”The internet and gaming are our biggest threats”. The quote was made in a 2013 by Mike Douglas in a ski resort marketing website´s interview, where the freeski pioneer and producer of Salomon Freeski TV was asked to name the biggest challenge for the ski industry in the next coming 10 years. Douglas´s message to the resorts on how to keep younger generations, like his own kids, out of the sofa and on the skis, was to embrace social media and come up with ways to enhance the ski experience for them. Today the pioneering resorts have already managed to create a digital experience with real benefits and a strong user base, while a vibrant startup scene aims to revolutionize the way ski resort services are marketed.
One of these pioneers is Laax, a resort situated in the Graubünden Canton in Switzerland, a couple of hours train ride southeast from Zurich and 80 km west of Davos, the yearly destination of the world´s economic elite. It´s the beginning of December and I have just arrived in the Laax Resort. Because of the early timing I am worried about snow situation and open the Inside Laax App, which I have downloaded on my smartphone earlier.
”Mission control update: Expected wind speeds of over 80 km/h for tomorrow with additional snow of 30 to 60 cm – all lifts will remain closed! Stay tuned: next update will follow 9 am tomorrow.” The bulletin on the opening page gives me instantly the information that I am looking for.
Besides the weather and ski slope information, I can for example check the train schedule back to Zurich, buy the lift ticket and book a table or order out from one of the local restaurants – all with just a couple of swipes on my smartphone.
And that´s not all – the app even has it´s own currency: you can use points received from using the app to pay for the services. The restaurant menus in the app, for example, show the amount of Inside Laax points required to make the purchase, alongside the price in euros.
The app and the currency are the brain child of Reto Gurtner, the Chairman of the board of the Weisse Arena Gruppe, the company that manages the skilifts, restaurant and hotels in the Flimms-Laax ski area.
The 64-year old visionary said in a recent interview by a Swiss Newspaper that the currency, nicknamed GURU (Greatest User Return Unit) in its development stage, solves many current data privacy issues. According to Gurtner, this is achieved by using Blockchain technology where all the user data is decentralized and controlled by the user himself. He also sees the app as a way of cutting labor costs in a high-wage country like Switzerland.
So, if I would for example rent skis, buy a lift ticket and later have dinner using the Inside Laax App, the data of those purchases would only be available to the individual service providers – unless I wanted to share it to the resort. By sharing the data, Laax will reward me with points that I can use for example to buy a lift ticket or a lunch.
With no lifts open, I later find myself sipping coffee in the Signina Hotel´s Camina bar with Christina Ragettli, the pr manager of Laax. We are seated next to a white vintage Morris Mini and a bookshelf filled with arty books. Ragettli tells me that launching their own in-house-developed app for the 2014/2015 ski season was part of the resort´s first-mover strategy.
The move into the digital world has proven to be successful: thanks to the predominantly urban and young clientele, roughly half of them live in Zurich and the average age is just 38, the app now has nearly 40 000 active monthly users.
“Our goal is to communicate with our clients, learn to know them better and be able to better cater for their needs”, Ragettli explains the resort´s motives behind the app. In practice this allows Laax to offer the clients targeted services like restaurants, accommodation and shopping, and also rate them according to their spending.
A big spender could for example cut the line to get that last table reservation in a full restaurant. To persuade people to take the digital leap the lift tickets bought via the app are cheaper than the ones paid the old-fashioned way over the counter.
This strategy has clearly worked as during the early season of 2019/2020 around a quarter of the tickets had already been bought through the app and the revenue involved increased by 50% from the year before.
Gurtner has proposed that the app could also help in attracting customers during the low-season by offering them 20% more points in return of their reservation compared to what they would receive when reserving for high season. According to Gurtner, this is a better way of rewarding customers, compared to traditional sales prices, which he sees degrading the value of the product.
The app also has a gaming and social dimension to it; you can follow your friends and the vertical meters they have clogged in and naturally the spot for the skier with the most vertical is a coveted one. Rumor has it that the competition among the local skiers is fierce and that some skiers have set up the number one spot as their main goal of the whole ski season. This proves in practice the interest that millennials and younger generations show for gaming and digital services, even during activities like skiing.
The next morning the lifts finally open and I am on a solo quest to open up my ski season in Laax. I am not completely alone though – I am accompanied by an app called Skitude. Founded in 2014 by Marc Bigas and David Huerva, Skitude has it´s headquarters in Girona Spain and proclaims to connect the skiers with the largest mobile application network in the world.
After creating a profile in the app, I look up for Laax in the resort section, after which I can access an interactive topographic map of the ski area, as well as the weather and snow report.
Many of the features, like the weather report, are provided directly via other specialized service providers, and it seems like the most interesting aspect of the app from a skier´s perspective is the ability to record data of your ski runs.
You can also share the information, such as the ski route drawn on a topographic map, to your friends via social media sites like Facebook. Features such as this provide knowledgeable skiers the ability to guide people through an off-piste route, together with written description about the route details.
To do the same thing before the internet you had to buy a ski route book written by a professional. Following a route found in the social media can have its risks of course.
I try to find skiers with recorded runs in Laax, but there aren´t many. However, in Cerler, Spain a skier called Viktor is recording seven-hour ski days with covered distances of 140 km. And it seems Viktor is not alone – Skitude currently has around 700 000 active users.
When it comes to digitalization the European resorts are ahead of their North American counterparts: roughly 70% of the users are located either in the Pyrenees or the in the Alps and only 17% in North America.
