events.

However, Jess Mahanes, Aspen Ski Co.'s digital services manager, said that this season, usage of the company's Aspen Snowmass app more than doubled compared with the numbers who used its old app during the 2015-16 ski season, to about 18,000 downloads. She added that skiers were most commonly accessing the app's ski condition and mapping features.

"We've worked really hard to organize and conduct several focus groups in-resort, in order to get a much more in-depth and comprehensive understanding of how our guests are using the app and let them hold the brainstorming power for future development and technology investments," Mahanes said. "Overall, especially with international and destination guests, the user experience has been communicated as being very positive, easy and helpful."

Ski resort operators and analysts said the deployment of such apps might be necessary to pull younger skiers and snowboarders into a sport that has seen little change in its U.S. user base during the past two decades. But whether such apps are broadening the U.S. base of skiers and snowboarders or merely providing more value to those with the resources to regularly visit the slopes remains unknown, as demand is largely tied to a combination of weather conditions and economic fluctuations.

The Snocru app is not affiliated with any resort but has gained praise in the skiing community for its ability to keep friends and family digitally linked on the mountain.
The Snocru app is not affiliated with any resort but has gained praise in the skiing community for its ability to keep friends and family digitally linked on the mountain.

Granted, this season, snowstorms and a resilient economy have pushed winter-resort occupancy in the Western U.S. and Rocky Mountain regions up 1.3% from a year earlier through January, while lodging revenue has risen 8.7%, DestiMetrics reported last month.

But the longer-term figures suggest a winter sports population base that has grown little in recent decades. For the 2015-16 ski season, U.S. snow sports visits to resorts fell 1.5%, to 52.8 million, according to the National Ski Area Association. While some of that drop-off was attributable to warm and dry conditions in the Northeast last season, the figure was about 10% less than the typical demand during the latter part of the last decade and approximated the typical annual visitor numbers during the mid-1990s.

And while Vail Resorts' North American resorts' lift-ticket revenue for this season through Jan. 8 (the most recent period tracked) rose 4.3% from a year earlier, the company said in mid-January that skier visits fell 13%.

With more resorts' apps now featuring competitive components, there is the potential and unintended consequences of encouraging skiers and snowboarders to behave aggressively on the mountain in order to rack up points and bragging rights. For example, in addition to its user-generated ski run recommendations, Sherpa provides real-time statistics on ski run time, vertical feet traveled and average speed.

EpicMix takes it a step further, offering a Race Leaderboard, complete with medals and a breakdown of top performers by age, gender and mountain. (While this reporter had no illusions about getting on any leader boards during a visit to Vail's Keystone resort last season, the temptation to get more bang for the proverbial buck by checking off various chairlifts was real, and the Advil-inducing effort to ring up thousands of vertical feet at a time by picking up the ski pace was satisfying.)

"I've seen this with my son and other teenagers," Crist said. "It allows them to see how fast they're going, and sometimes they will compete to see who goes the fastest among their group of friends."

Both Vail's Pool and Aspen's Mahanes insist that such competition-based app features do not encourage reckless skiing. Pool cites Vail's on-mountain "Responsibility Code" and its "Be Safe" campaign as proof of its commitment to preventing reckless skiing and snowboarding. He said the app's primary role is to enable skiers to share their experiences, not compete against each other.

Vail Resorts’ EpicMix app added crowdsourced, real-time data for chairlift line times in 2015. In addition to that feature, the app enables friends, family and others to compete for virtual medals in several categories.
Vail Resorts’ EpicMix app added crowdsourced, real-time data for chairlift line times in 2015. In addition to that feature, the app enables friends, family and others to compete for virtual medals in several categories.

"While the EpicMix app is a great place for guests to show off their accomplishments for the day, including vertical feet skied or most pins, EpicMix is less about competition and more about having the ability to make the most out of your time on the mountain and share your experiences with friends and family," Pool said.

Mahanes said, "In regards to speed skiing, we're confidently and absolutely not worried that we're encouraging speeding or for our guests to push themselves beyond their limits of confidence and safety. We want this app to be competitive, but most importantly we want it to be inclusive."

Garrison remembers the days when skiing friends found each other on the mountain primarily by writing notes on blackboards at the bottom of chairlifts and "augmented reality" meant a Sony Walkman. He said the rate of change in interactive technology makes it impossible to predict how winter sports enthusiasts will use their mobile devices even five years from now.

Still, like hotels and their loyalty apps, resorts and their app-publishing partners will likely broaden the role of merchandising, as the data collected by such apps on a customer's skiing and socializing patterns can be used for resort operators and retailers to customize product offerings. Already, Mahanes said, with data tracked by the Aspen Snowmass app, the resort operator rewards frequent skiers for their "hard work" by adding money to their Aspen Card lift passes as a perk.

"I'm not convinced [apps will] get more people on the mountain," Crist said. "But they may make them stay longer and try new things."

And with the popularity of winter sports often restrained by the high price of a lift ticket and equipment, mobile devices and their apps are more commonly serving the purpose of potentially broadening the base of skiers and snowboarders, chipping away at winter sports' reputation for exclusivity.

"People have the functional equivalent of a broadcast studio in their pocket," Garrison said. "We no longer try to control the message to a guest by putting an ad in a magazine. It's more important that the guest gets a good experience with color and a twist, and the guest can pass that on."