Freddie Peyerl, Gerrit VandeKemp, and Jeff Connors are on a roll. Their company, Alpine Media Technology, recently raised a million dollars to bring its digital guest engagement technology to ski resorts, including to chairlifts and gondolas. I’ve been following this project (with a dose of skepticism) since it launched and got the chance to catch up with the founders as LiftDigital’s first winter season wraps up.
Peter: What are your backgrounds and how did you guys come up with the idea for digital screens on chairlifts?
Gerrit: Our backgrounds are in Pharmaceutical & Biotech Consulting (Peyerl), Financial Services (VandeKemp), and Aerospace Engineering (Connors). So, we are definitely newcomers to the ski industry. The three of us were on a ski trip together, and a simple discussion on the growing presence of gas station media systems led to a weekend long brainstorming session surrounding the idea that digital information systems on chairlifts could provide a great number of benefits to maximize guest experiences. Ironically, our idea was hatched while skiing the very same resort we are now wrapping up our beta test on – Winter Park.
Peter: Your trial included displays on some of the Super Gauge Express chairs. How did it go this season?
Gerrit: Our beta test has surpassed all expectations, and a lot of the credit for this has to be given to the entire team at Winter Park. From Executive Management all the way to Lift Operations, we have benefited from an “all hands on deck” approach to making this season a success.
Peter: What do ski area operators like about the technology? What about the skiing public?
Freddie: For operators, it’s all about communication with resort guests. Our digital information system starts with LiftDigital, the restraint bar platform, and extends out onto indoor & outdoor kiosks around the mountain as well as a mobile app catered and branded specifically for each resort. These collective elements provide resort operators the opportunity to communicate real time information to guests including lift open/closed status, emergency notifications, lift line wait times, resort events and more. Our objective goes way beyond providing maps to guests – we want to help resorts provide their guests with as many resources as possible to maximize their time on the mountain. Consumer feedback from our beta test in Winter Park has supported our belief that we are accomplishing this, as resort guests have been very excited about the new access to information.
Peter: Your non-digital competitors are probably on less than 10 percent of American chairlifts. Why do you think that is?
Gerrit: Plastic map systems on chairlifts were definitely a novel breakthrough when they came out, and useful at that. But, advances in digital trends over the last decade have shifted the approach & strategies of marketing teams, ad agencies, and brands to gravitate more towards digital connection with consumers. Map systems would have probably achieved significantly more than 10 percent market share with a better head start over digital advancement. This is where we feel our company is primed to sync with current trends and partner with a high volume of resorts going forward.
Peter: Can you give me a rundown of how the LiftDigital system works? How does real time information such as lift status and weather get to each chair’s displays?
Jeff: Our beta test utilized power packs that are removed every other day for recharging. The first charging rail is going in this off season. Our LiftDigital platform will charge each time a chair passes through the bullwheel. The 20 to 30 seconds spent in the station will allow our power packs to harness enough power to run for 20 minutes after leaving the station. The content on all of our screens (LiftDigital, indoor/outdoor kiosks, mobile app) is updated in real time via wi-fi and cell (in some situations). Real time updates are critical to ensure guests are getting accurate information regarding lift open/closed status, trail open/close status, lift line wait times, and emergency communications from the resort immediately.
Peter: The life of a chair is pretty rough. In addition to all sorts of weather, guests (and sometimes lifties) can break almost anything. How are you making your product robust enough?
Jeff: We selected hardware for our system that is designed specifically for rugged environments. The biggest testament to the durability of our units was successfully completing a vibration test administered by Poma, in which our system was installed on a test chair at the factory and run through 10,000,000 cycles of vibration/shaking at a force of 2.5 G’s. Our system never once came off the bar, and it fired right up from a software perspective when the vibration test was complete. Additionally, we have had no environmental failures with our displays during the beta test despite being left outdoors 24/7 for the last 3+ months.
Peter: What about wind with the added weight on the bars? Do they sometimes fall down inadvertently?
