The coronavirus pandemic has raised the functionality factor for mobile software, as some fear-filled customers shy away from brands they perceive as not having their social-distancing concerns at heart by providing a digital equivalent for every touchpoint. Woe to the company that can’t create an end-to-end contactless user experience that is seamless, convenient, and — importantly — fun.
On that score, Aspen Skiing Co. is building safer experiences for guests of its ski lodges by upgrading its mobile application to enable consumers to order and pay for meals and recreational services and by rolling out touchless lift ticket kiosks, says CIO John Lilley, who is leading the digital transformation for the company.
Aspen, which operates several high-end resorts overlooking four storied Colorado mountains, complemented the effort with a change management program, ensuring that employees are conversant enough in the new features to help guests should they ask. “The pandemic has offered us a unique opportunity to accelerate our guest experience roadmap,” Lilley tells CIO.com.
The pandemic has provided a stiff test for companies, spotlighting their ability or inability to move nimbly to meet consumers’ needs. In 2021, only 30 percent of customer-obsessed firms will leverage their cloud and platform strategies to harvest the opportunities that surfaced in the pandemic, according to Forrester Research’s 2021 CIO predictions. But the dividends are potentially huge, as these firms will grow up to 3.5 times faster than their average peer, the researcher found.
The on-mountain concierge
Operating destination sites perched atop mountains presents its own unique challenges. Skiing is inherently a highly social enterprise, so what to do when companies must maintain and enforce social distance? Resort operators are strongly encouraging, if not requiring, advance ticket purchases. They’re limiting capacities and reconfiguring ski-lift lines to space people out. Guests who brave resorts must wear masks in lift lines and buildings.
Aspen is no different, with certain challenges that require pinpoint control around its metaphorical moguls. Eager to provide a safer guest experience in time for the start of ski season, Lilley’s team beefed up the company’s Aspen Snowmass mobile app to allow visitors to purchase lessons and rentals, access express lift-ticket reload and order food and beverages while sitting in a gondola. The app also allows guests dining in Aspen on-mountain restaurants to scan QR codes located on table tents to retrieve and access restaurant menus on their smartphones.
Guests may also sign digital waivers and accrue loyalty rewards and passholder benefits, such as vouchers for friends and family. This “on-mountain concierge” also allows guests to track skier days and bowl laps, snow reports, weather updates and parking lot vacancy, among other features.
Aware that guests no longer want to carry around let alone procure and exchange lift tickets from a ticket office, Aspen also installed touchless lift ticket pickup kiosks. Users who pre-registered will scan a QR code from the mobile app to print their lift tickets on the spot. “Think Pez dispensers for lift tickets,” Lilley says.
The change management challenge
New consumer technology channels can be tricky for first-time users to navigate, but Lilley’s challenge is singularly unique, as Aspen guests fall into two camps: those who want things done for them and those who prefer self-service access.
Naturally, self-service is on the rise during the pandemic, with guests encouraged to fill out waivers, reserve ski boots and lessons and other housekeeping tasks before they arrive at a resort. But the guests who do little to none of this before they arrive may need a nudge to consume Aspen’s digital channels, including the mobile app. And guests will often ask staff for help navigating a mobile app or another service.
The quandary is that staff operating the resort restaurants, lifts and other amenities may not be up on the new channels either, as Lilley says these news tools are rolling out as Aspen is onboarding 3,000 employees to prepare for the holiday rush. To help mitigate user experience issues, Lilley facilitated a change management program that includes delegating “change champions,” or operations managers who can evangelize the new technology solutions and features to other staff.
Aspen also ordered the creation of short video briefs to show how to use the mobile app, lift ticket pickup boxes and other digitally enabled services. Empowering staff to adroitly help others who are struggling with it is paramount; as Lilley says, “IT fails if you don’t gain adoption.”
Roadmapping and replatforming
Boosting tech adoption is something that Lilley is particularly passionate about, as he notes that IT was failing at every level when he joined the company in 2014.
Spending on technology relative to revenues was lower than the industry average. Its monolithic, circa 1980s era data center architecture was an albatross on ticketing, provisioning, fulfillment, and revenue recognition functions. Aspen also struggled to maintain robust network infrastructure, had limited digital capabilities and no innovation pipeline.
Rather than “fire the money cannon” one time at tech enhancements, Lilley plotted a three-year roadmap that banked on building custom applications, including the mobile app, new website and ecommerce system. He reorganized IT, installing an enterprise infrastructure manager and enterprise applications manager. Together, they began revamping IT operations, hiring staff conversant in digital technology and moving systems to cloud software such as Microsoft Office 365 and Azure.
Lilley credits cutting his teeth as the digital tech lead at ski resort giant Vail, where he led the creation of the company’s popular EpicPass digital ski pass. Heading into his seventh year at Aspen, Lilley tips his cap to Aspen’s management, which he deemed “very tech-savvy” for granting him the runway to make the necessary changes. “The real story is about making things better for the guest,” Lilley says.