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Vail Cannibalizes Its Own Photo Business In The Name Of Sharing

The ski resort is betting it will get more bang for its buck from letting happy vacationers post the photos taken by its hillside photographers to Facebook–for free–than it will from selling them hard copies.

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One of the hardest things to do for any company that wants to innovate is to willingly cannibalize a profitable line of business. And yet that’s exactly what Vail Resorts will do this winter when it starts providing photos to its guests for free.

The vacation photo industry is big business. Whether you’re at a marathon, an amusement park, or a resort like Vail, there are always company photographers around to take your picture–crossing the finish line, for example, or going down a water ride–which the company will then sell you for wildly inflated prices. A photo at Vail, for example, costs $35.

And now Vail is saying goodbye to all that. Or at least to a portion of it.

Earlier this year, we told you about EpicMix, Vail’s new system that lets skiers at its six resorts track their ski days and collect online badges for various feats, like skiing certain trails or accumulating a certain amount of vertical feet. Now Vail is adding something new to customers’ EpicMix accounts: digital copies of the photos taken by its hillside photographers.

The photographers will have devices to scan guests’ RFID-enabled lift tickets. Guests can ask then pose for pictures, or request action shots, and the photos will automatically be uploaded to the skiers’ EpicMix accounts (which are also linked to the RFID chips in the lift tickets). Skiers can then either keep the photos there, or post them to Facebook or Twitter.

“Photo sharing has gone crazy,” Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz tells Fast Company. “To the extent that we can make it easy for our guests to share photos–that is the holy grail of social media.”

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Katz says the move is a risk. The company’s photo business brings in a tidy profit. Not as much as lift tickets or food, of course. But more than a rounding error. Meanwhile, data proving the ROI of having customers post about their experiences on places like Facebook remains elusive.

Granted, Vail will only be posting low-resolution versions of the photos to EpicMix. Customers will still have to buy the high-resolution versions if they want nice-looking prints.

But Katz says it’s intuitive that the new program should return results.

“The holy grail of social media is to get your most loyal and most passionate consumers to start becoming advocates for your product,” he says. “The question is: How do you authentically get your consumers to go out and broadcast for your brand?”

Last season, the approximately 100,000 Vail guests who activated their EpicMix accounts posted about 275,000 updates–like the badges they’d earned–to Facebook and Twitter.

“We think the photos will take that and multiply it geometrically,” Katz says.

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[Image: Flickr user nonanet]

E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com’s Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter | Google+ | Email

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E.B. Boyd (@ebboyd) has holed up in conference rooms with pioneers in Silicon Valley and hunkered down in bunkers with soldiers in Afghanistan

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