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."
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.
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.
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.
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%.