Ski Reports: I want them now, I want them useful, I want them right

9 04 2010
As the ski season winds down for 2009/2010, I had the chance to talk to two guys who are out there taking their passion for skiing and turning it into a business – all made possible by social media and mobile communication. If you use the SkiReport iPhone app, you have Jon Brelig to thank and you may have heard him on that NPR report I mentioned in my last post. He founded in 2003 and released the iPhone app in 2009, quickly beating out REI and North Face to have the #1 ski report app, due to its user-generated reports feature. People loved the first-hand ski reports and real-time updates his app provided. How do you improve live reports from people on the mountain?

Talk to Joel Gratz and he’ll tell you that you need to get localized snowfall predictions and totals to people – a basic concept, but something no one was doing. Joel founded the site and newsletter, Colorado Powder Forecast, for those of us out there who can’t get enough of the deep freshies and don’t get anything from the weather reports on the ten o’clock news.  Joel, a meteorologist with an MBA (obviously), was being hounded by his buddies about where the snow was going to fall each weekend, so he started a sending out an email to his contacts with snowfall predictions based on his own modeling looking at wind patterns. This grew into an e-newsletter with more than 500 subscribers which grew into a website with 65,000 views per month – all with zero marketing. Jon and Joel are at the nexus of the movement to get skiers and riders real-time, accurate information on snow conditions and they don’t work for a weather channel or a ski resort. They work for themselves, and they work for us.

Jon and Joel agree that without the Internet, without mobile technology, and without social media, their ability to disseminate information on snow fall and snow conditions would be limited. Joel points out, “There is absolutely no way I could have gotten any of the visibility I have 3 or 4 years ago without Facebook, Twitter, real-time updates, and email channels. Well, I may have been able to do it a few years ago, but it would have cost a ton.” And clearly, without an iPhone (or any of the other smartphones), real-time user updates from the mountain alerting us to powder stashes or where not to ski would not have been possible.
The key now, is taking these still-in-their-infancy concepts and making them really take our experience on the mountain to a whole new level.  There are a couple basic issues:
  • Real-time data: There is very little up-to-date info on snowfall and snow conditions available. Ski resorts (the main source of all snowfall data) typically report once or twice (three times, if we’re really lucky) a day and rarely after mid-afternoon, which is when we’re planning our mountain assault for the next day. “Do I go to Vail or Breckenridge?” “Do I go backcountry or hit the resort?” The availability of this info can both help you plan your ski trip and improve your experience while on the mountain.
    • Joel points out that ski resorts have the tools to get us this info – employees on the mountain, professional photographers and videographers, webcams, hourly snowfall measurements, social media outlets – they just need a cohesive plan to put consistent updates out there with useful information.
    • We also see a lot of aggregators out there of ski reports, ski resort twitter feeds etc. which are a step in the right direction, but again, we’re limited by the quality of the info – according to Joel, “The direction people are going is good, but it’s not nearly as useful as it has the potential to be.”
  • Noise: The concept of user-generated content on the SkiReport app is what took it to the top and is a great feature, but as with all anonymous user content, it can get noisy and cumbersome. Most user updates on the app are anonymous and Jon admits he spends a lot of time filtering content for useful information, but that they could do even better to make sure the great content is available. He pointed out that in social media and the world of the internet, the minute you make people use their real names, they stop talking smack about skiers vs. snowboards and which resort is better and start posting [somewhat] more useful information. Jon expects to take his app in this direction by linking to people’s Facebook profiles via Facebook Connect. He also plans to rate the quality of users’ reports and give people who are providing high quality information, higher visibility.
  • Trust: This is a two-way street and there are a couple of issues here.
    • The Audience: Ski resorts, like many businesses, are still getting comfortable with the idea of people talking about their brand/service in the public sphere that is social media and with real-time updates that haven’t gone through a PR/marketing department for approval. We see this struggle with many of our clients as we launch their social media programs, but they quickly see open channels of communication and current news is what people want. When Jon first launched, he heard from ski resorts who were not happy about the sometimes negative chatter about their resort on his site – “This is their [skier and snowboarders’] site and this is the Internet,” he told them.
    • The Information: Skiers and riders also doubtful at times of the snow reports coming out of ski areas. This is not because they believe the resorts are willfully trying to mislead them, but because, as Joel points out, they take measurements early in the morning, those powder videos they shoot at that time are likely to be skied out, snowfall can vary hugely at these large resorts, and conditions change. Frequent reporting from multiple points on the mountain would help skiers a lot. Some resorts utilizing twitter are great at this, but report consistency is limited.  Joel’s had multiple resorts tell him that they want to take the doubt out of people’s minds about snow conditions – great! Do it!

So how are ski resorts, SkiReport and Colorado Powder Forecast going to further their use of technology and social media to improve their snow reporting? Here are Jon and Joel’s predictions…

  • Expansion of webcam use – imagine a camera fixed on a ruler streaming 24 hours a day. No more waiting for ski resorts to put out official reports; look for yourself!
  • More Twitter and social media based snow reports – Interestingly, though, when Jon added these ski resort twitter feeds to his iPhone app, there was immediate backlash by users who didn’t want corporate resorts in “their” space. These twitter feeds have been removed from the SkiReport app for now, but Jon continues to work at striking a balance between giving skiers and riders a place for them to report on conditions and provide with qualitative, useful information from resorts on where to find the best snow.  As for Joel, he recently left his job in corporate America to see where CPF can take him. I’d expect big things … an app, a weather channel, a plug-in with ski resorts? We’ll find out next season!
Can’t wait to see the tools we have waiting for us for the 2010/2011 ski season!
Thanks to TheNickster, wfyurasko, and debcha for the photos and thanks to Joel and Jon for taking the time to talk snow!



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