Not long ago, lift tickets were made of paper, and two-way radios were the trendy way to communicate with friends on Tahoe ski slopes.
Those days seem positively Jurassic in the instant-gratification era of social media.
At Tahoe and across the country, the rise of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, smartphones, radio-frequency identification (RFID) and GPS technology has set off an avalanche of innovative applications geared to attract, engage and retain customers. So crucial is social media to most resorts' brands and bottom lines that many have diverted marketing dollars away from traditional advertising outlets and invested instead in social-media managers, videographers and consultants.
The shift to social media has even spawned a technology festival, "Snowcial," geared to snow-sports enthusiasts and dubbed "Sundance for the Facebook generation."
"The ski industry is very involved in how technology affects our lives," says Milena Rigos, a Tahoe-based social media consultant. "Obviously, skiing is a very experiential sport in which people interact with their friends. Everyone has a cellphone on the mountain, so resorts have an interest in being mobile-optimized and having mobile apps where people can find out what's happening."
Leading the field is Colorado-based Vail Resorts, whose proprietary EpicMix social network, enabled by RDIF chips embedded in season and daily lift passes, is now entering its third year at Heavenly Mountain Resort and second year at Northstar California. Elements of the program will be introduced soon at newly acquired Kirkwood Mountain Resort.
The wildly popular platform, which so far has attracted more than 300,000 active users at Vail's Tahoe and Colorado properties, is an opt-in application that lets skiers and riders access interactive maps, track vertical feet, earn "pins" for accomplishments, compare stats with other account holders, share photos and keep track of friends' whereabouts on the mountain.
One of its most popular features is a photo-sharing application that allows pass-holders to download, save and share images taken by professional photographers stationed at key scenic points around the mountain. Images go straight into a guest's EpicMix account and can be viewed via the mobile app or online. Low-resolution images can be saved for free, while high-resolution versions can be purchased.
It goes without saying that EpicMix is fully integrated with Twitter and Facebook -- where Heavenly leads the snow-sports resort world with 128,000 "likes." An on-mountain racing feature and the ability for parents to create accounts for their children are being added this season.
"Ultimately, EpicMix is a relationship platform," says Rob McKinney, general manager for the program. "What we want to provide our guests is the ability to get the most from their mountain experience. It's really a social gathering place for our guests."
It's also a place for competitive-minded skiers and riders like Marius Grigorescu of South Lake Tahoe to earn bragging rights. Grigorescu, 36 and a native of Romania, is a cruise-ship waiter, personal trainer, author and snowboarder who started tracking his on-slope activity at Heavenly when EpicMix launched. He racked up 2.5 million vertical feet in 128 days on the mountain to earn the No. 1 snowboarding spot on the EpicMix "leaderboard," a kind of scoreboard where users' rankings are displayed.
"I get very competitive, and I like that posts can be shared on Facebook and Twitter," says Grigorescu, who has been training for another year of stat-building.
Not all Tahoe resorts have Vail's deep pockets, but all are engaged, in ways large and small, in the social media game.
Squaw Valley USA and sister resort Alpine Meadows last year launched mobile apps that allow guests to track vertical feet and on-slope speed among friends; take photos, put them in a logo "frame" and post them to their personal photo galleries or social media networks; and stay updated on snow reports and conditions.
Unlike EpicMix, which is tracked directly through lift passes and doesn't require a smartphone, the Squaw-Alpine apps are not tied to the RFID chips embedded in their lift passes. Instead, users open the apps on their phones and leave them running in the background to collect data while they go about their day on the slopes.
One of the Squaw app's most popular features, says Sean Kristl, the resort's marketing manager, is the ability to send push notifications alerting skiers and riders to specific lift openings and other events happening in real time on the mountain. The technology "also allows us to segment the market, sending one set of alerts to locals and another to Bay Area folks," he says.
"The goal is always engagement, " Kristl emphasizes, "whether we're talking Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or the mobile app. We're constantly looking at ways for people to get Squaw on their minds and to give them information they might not find elsewhere."
That's also the goal at Sierra-at-Tahoe, Boreal, Sugar Bowl and Tahoe's other smaller resorts.
"Each of us is independently finding our way," says Steve Hemphill, marketing director at Sierra. "We're definitely a little quirky here," he adds, pointing to a YouTube piece featuring two sandhill cranes having a dubbed "conversation" about ski passes. "We're all about fresh new content and compelling images that produce a smile and get people up here."
Not to be left out of the mobile app scene, Sierra tapped Treeline Interactive out of San Diego to develop a product that includes a GPS-enabled trail map, weather conditions, events and messaging capabilities.
Sugar Bowl also went out-of-house, hiring DotFreeride of Boulder, Colo., to customize a multimountain mobile platform that mirrors many of the functions available through Vail's EpicMix.
Like other resorts, Sugar Bowl is focusing on professional-quality videos (known in the industry as "ski porn"), Facebook and a few other social-media platforms. "Rather than cover all the bases, we let people know where we are socially and make sure our content is of the highest quality possible," explains John Monson, Sugar Bowl's director of sales and marketing.
Boreal Mountain Resort, the family-friendly, teen-centric ski spot on Interstate 80 near Donner Summit, does not have a mobile app, "the reason being that the cost to produce one is still up there, and we haven't found a compelling reason for it," says Jon Slaughter, marketing director. The resort does have a mobile website that is adding interactive functions, and has also brought on a full-time videographer to help promote Woodward Tahoe, the resort's new action-sports training facility.
With all that social networking going on around the lake, two products for ski resorts beg to be developed: cellphone charging stations and under-the-lift nets to catch all those smartphones dropped from frosty fingers.
Contact Janet Fullwood in care of firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: Fifth annual social media conference for snowsports enthusiasts
When: Feb. 27-March 2
Where: Heavenly Mountain Resort, Harrah's and Harvey's Lake Tahoe
How much: Early registration, $500, ends Dec. 1. Includes two half-day conference sessions and three days of skiing or snowboarding at Heavenly.
Get connected: www.tahoesnowcial.com