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Resort Combines Facebook Places, Gowalla, Nike+ for Social Media Skiing

This winter, skiers and snowboarders will be hitting the the slopes in a whole new way. Rather than just flying through moguls or sailing off half-pipes, mountain-goers might soon be "checking in."

Colorado-based Vail Resorts is launching a new location-based social media service at its many mountain destinations—some of which are the largest in the U.S. Called EpicMix, the service acts as a cross between Nike+ and Gowalla, and enables users to check-in on the slopes through Facebook Places to earn pins and rewards for various skiing accomplishments, view the location of friends and family on the mountain, and track ski routes and vertical feet traveled. Vail's EpicMix is an innovative use of social media, showing that it's not just a tool confined to big cities or national companies, but has a more intimate application too on a hyper-local level.

Using an RFID chip embedded into lift passes, a skier's journey is captured through every scan it receives on the mountain. No smartphones are required—check-ins are automatic and can be accessed at anytime online or through EpicMix's mobile app for the iPhone, Android, and other devices. Additionally, the app provides weather forecasts, traffic conditions, mountain updates, and snow reports. Wary of privacy concerns, the service is entirely opt-in (for free) and the RFID chip can be disabled at any time.

"Ultimately, it's about creating loyalty," says Rob Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts. "Our product is obviously very location-specific, so people can now take this app home with them," and continue to live their experience on the slopes virtually via Facebook, he explains. Roughly 70% of the resorts' guests have a Facebook account, based on survey estimates, according to Katz. Adding check-ins was a natural extension.

"We've taken real strides to make sure it's fun," says Mike Slone, director of interactive marketing. "I don't know how long it's been since I last received any type of new badge on Foursquare." To ensure a quality experience, Vail has conferred with Gowalla CEO Josh Williams, and has added hundreds of digital pins for any number of accomplishments. Skiers can earn rewards for being the first or last ones on the mountain; for visiting two mountains in one day or five in a season; they'll earn a "Pow Hound" pin for hitting slopes caked in powder; and a "Nightrider" trophy for tackling mountain trails at night.

Leader boards will also be available on Facebook to compete with friends, and Katz is planning for celebrity pins and pings from world-class skiers such as Olympic gold-medalist Lindsey Vonn, who trains at the company's resorts.

"This is about giving people a better experience, and allowing them to take that experience with them even once they've left the mountain," says Katz. "We're going to have about 800,000 people able to opt-in. This is an app that's going to make it hard to go to another resort."