Paul Major

Aspen Skiing Co.'s CIO talks about mapping business processes to renew the spirit, making pizza in a pinch and schussing on the job.

How do you apply IT to manage your company's operations? I think, as with most companies, IT is central to everything that we're doing. Customer service is critical. Our product is not the kind that you can sell over the Internet. It's not a product that you ship to someone. They have to come and experience it. So it's critical to create an environment. Our mission statement as a company is "We renew the human spirit." And that's a really interesting phrase to take into the IT arena.

So we're looking at our technologies from the standpoint of, "How does this renew the human spirit for our guests? How does this make the skiing experience as convenient as possible?"

This is a real hassle-factor type of sport. You've got people relying on transportation, there are weather issues, you've got to get them there, there are hotels involved. Once they're there, we want their experience to be as fantastic as possible.

Think of snow as a product: We make snow, we groom snow, and we put thousands of people out on the snow to serve our guests -- ski instructors, rental retail shops, a number of hotels. So all the technologies that we are using are designed to create a great customer experience.

Tell me about a recent project that supports that mission. We've been using a legacy application developed in-house. It's a very effective application from the standpoint of customer service. But it's extremely difficult to sustain it. So we had to go out and actually buy a new system to do what we do.

Interview with Paul Major, CIO of the Aspen Skiing Co.

But rather than thinking about this as pulling off one product and putting another product into play, it's actually been a four-year project -- and we haven't even deployed the software yet. Those years have been spent doing business process analysis to figure out what we do as a company -- why do we sell lift tickets the way we do? Why does the ski school operate the way it does? Once we were able to sit down with all these departments and literally write a business process plan for every one of these departments asking all the questions about why, then we can take this off-the-shelf product, we can build customization into it, and what we're going to come up with is an off-the-shelf, supportable product that's going to meet all of our needs.

We'd love it if you could go to the chairlift and when we scan your pass, if you've got a five-day pass and you want to go use a sixth day, you never go back to the ticket office. When we scan your pass, we're going to hit your credit card for that incremental cost without you ever having to think about making a purchase decision.

It wasn't possible to architect that with our existing system. But the new technologies we're working with -- .Net-based technologies, a lot of Web front end, a lot of wireless technology, making this very mobile -- we feel we can offer a real superior product and again give our guests the opportunity to generate revenue for us, but do so in a way that's so convenient for them that it enhances the experience.

How often do you get to ski or snowboard? Not enough. I'm real adamant that my staff goes out and skis. We have 23 food and beverage outlets. A lot of those are on the mountain. We go out and product-test on occasion. There's kind of a powder-day hall-pass rule that our CEO has that we get out and ski. That's our product. And we expect our team to be out and enjoying it so they can see what our guests are enjoying, and they can also look at the way the flow is and understand how our technology might be changed to enhance that.

It sounds like it has helped shape your own role within the company to help identify opportunities for blending IT with the business. I think, in some respects, our IT team probably knows the business even better than some of the folks in the lines of business.

[Our people] work in the rental shops. This year, we've had a shortage of ski instructors. So we asked a lot of our team to go out learn how to teach lessons. Some of them are [Professional Ski Instructors of America] certified instructors. They've actually taken time out from their IT job to teach a private lesson.

Not only does it benefit the lines of business, there's a nice play between our team being part of that peak staffing. I made pizzas for an entire day between Christmas and New Year's. So everybody gets out and involves themselves.

It gives you a totally different perspective. It's fun, and you get to realize what we do as a company. Instead of thinking so much about technology, you begin to realize that everything we're doing has to come down to the customer experience and that renewal of the human spirit.

I imagine that you probably don't have a lot of trouble recruiting qualified IT people to work for your company. There are a lot of people who want to come to work for us. The issue is, this a difficult place to move to. Housing is extremely expensive. I have had people just simply not be able to consummate the deal -- very qualified people. But generally, people with families and children are just not going to find a place to live in our valley. The housing costs are just exponentially higher than other places.

Salary-wise, we're a very competitive company. But often, it's just not enough to make up that type of difference. So that's been a tremendous obstacle. As a company, we are investing tens of millions of dollars building employee housing in our local community just for that reason. But with some of the other features, like remote workforce and some of the telecommuting possibilities, we've been able to make up for some of those issues.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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