From his office in Colorado, Urwiler explores everything from social networking tools to mobile device applications to biometrics, looking for emerging technology that might be brought to bear at the company’s ski mountains in Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone or Heavenly. He works closely with vendors to identify emerging trends, keeps his ears open at conferences and talks to his peers. He encourages his team to keep abreast of the latest IT tools. “Ideas come from every place,” Urwiler says, the best ones being those that can provide competitive differentiation for Vail Resorts by improving the guest experience.”
When Urwiler explores new technologies, he worries most about the potentially negative effect on the customer. “Once we set an expectation about a new tool, it has to work,” he says. “We are very cautious about what we expose to a guest. This is the vacation of the year for some of them.” Urwiler doesn’t want to be the one to ruin it. To manage the flow of new ideas and make sure only technologies that will improve the guest experience get the green light, Urwiler created Vail Labs. It’s an idea incubator for vetting ideas and moving those with potential value from proof-of-concept to rollout.
The RFID wireless guest tags Vail Resorts will roll out next season started there. Urwiler’s team looked at biometric passes being used at some theme parks, which are based on finger geometry and involve scanning people’s hands. The Vail Resorts team determined that scanning hands wouldn’t work in the heavily gloved and layered ski environment, but the RFID component of such a system had promise.
Vail Labs fielded a proof-of-concept on the slopes, bringing mountain operations staff into the process. “Early on, there’s always a natural scepticism. You’re dealing with operations people who are very good at what they do. IT comes in with grand ideas about how to improve that, and there’s a show-me mentality.” For a pilot last season, 1000 patrollers and ski instructors wore RFID tags while Vail Labs logged information on usability, and the system was accepted.
If a new tool fails to meet requirements for usability and reliability, if there are concerns about the vendor, or if the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t add up, the technology never leaves the lab.
Last season, Urwiler looked at a friend-finder application for mobile devices. Urwiler had an agreement with the vendor whereby Vail Resorts would pay through a predefined usage model only after the technology proved usable. “The proof-of-concept was brilliant. There was a lot of excitement around it.” The pilot wasn’t so thrilling. The application, intended to enable skiers to locate each other via GPS, did not meet the reliability threshold. Urwiler and team are still hopeful in making the solution work.
“But because we took a conservative approach to it, we had very little money invested,” says Urwiler. “It was low risk.”
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