Vail Resorts seeks to bypass Foursquare & Gowalla

Drop Your Knee Not Bombs!

Powder day at Vail. Photo credit: Flickr, zachd1_618

Vail Resorts has begun beta testing a new location-based social network for skiers and boarders at Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone, Beaver Creek in Colorado and Heavenly in California. Dubbed Epic Mix, the system relies on the existing bar code scanners the lift operators use to scan your lift ticket before you board the chair lift.

I found out about it when a friend skiing at Vail this week posted an update on his Facebook page. (Apparently I missed Vail Resorts’ August news conference in New York announcing Epic Mix. I mean, it was in August. Who holds a news conference in August?)

This video explains:

At any rate, the idea is pretty simple. If you have an Epic pass, which is a plastic ID photo with an RF identification chip embedded inside, you can join the network. 

Participants can track their vertical feet and their days on the mountain. Along the way, they earn digital pins. (For years, skiers have traded actual pins from different resorts, so this actually may have some appeal for skiers and boarders.)

Scanners are set up at 89 lifts across five resorts.

Epic Mix is integrated with Facebook and Twitter, but Gowalla and Foursquare are not part of the mix, so to speak. In fact, in a promotional video, Vail Resorts’ CEO Rob Katz promises that Epic Mix will be better than Foursquare and Gowalla.

“We’ve taken that concept and made it real,” Katz remarked. “We’ve attached that concept to the mountain and allowed people to totally explore and experience everything the mountain has to offer.”

Okay. So Gowalla’s pins and Foursquare’s badges are not real and your digital pins are?

Here’s what I like about Epic Mix:

If you’re playing Gowalla or Foursquare, you’ll have to fumble with your phone to check in at a location on the mountain. With Epic Mix, you’re checked-in, when the lift operator scans your pass. There’s no fumbling with your ski gloves and you don’t even have to turn on your phone to check in.

That said, social networks are well, social. So how are you going to know where your friends are? By fumbling with your phone. (Taking off ski gloves to click through an smartphone’s screen is a bit of a hassle.)

While Katz promised that a mobile app for Android phones and the iPhone would launch in November as part of Keystone’s opening day, both versions of the app are delayed. Vail’s Epic Mix website encourages users to access their Epic Mix sites on their mobile phones until the mobile apps are live.

That’s fine I guess. But I’m not sure if users can set up the Facebook and Twitter integration from their smartphones. So unless a skier or boarder brings their laptop with them on their ski or snowboard trip, they won’t be able to share their Epic Mix experience with friends until they get home.

For an East Coast skier who travels west once a year, this doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Besides, I’m already playing Foursquare and Gowalla. Starting with a third network as part of a three-day ski trip is too much of a hassle.

Where I think it does makes sense is with families. Parents will be able to track where their kids are on the mountain, something that’s always a logistical nightmare for families who ski together. It also makes sense for local skiers like my friend, who lives in Denver and has a weekend home in Vail. (He and his family ski at Vail every weekend in the Winter.)

I think if I were in marketing at Vail, I would have explored a partnership with Gowalla or Foursquare instead. Doing what Disney Parks is doing with Gowalla would have worked perfectly with a ski resort like Vail. And with some effort, they could have leveraged the idea of a RF chip automatically checking users into Gowalla or Foursquare.

What Vail doesn’t seem to understand is that approximately 5 million people are using Foursquare and approximately 600,000 people are using Gowalla in their lives off the mountain. Since the Epic Mix network won’t work anywhere else and Gowalla and Foursquare players have already set up locations all over the Vail Resorts ski areas, not just the chair lifts, I think the odds are stacked against the Epic Mix being successful.

2 responses to “Vail Resorts seeks to bypass Foursquare & Gowalla

  1. Hi John,

    Thanks for checking out EpicMix and writing this post. We are happy the word is getting out about EpicMix even though we are still in beta (that was part of the idea- creating customers that create more customers or at least getting others sharing information about Vail Resorts with their friends).

    What most people don’t understand about EpicMix is why we are doing it. It isn’t about competing with FourSquare, Gowalla, or other social networks, it’s about extending the natural social aspects that have always been part of skiing into the digital social space. It’s taking those tall tales typically told around the fire or at a bar at the end of the ski day, and allowing them to extend into where people communicate socially these days- facebook, twitter, and even Gowalla and FourSquare. The difference is now the social conversation extends from your immediate group of friends into the digital social sphere and Vail Resorts is the facilitator of the conversation.

    We’ve intentionally tried NOT to create a new social network and instead opted to integrate with where people already are- again Facebook, Twitter. It was also important for us to design an experience that didn’t interfere with a natural ski experience. We didn’t want having a mobile device to be a requirement to use EpicMix. We wanted people to go about their normal ski day and still be able to track their skiing and encourage them to explore new parts of our mountains- this is where the RF infrastructure comes into play.

    Keep in mind that we are in beta right now- we’ve only been tracking stats since November and the site has been live for less than a week. What is available today with EpicMix is far from the final product, rather it is just the beginning. We are already working with FourSquare and Gowalla on several projects and an integration with them is something we are definitely interested in.

    I invite you to keep your eye on EpicMix. We have some exciting new functionality that will roll out in January, including our iPhone and Droid apps, Family functionality, a kids site, Facebook friend leaderboards, and some other surprises. The success of EpicMix will come from listening to our guests and users, so we appreciate your feedback and value your opinions.

    Hopefully we will see you on the slopes of one or our mountains soon.

    Happy Holidays!


  2. Mike —

    Thank you so much for the comment and new information. I think I was basing my reaction and perspective on the August news coverage and the video with Rob Katz that I linked to above. It sounds like a great deal has happened since then.

    I’m thrilled to learn that you’re considering integrating Gowalla and Foursquare. They’re both super to work with and have large and growing user bases. I’ll be interested to see what you come up with.

    Hopefully you’ll have that done before I come out to Colorado later this season.

    All the best,


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