According to Héloïse Haake from Skitude, however, even the slowest markets have shown a significant increase of interest for digital services during the last couple of years. Regardless of the market area, I´m already past the age of the average user who is in his or her thirties.
Recording my run does not begin very smoothly as I struggle to find the right menu on my phone where I could allow the big battery usage of the app. After clearing that issue, the actual use is easy, and I record a couple of runs from the top of the Alp Dado lift to the base station of the Plaun lift.
To test the social media aspect, I share the runs drawn on a topographic map via Facebook where they receive a couple of likes.
Not all ski resorts have the means to develop their own app like Laax, and Skitude markets itself to these resorts as a mobile marketing partner, who can provide the app for them.
According to Skitude´s Haake the main benefits for the resorts are a new marketing channel, increased online sales and better customer knowledge. Currently there are all-together 98 ski resorts from Scandinavia to Australia with an app by Skitude.
As with other similar services, the customer data is being used for marketing purposes. Local winners of most vertical ski kilometers can win skis by Head Skis and running apparel by Salomon Sports. Most customers these days accept this, as long as the main service comes free of charge.
For my final run back to the valley, I turn on the recording and start my descend, vaguely following the gondola line down to see if I can still find some good snow in the trees. I accidentally stumble on an amazing powder pillow line opening in the trees with absolutely no tracks.
When I finally arrive in the resort I decide not to share the run, but to save it on my personal data, which enables me to go back and check the exact coordinates of the run on a topographical map – a very handy tool for a skier – and something that would have been impossible to do just a few years ago.
But is there a danger in these services that normalize gaming and social media in an area of our lives that has been traditionally reserved for nature, sports and friends – will we become increasingly addicted to the digital devices and the pleasure received from social media likes?
Laax´s Christina Ragettli does not think so and says that the Inside Laax App is an added bonus in the pocket, which does not interfere with enjoying beautiful scenery or the adrenaline caused by a ski run. “The updates are made during the lift ride, just like you would do on a bus or train journey to kill time – there is no difference”, she adds.
The booking.com of the ski industry?
The next day I am standing in front of the gondola base station in Laax Resort, waiting for Andrea Caspani, an Italian tourism industry professional living in Switzerland. When Caspani finally arrives, he tells me that the car ride from his current home town of Luzern took two and a half hours, which by Switzerland´s standards is an eternity: “in a couple of hours you are in three different countries”, he adds.
We ascend to the top of the Crap Sogn Gion mountain in 2216 meters and head for the sunny slopes. As a former junior ski racer and an internationally certified ski instructor Caspani makes stylish and effortless carving turns. During our coffee break in the funky Galaaxy Bar we discuss the My-Mountains reservation site Caspani has founded.
Launched officially in Switzerland in 2017 My-Mountains aims to offer all ski resort services under one website and reservation system. “So, you don´t have to search for the individual websites of the tourism office, ski school, guiding service or helicopter flight company any longer, and you can make the booking easily as well”, Caspani explains the objectives of his web service.
It sounds very convenient of course, but does it not compete with the service providers own websites? According to Caspani this is not the case: “we usually ask the companies to offer special services, which are not competing with their core business, on our website”. When asked for examples of the mentioned special services, Caspani mentions a snowshoe trip with a fondue dinner included by a ski school and a heli ski day by a guiding service.
At the moment the main target area of My-Mountains is in Switzerland, where it has around 250 registered service providers and 400 registered clients. According to Caspani the company has however received interest from areas like Asia and South America and plans on making the service global: “We are looking for the right investors at the moment”, he adds.
The competition among new digital service providers is fierce and the winners are usually the ones who are able to gain worldwide recognition first in their field. Only time will tell if My-Mountains will make it. I thank Caspani for the nice day on the ski hill and wish him luck with the project.
The Guide Revolution
Launched in 2017, the Swedish company Aways is purely focused on outdoor sports and the guiding industry involved. Rather than fondue dinners, Aways wants to offer tailor-made experiences for the initiated. Examples of the company´s ski offering include a powder skiing tour in the island of Hokkaido in Japan and a ski touring sailing trip in the Lyngen Alps of Norway. Both of the trips were guided by an UIAGM certified mountain guide.
Nikola Leijon, the founder of Aways is an outdoor sports enthusiast who got the idea for the service while leading a kite surfing school in southern Sweden: “I realized then first-hand how difficult it was to manage clients while dealing with conditions”, Leijon explains. He goes on saying how ski trips to the Alps have made him respect the ski guides and the amount of work there is involved in planning and organizing off-piste ski trips with clients. According to Leijon his goal is to increase the guides´ earnings and reduce their time spent on administration: “I want to create long term profitable working conditions for the individual (guide)”, he adds.
Leijon thinks that the problem with traditional agencies is the poor financial conditions they offer to the guides or instructors. “We aim to increase the guides earnings by keeping our service fees low, around 3-11% depending on the event price”, Lejon says.
The situation of the guiding business at the moment could be compared to the music industry where musicians are now able to record and market their music without the help of a record company. With services like Aways a surf or a ski guide can do the same thing: they can independently create, manage and market the service products they have created.
The price of the liberation is of course financial insecurity, but the digital services probably make testing your wings as an entrepreneur easier than before. For the potential customers buying a product from an app means taking a leap of faith, trusting their money with micro companies who might not have great financial resources in case things go wrong. Like My-Mountains Aways is at a startup phase, for the time being the services are marketed on the Aways social media channels – the reservation system will be launched later.