Freddie: We anticipated that wind could be a concern and have actually developed a spring system that reduces the overall force needed to raise the bar with our screens on it and slightly increases the force required to pull the bar down for this specific reason. To date, we’ve not had any reports of the bars blowing down or coming down unintentionally (I know there were a few instances of 100+ MPH winds at Winter Park this season).
Peter: A detachable chair only spends about 30 seconds in each station. Is that enough time for the system to stay charged? Do the screens turn off sometimes, for instance when headed down the mountain?
Jeff: As explained earlier, the 30 seconds in the station is sufficient to charge our system. Yes, the screens go into a “sleep” mode each time the bar is raised and then turn back on each time the bar is lowered. The screens only “boot up” once each day, in the morning when the lift first begins running.
Peter: The lift manufacturers have spent millions developing and deploying fast charging for carriers with heated seats. Have you considered licensing your technology to Doppelmayr and Leitner-Poma or piggybacking on their systems?
Freddie: The current seat heating charge systems developed by Poma and Doppelmayr are innovative for sure. Our proprietary system is different in many aspects, and we would love to share our technology. Poma has been an excellent collaborator with us on our beta test, we look forward to having similar experience with Doppelmayr as we look to install at resorts utilizing their lifts.
Peter: Lift maintenance staff already have a lot on their plates. Do they have a role in installing and maintaining LiftDigital systems?
Gerrit: We have come away from our beta test amazed by the lift operations team at Winter Park. While we have performed all maintenance and installation for our systems, we relied on the Super Gauge lift team at Winter Park during the beta for certain tasks related to charging. They were able to perform flawlessly, going above & beyond the execution of their normal responsibilities. It was really a fun teamwork atmosphere, and we enjoyed having extra eyeballs watching for potential glitches during testing. The team at Winter Park takes a lot of pride in their work, and it certainly showed during our collaboration with them.
Peter: I read you are now focusing on gondolas? What about fixed-grip lifts?
Gerrit: This was a slight misprint. Our primary focus is to install on key detachable lifts and gondolas at ski resorts, but we are also currently engaged in projects and discussions at non-ski related and urban gondola operations. A good example of this is that we are hopeful to install on the Wallowa Lake gondola in time for their upcoming summer season. This is a 2+ mile long ride, and the team at Wallowa Lake will utilize our system to communicate any necessary real time information to riders during their trip, such as delays or special events.
Peter: How do you plan to scale and how many more lifts do you plan to outfit for the 2018-19 season?
Freddie: We are in discussions and planning that will have us in seven resorts by the end of 2018. We see the greatest value in taking a “phased” approach at resorts: installation of indoor/outdoor kiosks & mobile apps with a small number of chairs or cabins containing LiftDigital during the first season at each resort followed by a robust installation on full lifts and gondolas by the second season. This approach allows us to provide multiple elements of our overall mountain information communication platform to guests, while working through the necessary design aspect required for each lift installation. This also allows resorts to gauge consumer response to the type of content we are providing and make any necessary adjustments to customize it for each resort. For example, Winter Park has a ski train that we can provide departure time information on while other resorts may want to instead provide air travel departure info so guests can be aware of possible delays- allowing them time to sneak in that coveted extra last run or grab a quick meal before heading off the mountain.
Peter: Anything else you would like resort managers and lift staff to know about LiftDigital?
Freddie: Absolutely! We would want resort operators to know there are several “non-consumer related” benefits to have our mountain information system installed on their resort. Our LiftDigital system captures a digital time/date stamp each and every time the bar goes up or down, which is valuable information to have for many different reasons. Also, we have had discussions with insurance carriers that express interest in providing rate reductions to resorts with our information & communication system installed. Insurance can be a substantial overhead expense, so reductions in premiums would provide meaningful impact on bottom lines. Lastly, our business model allows for us to provide our system to resorts at no cost to the resort or their guests.
Thanks to Freddie, Gerrit and Jeff for taking the time to talk with me about this project. They have clearly put a lot of time and energy into their startup with promising early results. I’ll be following their detachable charging rail tests and next moves.