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Ski Resort Life

The Snow-cial Network

Skiers used to swap stories and share their passion on lifts and over après drinks. That’s so last year.

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Silicon Valley whiz kid Dave Morin was sharing a chairlift with Warren Miller last season when the filmmaker and sage of skiing imparted some timeless wisdom: Skiing is about freedom. A 30-year technology geek who made his fortune at Facebook, Morin updates the classic Miller line: “We need to use technology to enable that freedom,” he says, “by helping us ski more often with the people we care about most.”

Morin believes social media—Facebook, Twitter and the growing list of apps and online programs that allow people to digitally share their lives and passions— is transforming skiing. How skiers find snow conditions, evaluate resorts, whom they befriend and how they share stories is rapidly evolving. Welcome to the snow-cial network.

“Social media is going gangbusters,” says Vail Resorts interactive director Mike Slone. Vail this winter launched EpicMix, which aspires to be one of the more extensive uses of social media in the ski industry. EpicMix allows customers at Vail resorts to collect and share information about their performance on the slopes— vertical feet skied, number of powder days, number of runs and more. Scanners at lift corrals read radio-frequency chips in lift tickets and passes, and automatically track a skier’s movement. Skiers can post this information to their Facebook pages, allowing friends and family to view their statistics. Want to find your friends or children on the slopes? Open EpicMix on your smartphone and see what runs they’re skiing. EpicMix combines two ageold ski traditions: socializing and bragging. “We see it as the digital version of après ski for the 21st century,” Slone says.

Not everyone sees this as progress. Some skiers and privacy advocacy groups object that radio frequency tracking technology used at a growing number of resorts violates a customer’s expectation of privacy. Vail officials counter that skiers can simply remove the tracking chip from their passes with a hole-puncher, and day skiers can request traditional lift tickets, which aren’t enabled with the technology.

The ski industry, initially slow to join the social media craze, is now racing to capitalize on this burgeoning platform. While most resorts have Facebook and Twitter accounts, many, including Jackson Hole, Sugarloaf, Sunday River and Mammoth, also have YouTube accounts for sharing videos. Others allow skiers to post photos to Flickr and other imagesharing accounts.

Much of the information posted to these social media platforms comes from the resorts themselves and consists of marketing information. Looking for the shortest liftlines, the quietest lunch spot or a last-minute deal on a ski clinic? The info is at your fingertips. While this can lure customers, some counter that the real promise of social media is to communicate free of corporate spin. Social media at its best can be a form of citizen journalism. Last season, for instance, skiers used Twitter to call out resorts that were inflating their snow totals—forcing them to provide more accurate information.

Some skiers don’t even bother with official resort snow reports, instead relying on Twitter and Facebook users to provide skis-in-the-snow updates. “I don’t visit ski resort websites anymore,” says Katie Van Sant, a Steamboat skier and social media blogger. “If a ski resort doesn’t have a social media presence, I don’t know where the snow is.”

Last season, Van Sant wanted to recommend to her brother where to find the best powder at Copper Mountain on the day he was visiting. Unfamiliar with the resort, she went to Copper’s Facebook page and read skiers’ snow reports. “It was a cool way to use social media to get my brother some nice afternoon freshies.” Companies that use social media smartly can win customer loyalty. “Good social media shouldn’t be about ‘Get 20 percent off if you buy now.’ It should tell a story,” says Ben Woodworth, who produces videos and administers the Facebook and Twitter accounts for Black Diamond equipment.

David LaPlante, a Lake Tahoe digital marketing executive, likens social media to the interstate highway system. “It allows the transport of ideas and commerce.” Skiers are passionate about their sport and want to share. “Social media is the easier road for skiers to drive down to spread their passion.”

How many skiers use social media is unclear. According to Van Sant, nearly 1.1 million Facebook users say they like skiing, while 1.4 million say they like boarding. Social media boosters say these numbers will only go up. “Social media is evolving so quickly that nobody knows what comes next,” says digital entrepreneur Morin.

Morin grew up skiing in Montana and raced in college. After graduating he worked for Apple before taking a job at Facebook, where he helped create Facebook Connect, which allows Epic- Mix and other apps to connect directly to users’ Facebook accounts. Since leaving Facebook, Morin has begun investing in Internet-based ski ventures. “Skiing is deeply important to me, and one of my lifelong goals is to empower more people to enjoy the sport,” he says.

Only time will tell if social media lives up to that promise. Looking at your buddy’s ski photos and swaping information online is nice, but it is a poor substitute for, well, actually skiing. Media blogger Van Sant encourages people to keep their social media use in check. “Tweet fast and then get out and play. You’re at the ski resort to ski.”

Skiing, after all, is about freedom.

◗ HIDE AND PEAK Privacy experts are raising questions about how data collected from radio-frequency chips in lift tickets will be used. In response to the use of RFID chips in Vail’s EpicMix program and at other ski areas, Jon Lawson, a Breckenridge, Colo., resident, started selling Ski Pass Defenders for $15. Customers slide their pass into the metal sheath, which blocks scanning signals at the lifts. Lawson says some of his customers don’t want to participate in marketing campaigns. Others worry about privacy issues and use of the data in ways they can’t control. F or instance, he says, the data could conceivably end up in court. “If someone skis 35,000 feet in a weekend and then gets in a car accident, a lawyer could use the data to prove that the driver was fatigued and potentially at fault.” —P.T.